There Are Only Three Great Cities in the U.S.: New York, San Francisco, and Washington. All the Rest Are Cleveland

Mark Twain? Tennessee Williams? Edward Gannon? Hugh A. Mulligan? Anonymous?

NewYork07Dear Quote Investigator: Travelers in the U.S. sometimes complain of cookie-cutter monotony. The following quip has been attributed to the prominent playwright Tennessee Williams, and the luminary Mark Twain:

America has only three great cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.

I find this comment entertaining although I personally like Cleveland. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain employed this joke; it is not recorded in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”. 1 Also, it is not listed on Barbara Schmidt’s valuable TwainQuotes.com website. The comedian Russell Brand did improbably attach a version to Twain in his 2014 book “Revolution”. 2

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1975 issue of a periodical called “Best Sellers” which was composed of book reviews. A reviewer named Edward Gannon printed an instance and attributed the words to an unnamed Frenchman. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

I once heard a Frenchman say, “There are only three cities in the United States: New York, San Francisco and Washington. All the rest are Cleveland.” (I suggested he add Boston and Atlanta.)

The small collection of cities deemed worthy by quipsters has varied; the group has included: New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Washington, Boston, Atlanta, and Santa Fe. Tennessee Williams died in 1983, and one year afterwards the joke was attributed to him. A detailed citation is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The notion that only three cities in the U.S. were commendable or distinctive has a very long history. In 1895 a popular actress listed San Francisco as one of only three tenable locations for an abode: 4

Pretty Vernona Jarbeau has returned, looking as chic and charming as ever. She is to appear in the “Passing Show” at the Baldwin on Monday. “There are only three cities in the United States that I would care to live in, and one of them is San Francisco,” she said yesterday at the Palace. “I love San Francisco, but it was a terrible trip through the Humboldt Desert and then, to wind up, last night there was an accident on the train.

In 1903 a newspaper in Monroeville, Indiana reported on the far-flung travels of a local couple who presented a bromide about the dearth of great cities: 5

From Sacramento we went to San Francisco one of the most interesting cities in the world. It has been said, there are only three great cities in the United States, New York-Chicago and San Francisco. You will find all nationalities and market street is crowded like Broadway in New York.

In 1912 a banquet was held in San Francisco to welcome a group who were returning from the Panama Canal. A variant joke about “three cities” was told by a businessman: 6

“They told me in the east that there were only three cities in the United States: New York was one and San Francisco the other two,” said Horace H. Allen, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, at the Panama dinner at the St. Francis hotel.

In 1913 an article in a Cedar City, Utah newspaper mentioned three worthy cities. Unsurprisingly, a city within the state was included in the estimable set: 7

As a result of this hap-hazard way of doing things, it is said today that there are only three cities in the United States that are worthy the name of cities. They are Washington D.C., Salt Lake City and Denver. The rest are called “over grown towns”

In 1936 a column in a Nebraska newspaper that presented questions and answers discussed a remark ascribed to someone named Frank Morris: 8

Q. Who said that there are only three cities in the United States worth writing about?

A. The saying that there are only three American cities worth writing about is attributed to Frank Morris, and the cities he named were New York, San Francisco and New Orleans.

In 1963 the widely-distributed Associated Press columnist Hal Boyle presented the following culinary triplet: 9

Remember when it was said there were only three cities in the United States where a man could get a decent meal—New York, New Orleans and San Francisco?

At last, by 1975 the tagline about Cleveland had been incorporated into one of the pre-existing comments about three worthy cities to construct the modern jest. The citation below was given at the beginning of this article: 10

I once heard a Frenchman say, “There are only three cities in the United States: New York, San Francisco and Washington. All the rest are Cleveland.” (I suggested he add Boston and Atlanta.)

