Wolcott Gibbs? George Bernard Shaw? Margaret Case Harriman? Alexander Woollcott? Ivor Brown? Frank Case? Peter Fleming? Brooks Atkinson? George S. Kaufman? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A wit once travelled to the opulent country estate of a friend and was shown the surrounding grounds which were well-manicured and extensively landscaped. Several large trees had been transplanted to provide shade. The humorist was asked for a candid appraisal and said:
Well, it just goes to show you what God could do if he had money.
A remark of this type has been attributed to both George Bernard Shaw and Alexander Woollcott. Shaw supposedly said it while visiting the estate of William Randolph Hearst in California. Woollcott reportedly said it while visiting the country mansion of playwright Moss Hart. Is either of these anecdotes accurate?
Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence located by QI was printed in June 1933 in a London periodical called “The Fortnightly Review”. An article by drama critic Ivor Brown discussed the spectacular productions of Shakespeare plays staged by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The critic was particularly impressed by the simulation of a storm in “The Tempest”. Brown employed a version of the saying and credited an unnamed wag. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Tree’s storm might vulgarly be described as “a corker”. A wit, when asked what he thought of Long Island, said, “It’s what God would have done with Nature, if He had had the money”. My memory suggests that the remark perfectly fitted Prospero’s island as conceived by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
In the above passage the joke was not applied to a specific estate; instead, an entire region of the U.S. known for expensive property and impressive homes was named.
Earlier indirect evidence of the quip also exists. In 1974 a biography of Peter Fleming by Duff Hart-Davis was released. Fleming was a British travel writer who was the brother of famed spy-thriller author Ian Fleming. Peter Fleming was credited with using the saying in a letter dated 1929. If this date was accurate then Fleming either crafted the comical remark, or he was relaying a witticism that was already circulating on Long Island. The name “Rupert” in the following referred to Fleming’s friend Rupert Hart-Davis who was a publisher: 2 3
‘Long Island represents the Americans’ idea of what God would have done with Nature if he’d had the money,’ Peter wrote to Rupert on September 29th, 1929 from the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, where he spent the first weekend of his stay in America
The joke has been ascribed to a variety of sharp individuals in addition to Fleming, including: Wolcott Gibbs, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, and George Bernard Shaw.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In September 1933 an excerpt from Ivor Brown’s article in “The Fortnightly Review” was reprinted in the “New York Evening Post”. The joke was included in the excerpt, and this provided wider dissemination in the U.S. 4
In 1940 Frank Case who was best known for hosting the Algonquin Round Table released a memoir titled “Do Not Disturb” which recounted a tale about Wolcott Gibbs who was a scribe at “The New Yorker” magazine. Gibbs was visiting the country estate of a friend who had recently become wealthy, and he was shown lavish facilities that included tennis courts, swimming pools, and stables: 5
Finally, returning to the house after inspection of the domain, the owner points to a magnificent elm growing in the terrace just outside the library window.
“See that tree? That tree stood for fifty years or more on top of that hill over there. I had it moved down here so on pleasant mornings I can do my work out here in its shade.”
“That just shows what God could do if he had money,” says Gibbs.
The wealthy owner of the estate was not identified in the above passage. The story generated variants; for example, in 1942 a columnist in a Rockford, Illinois newspaper reported the experiences of a research geologist named George who visited the home of an unnamed petroleum tycoon: 6
Returning to the mansion, after inspecting the domain, the owner pointed to a magnificent oak in the front yard, and boasted:
“See that tree? That stood for over 40 years in that meadow over there. I had it moved down here, at a cost of $2,000, so I could enjoy its shade.”
To which George replied: “That just shows what God could do if He had money.”
In 1943 “The New Yorker” magazine published a profile of the popular Broadway playwright Moss Hart written by Margaret Case Harriman. The punchline of the anecdote was recounted and the location was identified as Hart’s estate; however, Harriman suggested that the incident was apocryphal: 7
Another comment, which gained a certain fame but has never been traced to an authentic source, is supposedly that of the cynical guest who, on being shown Hart’s ready-made forest, murmured, “Well, it just goes to show you what God could do if he had money.”
In 1944 the indefatigable story-collector Bennett Cerf presented an instance of the tale in which Wolcott Gibbs visited Moss Hart’s estate: 8
With a prodigal hand, he turned a run-down old farm into a model estate. Whole forests were uprooted and replanted with gay abandon. “Look,” he said to Wolcott Gibbs, “I’ve moved this oak so that it shades my library.” “It just goes to show you,” muttered Gibbs, “what God could do if He only had money.”
