Maurice Chevalier? Harry Oliver? Louis Calhern? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following piece of humorous proverbial wisdom has been attributed to the film star Maurice Chevalier. Here are three versions:
(1) Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.
(2) Growing old isn’t so terrible — when you consider the alternative.
(3) Old age is better than the alternative.
Is this ascription accurate? When did this remark originate?
Quote Investigator: There is evidence that Maurice Chevalier did deliver this comical line by 1959; however, the quip was already in circulation. The earliest citation located by QI was published in 1952 in a Long Beach, California newspaper. The columnist did not provide an ascription and stated that the phrase was already in use: 1
The situation reminds me of that famous quotation: “Growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”
In March 1953 a newspaper in Ottawa, Kansas printed an instance of the remark without ascription as a short filler item: 2
Growing old doesn’t seem quite so bad when you stop to consider the alternative.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In April 1953 a trade journal called “The Locomotive: for Owners and Operators of Boilers and Power Machinery” printed the one-liner on a page devoted to humor: 3
Growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.
In December 1954 a columnist in the “Los Angeles Times” printed an excerpt from a letter he received from a reader that included an instance of the joke: 4
“Growing old isn’t so bad—what if you hadn’t?”—Harry Oliver, 1000 Palms.
In 1955 the joke was placed in a compilation for speechmakers called the “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes” by Jacob M. Braude. No attribution was given: 5
Growing old doesn’t seem so bad when you consider the alternative.
In December 1955 the jest was attributed to an actor named Louis Calhern in a filler item published in the “Times-Picayune” of New Orleans, Louisiana: 6
“Growing old isn’t so bad,” observes veteran actor Louis Calhern, “when you consider the alternative!”
In May 1959 “The Boston Globe” printed a version of the gag and assigned the words to an archetypal old man: 7
There is a story about an old man who was asked if he did not dislike the idea of growing old. “I do,” he said, “until I consider the alternative.”
In August 1959 “The Hartford Courant” newspaper of Connecticut printed a comment by the famous bridge specialist Charles Goren who ascribed the quip to the popular actor Maurice Chevalier: 8
The soft-spoken Mr. Goren, who writes a bridge column read all over the world, had hoped to take things easy this year. “I kept thinking of a remark Maurice Chevalier once made when someone asked how it felt to be 71,” said Mr. Goren the other day. “He said, ‘Wonderful, when you consider the alternative.'”
In May 1960 the “Los Angeles Times” reprinted a set of quotations from a reference book called the “Celebrity Register” which contained a large number of short biographies. An instance of the saying was ascribed to the actor Chevalier: 9
Maurice Chevalier: “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”
In conclusion, this quip can be phrased in many ways, and a version was circulating by 1952. The earliest instances were anonymous; but after a few years the joke was linked to well-known actors of the period. QI thinks it is reasonable to say that Maurice Chevalier helped to popularize the humorous statement though it is unlikely that he originated it.
Image Notes: Maurice Chevalier publicity photo. Screenshot of Louis Calhern from a film trailer. Both images are in the public domain and were obtained via Wikimedia commons. Images have been cropped.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose question led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1952 August 2, Long Beach Press-Telegram, In the Spotlight: Arati Saha Also Can Claim Olympic Mark by Fred Delano, Quote Page B-2, Column 1, Long Beach, California. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1953 March 20, The Ottawa Campus, (Freestanding comical remark), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Ottawa, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1953 April, The Locomotive: for Owners and Operators of Boilers and Power Machinery, Volume 49, Number 6, Caught in the Separator, Quote Page 143, Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1954 December 16, Los Angeles Times, Cityside with Gene Sherman, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1955, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes by Jacob M. Braude, Section: Age, Quote Page 23, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper in third printing dated May 1956) ↩
- 1955 December 21, Times-Picayune, (Untitled filler item) Quote Page 28, Column 7, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1959 May 21, Boston Globe, The Law Works, Though Slowly by Ralph McGill, Quote Page 36, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1959 August 31, The Hartford Courant, Radio and Television: Bridge To Be Televised With Goren Commenting by John Crosby, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1960 May 15, Los Angeles Times, Meet the most “quotable notables” by Charles D. Rice, (Quotations from the book “Celebrity Register”), Start Page B11, Quote Page B12, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