Shoot Them Now, While They’re Happy

Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant wit Dorothy Parker’s career was based on writing. She composed screenplays in Hollywood, and she authored columns for the magazines “Esquire” and “The New Yorker”. Yet, she was not always happy with her literary livelihood.

Recently on Pinterest I saw a piece of comically lethal acerbic advice that Parker reportedly gave to friends of aspiring writers. Would you please tell me if this quip is an authentic Parkerism? Where exactly did it appear?

Quote Investigator: In November 1959 Dorothy Parker penned a book review column in “Esquire” magazine that evaluated the revised edition of the famous writing guide “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Parker gave the work her highest recommendation and said it should be kept and treasured as a “forever” book. She also prescribed a form of euthanasia for budding writers. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

William Strunk taught Mr. White English at Cornell, and certainly he had no more gifted and proficient a pupil. It is a book to put alongside Fowler’s works, and I can think of no higher praise; I greatly doubt if there is any.

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1909 “The Seattle Sunday Times” published an article about the popular comedian and actor Eddie Foy Sr. An instance of the quip appeared in the caption of an image that depicted Foy looking at a happy couple embracing. The degraded image is difficult to decipher, but Foy may be controlling a camera pointed at the couple: 2

“I’ll shoot them now—they’ll never be so happy again.”

In 1959 Dorothy Parker’s remark was published in “Esquire” magazine as noted previously. In 2009 “The New York Times” published an article on the 50th anniversary of the well-known writing guide by Strunk and White. Parker’s mordant advice was reprinted: 3

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers,” Dorothy Parker once wrote, “the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of ‘The Elements of Style.’ The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

In conclusion, Dorothy Parker did compose an astringent warning to nascent writers which appeared in “Esquire” in 1959.

Image Notes: Typewriter from OpenClips on Pixabay. Photo of Dorothy Parker from 1910s or 1920s via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Laurelyn Collins whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1959 November, Esquire, Book Reviews by Dorothy Parker, Start Page 26, Quote Page 28, Column 4, Published by Arnold Gingrich, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1909 October 10, Seattle Sunday Times (Seattle Daily Times), Section: Magazine, Eddie Foy Says He Likes Children – He Has Nineteen, (Quotation appeared in photo caption), Quote Page 9, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 2009 April 21, New York Times, ‘The Elements of Style’ Turns 50 by Sam Roberts, New York. (Article appeared in print on April 22, 2009, on page C3 of the New York edition) (Accessed online nytimes.com on February 28, 2015)