In March 1945 the mass-circulation periodical “The Reader’s Digest” printed a version under the title “Caustic Comments” that was based on the tale in “Do Not Disturb” by Frank Case and acknowledged the book. 9
In 1946 an article in “The Boston Herald” attributed the quip to Brooks Atkinson who was a critic for “The New York Times”: 10
One of the Kaufman-Hart collaborations, “George Washington Slept Here,” though not their outstanding effort, paid for Moss’s fabulous farm at Buck’s County, the splendor of which prompted Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, to remark: “This shows what God could do if He only had money.”
In 1947 the anecdote reappeared in the pages of “The New Yorker”. The well-known humorist James Thurber stated that a colleague had been credited with the punchline, but he had disclaimed it: 11
One of my colleagues is reported to have watched, on a Long Island estate, the transplanting of a great elm. ‘This little job,’ his host told him, ‘is costing me two hundred thousand dollars.’ ‘Shows what God could do if he had money,’ my friend commented. He modestly disclaims the observation…
Also in 1947 a syndicated columnist based in Washington, D.C. presented an instance of the story with a new location at the residence of a former ambassador: 12
A spectator at one of the two, 500-guest Spring Garden parties given by ex-Ambassador and Mrs. Joseph E. Davies was duly impressed. He looked over the expanse of perfectly manicured lawns, the beds of azaleas, dogwood, flowering shrubs and blossoming fruit trees. “This shows you,” he said, “what God could do if he had money.”
In 1950 a columnist based in New York discussed an interior decorator named Alban Conway who had worked on the home of Moss Hart in Pennsylvania: 13
Conway did the decor at Moss Hart’s Bucks county, Pennsylvania, home—the place to which Hart had 500 trees transplanted, causing one of his acid-and-barber-wire set friends to muse softly, “It just shows you what God could do if he had money.”
In 1954 “The New York Times” published a review of the book “The Tastemakers”, and the reviewer employed an instance of the saying which had been redirected toward Palm Beach, Florida instead of Long Island, New York: 14
Excellent as this section is, it is strange that Palm Beach, of which it has been said, “That is what God would have done if he had had the money,” is never mentioned.
In 1959 Moss Hart published “Act One: An Autobiography”, and he told of his childhood and early years of poverty. When his plays succeeded on Broadway he became rich, and he admitted that his resultant “profligacy” had “been a cause of head-shaking among my friends”. Hart supported the veracity of the anecdote, but he ascribed the quip to Alexander Woollcott instead of Wolcott Gibbs: 15
I have built needless wings on my house in the country and planted thousands of trees on my land, so that the late Alexander Woollcott was prompted to remark a little contemptuously, “Just what God would have done if He had the money.” I did not mind. I am not a fool about money but I do not live in fear of it.
A known mechanism for the generation of misattributions occurs when the credit for a saying shifts between people with similar names, e.g., between Wolcott Gibbs and Alexander Woollcott. The cause is inaccurate memory, ambiguous naming, or mental confusion.
The story presented by Hart was retold in newspapers, but sometimes the details were altered. For example, an article in “The Boston Globe” changed the phrasing of the remark ascribed to Woollcott: 16
Moss Hart, director of “My Fair Lady” and many other shows, tells in his new book, “Act One,” of his poverty-stricken boyhood and how he splurged the minute he began to make big money. He says that he kept adding unneeded wings to his Pennsylvania house and planted thousands of trees.
Alexander Woollcott looked over Hart’s luxurious estate and said: “Just what God would have done if He could have afforded it.”
Moss Hart was married to Kitty Carlisle until his death in 1961. In 1964 a columnist based in Dallas, Texas reported Carlisle’s version of the tale in which playwright George S. Kaufman delivered the punchline: 17
The Moss Harts really lived near New Hope, Pa., on a rural setup what was originally a cornfield. Miss Carlisle related what is now the jolliest story of recent Algonquin Hotel repertoire. Hart, an impatient man, planted 500 full grown trees.
Said Hart’s long-time collaborator, the late George Kaufman, “God would have done the same if he had had the money.”
In 1971 a book about the palatial California abode of William Randolph Hearst was published. The author of “The Golden Days of San Simeon” reported a tale about the famous Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw. This was the earliest linkage of the saying to Shaw found by QI. Shaw visited Hearst in 1933 and died in 1950: 18
Shaw, after viewing San Simeon, is rumored to have said, “This is probably the way God would have done it if He had had the money.”
In 1974 “Peter Fleming: A Biography” was published, and a reviewer in “The Tablet: The International Catholic Weekly” noticed the humorous remark about Long Island ascribed to Fleming and reprinted it in his analysis: 19
“Long Island represents the Americans’ idea of what God would have done with Nature if he’d had the money”—so Peter Fleming at 22, and the wit is as brilliant as Wilde’s.
In conclusion, Peter Fleming is the leading candidate for crafter of this quip by 1929. It was published without attribution in 1933. The anecdote particularized to one estate instead of a region was circulating by 1940. The most likely owner of the estate was Moss Hart, and the quipster was probably Wolcott Gibbs or Alexander Woollcott. The version of this tale featuring George Bernard Shaw currently has very weak support and is probably apocryphal.
Image Notes: Cropped and resized panorama of Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Credit to Fietsbel derivative work: Durova via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to John Cowan and Dan Drake whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and reactivate this exploration. Cowan noted the existence of attributions to Wolcott Gibbs and George S. Kaufman. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for help in verifying the 1940 citation. Additional thanks to Jeff Atlas who highlighted the similarity of the names Wolcott Gibbs to Alexander Woollcott while suggesting that ambiguity may have contributed to a shift in attribution.)
Update History: On January 31, 2015 the March 1945 cite for “The Reader’s Digest” was added. On December 24, 2017 a paragraph was added about the attribution shift between Wolcott Gibbs and Alexander Woollcott.
- 1933 June, The Fortnightly Review, New Series Volume 139, Old Series Volume 139, Producing Shakespeare by Ivor Brown, (Footnote for article: A paper recently read before the Shakespeare Association at Kings College, London), Start Page 759, Quote Page 760, Published by Horace Marshall & Son, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1974, Peter Fleming: A Biography by Duff Hart-Davis, GB Page 67, Jonathan Cape, London. (Google Books Snippet View; not yet verified on paper; the quotation credited to Peter Fleming with the same date is listed in an entry of the 1989 edition of “The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations”) ↩
- 1989, The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations, Section: United States, Quote Page 585, Column 1, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1933 September 7, New York Evening Post, Outdoing Nature (Short item reprinting a passage from an article by Ivor Brown in the “Fortnightly Review” of London), Quote Page 10, Column 4, New York, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1940, Do Not Disturb by Frank Case, Chapter XV: Sag Harbor, Quote Page 276, Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York. (Verified with scans; great thanks Bonnie Taylor-Blake and the University of North Carolina library system) ↩
- 1942 August 17, Rockford Register-Republic, Column Left by Barney Thompson, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1943 September 11, The New Yorker, Profiles: Hi-Yo, Platinum! by Margaret Case Harriman (Profile of Moss Hart), Start Page 29, Quote Page 40, F.R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online Archive of page scans of The New Yorker; Accessed November 14, 2014) ↩
- 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 27, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1945 March, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 46, Caustic Comments, Quote Page 3, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1946 September 5, Boston Herald, Moss Hart Learned His Business the Hard Way by Elinor Hughes, Quote Page 29, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1947 December 06, The New Yorker, The Ordeal of Mr. Matthews by James Thurber, Start Page 39, Quote Page 40 and 41, F.R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online Archive of page scans of The New Yorker; Accessed November 14, 2014) ↩
- 1949 April 30, The Daily Times, Washington Column: Garden Party Shows What God Could Do With Money by Peter Edson (NEA Washington Correspondent), Quote Page 4, Column 4, New Philadelphia, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1950 January 3, The Kane Republican, My New York by Mel Heimer, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Kane, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1954 October 10, New York Times, A Matter of Fads and Fancies by Francis Henry Taylor, (Book review of The Tastemakers by Russell Lynes), Quote Page BR6, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1960 (Copyright 1959), Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart, Quote Page 27 and 28, A Signet Book: New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans of 1960 paperback edition of 1959 hardcover edition from Random House) ↩
- 1959 October 13, Boston Globe, Globe Man’s Daily Story, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (“Woollcott” was misspelled as “Woolcott” in the original text) (ProQuest) ↩
- 1964 April 25, Dallas Morning News, Platform in Review: Miss Carlisle and Mrs. Hart by John Rosenfield, Quote Page 14, Column 2, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1971, The Golden Days of San Simeon by Ken Murray, (Caption of photograph), Quote Page 36, Published by Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1974 November 23, The Tablet: The International Catholic Weekly, Brilliance Blighted by Vincent Cronin, (Book review of “Peter Fleming: A Biography” by Duff Hart-Davis), Quote Page 12, Column 2, The Tablet Publishing Company, London. (Accessed on December 15, 2014 at Online Archive of The Tablet, archive.thetablet.co.uk) link ↩