Dorothy Parker? Alice Roosevelt Longworth? Earl Wilson? Robert Harling? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The most trenchant comment pertaining to gossip that I have ever heard is often attributed to the wit Dorothy Parker. The quip is based on altering the following conventional instruction on etiquette:
If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Here are three versions of the twisted variation:
If you haven’t anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me.
If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit next to me.
If you can’t say something good about someone, sit here by me.
These words have also been credited to Alice Roosevelt Longworth who was the daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt and a long-time Washington socialite known for adroit remarks. Would you please explore this saying?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a magazine profile of Alice Roosevelt Longworth titled “The Sharpest Wit in Washington” published in “The Saturday Evening Post” issue of December 4, 1965. Interestingly, the expression was not spoken; instead, it was embroidered on a pillow. Also, the word “good” was used instead of “nice”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
We walked to Mrs. Longworth’s upstairs sitting room, where she often reads until six o’clock in the morning. Books were piled everywhere on the tables and on the floor, and contemporary newspaper clippings were strewn on the side tables. Coyote skins were lying on the backs of two large, comfortable chairs, and on one of the chairs was a pillow with the words, IF YOU CAN’T SAY SOMETHING GOOD ABOUT SOMEONE, SIT RIGHT HERE BY ME.
Longworth definitely popularized the expression, and she may have crafted it. There is no substantive evidence that Dorothy Parker employed the saying though it has been attributed to her in recent decades.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In July 1966 the popular syndicated columnist Earl Wilson printed an instance of the saying with the word “nice” instead of “good”. The statement was attributed to an unnamed hostess of a party that was attended by a person with the curious name “Hope Diamond”: 2
Earl’s Pearls: Hope Diamond was invited to a society dinner where the hostess said. “If you can’t say anything nice about anyone, sit next to me.”
Also in 1966 the Women’s National Democratic Club published a book about the social events in Washington, D.C. with a title containing a French-based pun “Party Diary or the ‘Fete’ Accomplis”. In November 1966 a newspaper in Syracuse, New York mentioned that the book described Longworth’s pillow. Hence, the expression was further disseminated: 3
It notes in passing that that grand dame Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Teddy’s daughter) has a pillow in her upstairs sitting room that says: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me…”
In November 1966 the “Party Diary” guidebook was also discussed in the pages of “The New York Times”, and the saying on the pillow was considered striking enough to warrant reprinting: 4
… Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, thought so highly of one motto to liven up a party that she sewed it on a pillow—“If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
In 1986 the columnist Liz Smith writing in “The San Francisco Chronicle” discussed a forthcoming novel by Gore Vidal called “Empire” which included a fictional version of Longworth: 5
… the famous Alice Roosevelt, who eventually, as Mrs. Longworth, came to be known as the creator of the expression: “If you can’t think of anything nice to say about anybody, come right over here and sit by me!”
In 1988 a newspaper published a review of a New York theatrical production of “Steel Magnolias” by the playwright Robert Harling. An instance of the quip was spoken by a character in the drama: 6
It’s hard to get very attached to these unremarkable women, especially since Pamela Berlin’s cast plays them with no particular distinction, but it is fun to hear Ginger Prince, as Truvy, drawl, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.” Or, “The only thing that separates us from animals is our ability to accessorize.”
By the 1990s the joke was being attributed to Dorothy Parker. For example, a letter to the editor of “The San Francisco Chronicle” credited Parker and received a corrective reply: 7
I thought Dorothy Parker said, “If you haven’t anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me”…
Editor’s note: Sorry, but Alice Roosevelt Longworth is credited with the quote.
In 2007 USA Today published a review of a biography about Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and the accompanying picture showed Longworth sitting next to message-bearing pillow. The statement in the image matched the one given in the 1965 article in “The Saturday Evening Post”: 8
If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.
In conclusion, the earliest evidence of the quip indicated that it was written on a pillow owned by Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The expression began to circulate widely after it was seen by a journalist. The identity of the originator of the quip was not certain, but Longworth popularized it, and it radiated outward from her contacts. The linkage to Dorothy Parker occurred years later, and it was not well substantiated.
Image Notes: Hand-tinted photograph of Alice Roosevelt Longworth from 1903; image from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; the color balance has been changed, and the image has been cropped. Photo of Longworth christening a submarine; public domain image taken by a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy; image has been cropped.
(Great thanks to Mike who inquired about this saying and its ascription to Dorothy Parker.)
- 1965 December 4, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 238, Issue 24, The Sharpest Wit in Washington by Jean Vanden Heuvel, (Interview with Alice Roosevelt Longworth), Start Page 30, Quote Page 32, Column 3, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Academic Search Premiere EBSCO) ↩
- 1966 July 22, Aberdeen American-News (Aberdeen Daily News), Earl Wilson’s New York, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1966 November 20, Syracuse Herald-American (Syracuse Herald Journal), Early Senate Start by G. Van Der Heuvel, Quote Page 63, Column 3, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1966 November 27, New York Times, Hostess Guide Wards Off Fete Worse Than Death by Myra MacPherson (Special to The New York Times), Quote Page 108, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1986 October 30, The San Francisco Chronicle, Section: DAILY DATEBOOK, Talk’s Hot About Vidal’s New Novel by Liz Smith, Quote Page 61, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1988 February 3, The San Diego Union, Section: Lifestyle, Heartland nostalgia hits Greenwich Village by Welton Jones (Theater Critic), Quote Page C-4, San Diego, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1998 August 16, The San Francisco Chronicle, Section: Sunday Datebook, Letters to the Pink, (Letter from Besse Kern of San Francisco), Quote Page 12, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2007 December 13, USA Today, Alice Roosevelt: ‘The other Washington monument’ by Deirdre Donahue (USA TODAY), (Book review of: “Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker” by Stacy A. Cordery), Published by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. (Accessed usatoday.com on August 9, 2014) link ↩