I Would Rather Have Two Girls at 21 Each Than One At 42

W. C. Fields? Great Lester? Fred Allen? Anonymous Vaudevillian?

wcfields10Dear Quote Investigator: I have been trying to trace the following gag:

I’d rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42.

This line is usually attributed to the famous comedian W. C. Fields who played cantankerous and henpecked characters in movies. Would you please explore its provenance? I recognize that today some would label the joke sexist and ageist.

Quote Investigator: W. C. Fields did sing this line while taking a shower in the 1939 film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”. 1 However, the joke was already well-known to humorists before this film was shot.

The earliest strong match located by QI was printed in “The Seattle Daily Times” of Seattle, Washington in 1915. An advertisement for “The Pantages” theater mentioned a vaudeville performer named Great Lester and described his act as follows: 2

World’s Foremost Ventriloquist in His Cleverest and Funniest Exhibition! (He’s a Riot, Folks.)

The same newspaper page featured a section titled “Lines From Current Vaudeville” which recounted jokes that were being used in local venues. Here were two examples. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

“An optimist is a person who doesn’t give a whoop what happens so long as it doesn’t happen to him.”
—Howard & McCane, Orpheum.

“I would rather have two girls at 17 than one at 34.”
—Lester, Pantages.

The number of years specified in the quip was variable, e.g., 16, 17, 18, and 21. QI believes that the line was used by multiple comedians. QI does not know whether Great Lester crafted the statement or lifted it from a fellow performer.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1921 the “Mt. Vernon Register-News” of Mt. Vernon, Illinois published an instance of the jest in a “Social Events” column. A party with an orchestra and some popular musical performers was described. The following parody song titles were listed: 4

Several noted selections were rendered, among which were, “Meet me at the Clothesline. That’s Where I Generally Hang Out,” “I’d Rather Have Two Girls at Sixteen Than One at Thirty-two” and “I’d Rather Drive a Twin Six Than Be Driven by Six Twins.”

In 1922 the “Greensboro Daily News” of Greensboro, North Carolina published an instance in a column called “Pithy Paragraphs”. The line was sent in by a reader: 5

I had rather have two girls 18 than one 36.—M. L. B., 412 W. Market St.

In 1939 W. C. Fields appeared as the lead character in the comedy film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”. The writing was credited to eight different names, but the story was credited only to Charles Bogle which was a pen name for W. C. Fields. About 17 minutes into the film Fields sings the following while taking a shower: 6 7

I’d rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42.

In 1956 the popular comedian and radio broadcaster Fred Allen published a memoir titled “Much Ado About Me” that included a discussion of his early career. Allen’s birth name was John Florence Sullivan, and he entered show business after honing his juggling abilities, but he discovered that humor was his forte: 8

Now, instead of watching jugglers, I started to study comedians. When I heard a good joke or a funny line, I wrote it down. Here are a few gems embalmed in my first notebook:

Summer is going — Winter draw(er)s on.
What has four legs and flies? A dead horse.
I’d rather have two girls at 17 than one at 34.
A sardine is a herring’s pup.

Allen did not state the year during which he recorded the above material in his notebook. The context suggested that he transcribed the jokes sometime after he graduated from high school in the class of 1911 and before he updated his monologue in 1914.

In 1968 “Drat! Being the Encapsulated View of Life by W. C. Fields in His Own Words” was published and the following quip appeared in page 24: 9

“I’d rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42.”

The editor Richard J. Anobile included careful annotations specifying a source for each quotation. Unfortunately, the note for the line above did not name a movie, interview, or book; instead, the provisional placeholder “To Come” appeared.

In 1970 a collection of quotations titled “W. C. Fields: I Never Met a Kid I Liked” was released. The following three lines were included, but no precise citations were given: 10

“We’ll spend the weekend hunting chicken livers, yellow breasted chicken livers.”

“My little rocky mountain canary.”

“I’d rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42.”

In conclusion, the vaudeville performer Great Lester used a version of this gag in 1915, but its origin was not certain. Fred Allen recorded the line when he started performing in vaudeville.

W.C. Fields was also a vaudevillian in his early career, and he may have heard the line on the stage. Fields included it in his 1939 movie “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”, and he was an important locus for its popularization.

Image Notes: Girls at sea illustration by Raphael Kirchner via Wikiart.org. Publicity photo of W. C. Fields circa 1938 via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to John Lomas whose comment/inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Will Fitzgerald of aether.com and John Simpson of Kennesaw, Georgia who told QI that W. C. Fields employed the line in “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”.)

Update History: On April 29, 2015 the citation for “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” was added, and the text was partially rewritten.

Notes:

  1. Subzin; Movie Subtitle Search, Movie: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Year of Movie: 1939, Time stamp for quotation: 00:17:15, Quotation Line 01: I’d rather have two girls at 21 each, Quotation Line 02: Than one girl at 42. (Accessed on Subzin on April, 28 2015)
  2. 1915 February 23, The Seattle Daily Times, (Advertisement for the Pantages theater), Quote Page 9, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1915 February 23, The Seattle Daily Times, Lines From Current Vaudeville, Quote Page 9, Column 4, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1921 March 8, Mt. Vernon Register-News, Social Events, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Mt Vernon, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1922 June 17, Greensboro Daily News, Pithy Paragraphs, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Greensboro, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  6. Subzin; Movie Subtitle Search, Movie: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Year of Movie: 1939, Time stamp for quotation: 00:17:15, Quotation Line 01: I’d rather have two girls at 21 each, Quotation Line 02: Than one girl at 42. (Accessed on Subzin on April, 28 2015)
  7. Website: Springfield! Springfield! Movie Scripts, Movie title: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Movie Year: 1939, Website description: Collection of movie and television scripts of unknown provenance and accuracy. (Accessed springfieldspringfield.co.uk on April 29, 2015)
  8. 1956, Much Ado About Me by Fred Allen, Quote Page 102, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1968, Drat! Being the Encapsulated View of Life by W. C. Fields in His Own Words, Edited by Richard J. Anobile, Quote Page 24, (Source notes Page 127), An NAL Book, The World Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1970, W. C. Fields: I Never Met a Kid I Liked by W. C. Fields (William Claude Fields), Edited by Paul Mason, Quote Page 6 (Unnumbered), Published by Stanyan Books, Los Angeles, California and Random House, New York. (Verified on Paper)