Keep a Diary, and Perhaps Someday It Will Keep You

Mae West? Margot Asquith? Lillie Langtry? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The movie star, screenwriter, and sex symbol Mae West once spoke a humorous line about keeping a diary, but I do not recall the precise phrasing. She said a diary might provide the diarist with financial support in the future. Are you familiar with this quip, and do you know when she said it?

Quote Investigator: Mae West wrote the screenplay of the 1937 movie “Every Day’s a Holiday”. She also played the role of Peaches O’Day and delivered this line: 1 2

I always say, keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you.

However, Mae West probably did not originate this comical remark because it was in circulation fifteen years before the movie was released. In 1922 an instance of the joke was attributed to the well-known socialite and notable diarist Margot Asquith. Also, in 1925 the line was ascribed to the stage actress and member of high society Lillie Langtry. Details for these citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The humor of the remark was heightened by the existence of an old English saying which was subjected to parody, Boldface has been added:

Keep your shop and your shop will keep you.

The above statement has a very long history, and the “The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs” recorded an instance in the 1605 work “Eastward Ho”: 3

Touchstone, keepe thy shopp, and thy shoppe will keepe thee.

In 1922 a newspaper in Schenectady, New York published a short filler item about the well-known hostess Margot Asquith who had written a work based on the contents of her extensive diaries. At a dinner party Asquith was complimented on her success as memoirist and responded as follows: 4

“Ah, my diaries!”

And Mrs. Asquith smiled across the table at a pretty Philadelphia girl.

“Keep a diary, my dear,” she said, “and later on, perhaps, the diary will keep you.”

In 1925 a similar anecdote was published as a filler item under the title “Keep a Diary” in the “Boston Globe” of Massachusetts. However, the subject was Lillie Langtry (also spelled Lily) instead of Margot Asquith. A Minnesota paper was acknowledged: 5

Mrs. Langtry—Lady de Bathe—was congratulated at an Anglo-American dinner party in London on the success of her book of memoirs.

“Luckily,” she said, “I have always kept a very full diary.”

And then she turned to a pretty Chicago girl and added:

“Keep a diary, my dear, and some day perhaps your diary will keep you.”

—Minneapolis Tribune.

In 1937 Mae West playing the character Peaches O’Day spoke the line in a movie as noted previously:

I always say, keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you.

In conclusion, Mae West did popularize this quip as a screenwriter and actress in 1937. Yet, the remark was already being disseminated. In 1922 the witticism was attributed to Margot Asquith, and based on current evidence she should receive the credit.

It is also possible that Lillie Langtry told the joke in 1925, but the existence of the 1922 citation suggests that the remark may have simply been reassigned to her.

Image Notes: Mae West publicity portrait from 1936 via Wikimedia Commons. Diary image from OpenClips on Pixabay. Portrait of Margot Asquith by Philip de László via Wikimedia Commons; cropped.

Notes:

  1. 1967, The Wit and Wisdom of Mae West, Edited by Joseph Weintraub, Page title: Every Day’s a Holiday, Quote Page 47, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Diaries, Quote Page 118, Column 2, Cassell, London, Also: Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2008, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Fifth Edition), Edited by John Simpson and Jennifer Speake, Entry: Keep your shop and your shop will keep you, Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. (Accessed May 11, 2014)
  4. 1922 May 25, Schenectady Gazette, Turn About, (filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 8, Schenectady, New York. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1925 September 24, Boston Globe, Keep a Diary (Short filler item), Quote Page A23, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)