I’ll Give You a Definite Maybe

Samuel Goldwyn? Jerry Wald? Jed Harris? Louis Sobol? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?

maybe09Dear Quote Investigator: Making a weighty decision is difficult because one must be willing to forgo alternative choices and possibilities. The following equivocal statement comical illustrates this psychological tension:

I can give you a definite maybe.

The words above have been attributed to the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn who made a large number of multi-million dollar business decisions. Would you please explore this phrase?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI was printed in a column of the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York in November 1933. The quip was relayed to the columnist by Jerry Wald who was a screenwriter and producer; Wald ascribed the remark to another unnamed Hollywood producer: 1

From Jerry Wald, away out in Hollywood, comes the gag about the producer who was arguing with an actor about a contract. The actor insisted the producer come to a definite decision, one way or the other.

“What are you complaining about?” screamed the producer. “I have given you a definite decision…didn’t I give you a definite maybe?”

In December 1933 a very similar anecdote was printed in a newspaper in Amsterdam, New York with an acknowledgement to the periodical “Hollywood Times”: 2

To a movie actor who insisted on a definite decision the film producer roared: “What are you complaining about? I have given you a definite decision–didn’t I give you a definite ‘Maybe?'” — Hollywood Times.

By 1935 the expression was being attributed to the director and producer Jed Harris. Columnist Louis Sobol was credited in 1939; columnist Walter Winchell used the phrase in 1940; and Samuel Goldwyn was also credited in 1940.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In July 1935 the “Harrisburg Telegraph” of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania published this tale: 3

Jed Harris had several enticing deals to produce pictures while here, but they all fell through. Jed was very evasive and Arch Selwyn, who was handling all negotiations, has his troubles. Jed would keep demanding different terms every day, never giving a yes or a no. One day Selwyn rushed over to United Artists very elated. “I just saw Harris,” said Selwyn, “and I got a definite maybe.”

In March 1939 a fashion writer named Diana Sick stated that Palm Springs evinced a “lovely lethargy”, and she shared the words of another writer: 4

Louis Sobol, the columnist, who is visiting the village, expressed the feeling in quoting a line from his own psychology:
“Give me until tomorrow and I will give you a definite maybe.”

In January 1940 the widely-distributed columnist Walter Winchell employed the phrase: 5

Cautious wordage by the Times drama reporter: He mentions a show being booked a “trifle tentatively.” He means a definite “maybe.”

In March 1940 the popular gossip columnist Sheilah Graham assigned the humorous remark to Samuel Goldwyn: 6

The latest Goldwynism: An agent was trying to sell Sam a screen story. “I’ll give you a definite maybe on Monday,” said Goldwyn.

In 1946 the anthologist Louis Untermeyer fancifully described a meeting between Goldwyn and other Hollywood movers and shakers: 7

They were all trying to induce Goldwyn to join them in a project which he disliked. Finally he turned to them and said, “Gentlemen, the best I can give you is a definite maybe.” Then, a few minutes later, he said, “I’ve reconsidered my decision. Gentlemen, you may include me out.”

The second phrase containing “include me out” was examined in the website entry located here.

In conclusion, a producer might have used the phrase “definite maybe” during a negotiation, but QI hypothesizes that the incongruous coupling was originally crafted as a joke, and anecdotes were constructed for entertainment. Some individuals used the phrase after it was already in circulation, e.g., Louis Sobol and Walter Winchell. The linkage to Goldwyn was rather weak.

(Great thanks to the anonymous movie aficionado interested in Goldwynisms whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Image Notes: Portrait of Samuel Goldwyn from The Theatre of Science, Broadway publishing company and Robert Grau via Wikimedia Commons. Image with check mark next to “Maybe” from geralt on Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1933 November 14, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Reverting to Type by Art Arthur, A Definite Perhaps, Quote Page 19, Column 8, Brooklyn, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1933 December 30, Evening Recorder (Daily Democrat and Recorder),In Merrier Mood, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Amsterdam, New York. (Old Fulton)
  3. 1935 July 15, Harrisburg Telegraph, What to Do, See and Hear by L.U.K., Quote Page 17, Column 5, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1939 March 5, Seattle Sunday Times (Seattle Daily Times), Diana Sick Writes About Fashions at Palm Springs by Diana Sick, Start Page 5, Quote Page 7, Column 7, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1940 January 15, Evening World-Herald (Omaha World-Herald), Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 11, Column 8, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1940 March 29, Dallas Morning News, Hollywood in Person: Ginger Due for Lead in New Aviation Epic by Sheilah Graham, Quote Page 18, Column 7, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1946, A Treasury of Laughter, Selected and Edited by Louis Untermeyer, Section: Joe Miller’s Grandchildren, Quote Page 253, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)