In 1979 an elaborate instance of the Cleveland jest was printed in the column of newsman Hugh A. Mulligan who worked for the Associated Press. The remark was indirectly ascribed to an unnamed member of the U.S. State Department (Foggy Bottom). Mulligan told of a well-connected student from Saudi Arabia who was sent on a tour to get acquainted with the United States: 11

He told us his itinerary, laid out by the planners in Foggy Bottom, took him from Boston to New York to Washington, D.C., on to New Orleans, Santa Fe, San Francisco and then wound up in Cleveland.

“Why Cleveland?” Eddie Pagnac, the AP desk editor asked.

“They told me,” the sheik replied, “to see all those colorful cities first and then be sure to visit Cleveland because everything else is Cleveland.”

Also in 1979 the columnist Tom Green shared an excerpt from Mulligan’s column containing the joke with his readers in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Cleveland, Ohio. 12

In 1984 “Great Characters of New Orleans” by Mel Leavitt was published, and it contained a chapter about Tennessee Williams that began with the following: 13

“There are only three great cities in the United States,” Tennessee Williams once said “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. All the rest are Cleveland” Tennessee Williams loved New Orleans as his own, his rebirthplace, his fount of authorship.

In 2014 the comic and political commentator Russell Brand published “Revolution” which connected the famous humorist Mark Twain to the remark: 14

New Orleans, though, is not a city of lackluster superficiality but one of unique vibrancy. Mark Twain, the thinking man’s Colonel Sanders, reputedly said, “America is New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

In conclusion, this quip was difficult to trace because the phrasing and the list of cities was highly variable. The attributions were anonymous in the two earliest close matches. It was conceivable that Tennessee Williams used the joke, but based on current evidence it was unlikely that he coined it. The linkage to Twain was spurious. Future researchers may discover more.

Image Notes: Picture of Washington from skeeze at Pixabay. Picture of the Golden Gate Bridge from Unsplash at Pixabay. Picture of New York from mpewny at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Matthew Valletta and jugghayd whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for accessing the 1984 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2014, Revolution by Russell Brand, Chapter 9: It’s Big But It’s Not Easy, Unnumbered Page, Ballantine Books: Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1975 September, Best Sellers, Volume 35, Number 6, (Review by Edward Gannon of the book “Washington Now” by Arthur H. Kiplinger and Knight A. Kiplinger), Quote Page 176, Column 1, University of Scranton Library and Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation, Washington, D.C. (Verified with microfilm)
  4. 1895 October 19, The San Francisco Call, Around the Corridors, Quote Page 6, Column 4, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1903 May 28, Weekly Breeze (The Monroeville Breeze), An Account of Mr. and Mrs. Tryons Western Trip, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Monroeville, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1912 June 14, The San Francisco Call, Story of Canal Told at Banquet: Returned Excursionists Picture Wonders at Isthmus, Quote Page 18, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1913 December 19, Iron County Record, Civic Architecture by Randall L. Jones, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Cedar City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1936 October 23, Lincoln Evening Journal, Answers to Questions, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1963 June 12, The Emporia Gazette, Revolution in American Food Habits Pleases Boyle’s Palate by Hal Boyle (Associated Press), Quote Page 10, Column 1, Emporia, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1975 September, Best Sellers, Volume 35, Number 6, (Review by Edward Gannon of the book “Washington Now” by Arthur H. Kiplinger and Knight A. Kiplinger), Quote Page 176, Column 1, University of Scranton Library and Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation, Washington, D.C. (Verified with microfilm)
  11. 1979 January 8, Times-Picayune, Section 3, Mulligan’s Stew: Cleveland Something Special by Hugh A. Mulligan (Associated Press),Quote Page 2, Column 1 and 2,New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1979 January 22, Cleveland Plain Dealer, The garage as art form by Tom Green, Quote Page C1, Column 6, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1984, Great Characters of New Orleans by Mel Leavitt, Chapter: Tennessee Williams, Start Page 70, Quote Page 70, Published by Lexikos, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake and the University of North Carolina library system)
  14. 2014, Revolution by Russell Brand, Chapter 9: It’s Big But It’s Not Easy, Unnumbered Page, Ballantine Books: Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview)