Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Samuel Rogers? Walter Besant? Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Georges Clemenceau?
Dear Quote Investigator: An amusing remark about longevity and libido has been ascribed to septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians. A venerable gentleman was sitting on a park bench with a friend, and he gazed at a beautiful woman who walked by them. He turned to his companion and said one of the following:
1) Oh, to be sixty again!
2) Ah! To be seventy again, with thirty years more to live!
3) Ah! What wouldn’t I give to be seventy again!
4) If I could only be eighty once more.
This type of comment has been attributed to the French author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, the English poet Samuel Rogers, and the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1813 a collection of letters was published under the title “Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique”. A letter dated February 1, 1757 discussed Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and his place in the exclusive salons of France. Fontenelle had died during the previous month when he was 99 years old. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Sans sa surdité qui l’empêchait de prendre part à la conversation, il eût été aussi agréable dans la société qu’il l’avait été à l’âge de trente ans. Il disait, il n’y a pas longtemps à une jeune femme, pour lui faire sentir l’impression que sa beauté faisait sur lui: Ah! si je n’avais que quatre-vingts ans.
Here’s one possible translation into English:
If his deafness hadn’t kept him from participating in conversation, he would have been as pleasant in society as he was at the age of 30. Not long ago he said to a young woman, to show her how impressed he was by her beauty, “Ah, would that I were only 80 years old!”
The remark above was the earliest instance in this family located by QI. During the 1800s, 1900s, and 2000s the expression was often ascribed to Fontenelle though the precise phrasing and circumstances varied. QI conjectures that other members in the family were derived directly or indirectly from the words of Fontenelle.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1801 “Fontenelliana” was published, and it contained a collection of jokes, witticisms, and thoughts ascribed to Fontenelle. The following passage presented a context for the comment: 2
Fontenelle, très-âgé, se trouvant seul par hasard avec une très-jolie femme, tira vite le cordon de la sonnette, et sur-le-champ il vint du monde; alors Fontenelle dit en souriant à la dame fort surprise: “Ah! madame, si je n’avais que quatre-vingts ans”!
Here’s one possible translation:
The elderly Fontenelle, finding himself alone by chance with a beautiful woman, quickly pulled the bell cord, and immediately some people came in; then Fontenelle smiled and said to the very surprised woman, “Oh, madame, would that I were only 80 years old!”
In 1817 a book about Paris, Versailles, and the provinces in the eighteenth century included an instance of the anecdote with Fontenelle that specified his age as 99. Here was the French followed by one possible English rendition: 3
Recherché dans les societés qu’il amusait par des reparties fines et spirituelles, il affecta jusqu’à ses derniers momens beaucoup de galanterie auprès des dames. Il avait quatre-vingt-dix-neuf ans, lorsqu’une jolie femme, le traitant avec une amabilité gaie, et s’amusant à lui faire des agaceries qu’elle ne pouvait se permettre que vis-à-vis d’un vieillard sans conséquence, ah, lui dit-il, si je n’avais que quatre-vingts ans!
Sought after for his witty repartee, he behaved gallantly toward the ladies until his final moments. When he was 99, a pretty woman was amusing herself by flirting with him, as she would only have done with an inconsequential old man. “Ah,” he said to her, “would that I were only 80 years old!”
In a letter dated February 8, 1858 another venerable man was identified as the speaker of the remark. Helen Selina who was known as Lady Dufferin wrote a letter to Abraham Hayward, and she recalled the words of a prominent poet named Samuel Rogers who combined English and French: 4
The only “funny” thing I remember his saying, was, on one occasion when we were accidentally left alone in the dark, after some jesting remark on the danger of my reputation—“Ah! my dear, if sweet 78 could come again! Mais ces beaux jours sont passés.”
The comment was not always triggered by the sight of a lovely woman. In 1887 the novelist Sir Walter Besant employed an instance when a character reminisced about his former robust health: 5
What is seventy? A man is still green at seventy: he is in the full vigour of his manhood; there is nothing that I could not do at seventy, ay, and as well as the youngest of them all, save that my limbs were a trifle stiff, and I no longer cared to run and jump. But that stiffness sometimes falls on a man at six-and-thirty, wherefore I could not complain. Seventy! Ah! To be seventy again, with thirty years more to live!
In 1891 the “New York Tribune” published a short piece about Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who had been the Chief of the General Staff of the Prussian Army for many years: 6
Archibald Forbes gives “The London Graphic” this little story about Von Moltke: A deputation of ladies came to congratulate him on his ninetieth birthday. He received them very amiably, and talked to them for some time in his quiet, pleasant way, when, referring to all the good wishes that had been showered upon him, he said: “I am almost sorry, on noticing all this affection, that I am not a young man again.” “How old would you like to be, sir?” asked one of the ladies. “Well,” replied the nonagenarian, and smiled, “If I could only be eighty once more.”
In the 1700s Madame Helvétius (Anne-Catherine de Ligniville) was the host of a famous salon in Paris that was frequented by prominent figures such as Denis Diderot, Nicolas Chamfort, Benjamin Franklin, and Fontenelle. A book about the salon published in 1894 included a more risqué version of the anecdote with Fontenelle. Here was the pertinent passage in French and English: 7
Comme, en raison de son âge, Fontenelle avait ou prenait toutes les libertés, il entra, un jour, dans le cabinet de toilette de Mme Helvétius qui était dans un déshabillé presque complet. “Ah! Madame, dit-il en se retirant, si je n’avais que quatre-vingts ans!”
Given his advanced age, Fontenelle had or took nearly every liberty, and one day entered Mme. Helvetius’s dressing room to find her almost totally undressed. “Oh, Madam,” he said in withdrawing, “if only I were eighty again!”
In 1909 the periodical “Book News Monthly” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania attributed the comment to Fontenelle and to Von Moltke: 8
Old age is still comparative, and one man may be younger at fourscore than another at fifty. “Ah! Madame,” exclaimed Fontenelle, when conversing with a young and beautiful woman, “if I were but eighty again!” and Von Moltke made the same exclamation when, at eighty-seven, he was unable to mount his horse.
In 1930 an article in “Collier’s: The National Weekly” included a comment that fit within the family of sayings under examination: 9
. . . Miss Millie Bowers was the One Hundred Per Cent Charm Kid who could make a man of ninety wish he was seventy once again if only for a day.
In 1934 two syndicated columnists named Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen who were based in Washington D.C. wrote a short item about retired Supreme Court member Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. They stated that Holmes who was ninety-three would occasionally take walks with friends such as Benjamin N. Cardozo who was at that time a member of the Supreme Court. Holmes reportedly employed an instance of the saying: 10
The other day he was walking along Pennsylvania Avenue with Justice Cardozo. Past them strolled a young lady—an extremely beautiful young lady. Justice Holmes stopped, looked long and rapturously. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he sighed:
“What wouldn’t I give to be seventy again!”
In 1937 a book titled “The Nine Old Men” about the U.S. Supreme Court was published by the same two journalists, Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen. The authors presented a similar anecdote, but the two justices walking together were Holmes and Louis Brandeis: 11
It was on one of these occasions that Holmes, then ninety-two, paused to gaze in frank admiration at a beautiful young girl who passed them. He even turned to look at her as she continued down the street. Then, turning to Brandeis, he sighed: “Ah! What wouldn’t I give to be seventy again!”
In 1937 the popular periodical “Reader’s Digest” printed a short passage from “The Nine Old Men” which included the remark by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.; hence, the phrase and ascription achieved wider distribution. 12
In 1938 the theater critic James Agate released an installment of his diary series titled “Ego 3” which included the assertion that the French statesman Georges Clemenceau on his 8oth birthday employed the expression when he saw a lovely woman in the Champs-Elysées: 13 14
Oh, to be seventy again!
In 1955 a compilation edited by Clifton Fadiman called “The American Treasury: 1455-1955” printed an instance of the comment attributed to Holmes, but the target age of nostalgia was sixty: 15
Oh, to be sixty again!
Viewing a pretty girl at the age of eighty-seven.
Attributed to Holmes.
In conclusion, QI believes that the remark should be credited to Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. The version in the letter dated 1757 was probably the most accurate although the words were not directly from the pen of Fontenelle. There was some support for other attributions, but these later instances probably evolved from the expression ascribed to Fontenelle.
Image Notes: Portrait of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle by Louis Galloche via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Madame Helvétius by Louis-Michel Vanloo; portrait in the public domain. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Many thanks to S. M. Colowick for suggesting translations. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)
- 1813, Title: Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique: Adressée à Un Souverain d’Allemagne, depuis 1753 jusqu’en 1769, Part 1, Volume 2, Letter Date: 1er Février 1757 (February 1, 1757), Letter Location: Paris, Start Page 147, Quote Page 151 and 152, Publisher: Longchamps, F. Buisson, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1801, Title: Fontenelliana: ou Recueil des bons mots, responses ingénieuses, pensées fines et délicates de Fontenelle, Author: Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, Editor: Charles Yves Cousin d’Avallon, Quote Page 112, Publisher: Marchand, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1817, Title: Paris, Versailles et Les Provinces, Au Dix-Huitième Siècle: Anecdotes sur la vie privée de plusieurs Ministres, Évêques, Magistrats célèbres, hommes de lettres, Volume 3, Quote Page 50. Publisher: Chez Guyot frères, Libraires, Éditeurs, Lyons, France. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1886, A Selection from the Correspondence of Abraham Hayward, Q.C., from 1834 to 1884: With an Account of His Early Life, Volume 1 of 2, Main Author: Abraham Hayward, Editor: Henry E. Carlisle, Letter from Lady Dufferin (Helen Selina) to Mr. Hayward (Abraham Hayward), Location: Dufferin Lodge, Highgate, Letter Date: February 8, 1858, Letter Topic: Memories of poet Samuel Rogers, Start Page 288, Quote Page 289, Publisher: John Murray, Albemarle Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1887, The World Went Very Well Then by Sir Walter Besant, Quote Page 277, Chatto & Windus, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1891 May 8, New York Tribune, Personal, Quote Page 6, Column 5, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1894, Le Salon de Madame Helvétius: Cabanis et Les Idéologues, Author: Antoine Guillois, Quote Page 16, Publisher: Calmann Lévy, Éditeur, Ancienne Maison, Michel Lévy Frères, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1909 August, Book News Monthly, Volume 27, Number 12, Oliver Wendell Holmes: Some Personal Reminiscences by James Grant Wilson, Start Page 904, Quote Page 906,Published by John Wanamaker, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1930 January 25, Collier’s: The National Weekly, Say It With Blushes by Uncle Henry, Start Page 42, Quote Page 42, Column 2, Crowell-Collier Pub., Springfield, Ohio. (Unz) ↩
- 1934 December 25, Seattle Daily Times, The Washington Merry-Go-Round by Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1937 (Copyright 1936), The Nine Old Men by Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen, Quote Page 180, Published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1937 February, Reader’s Digest, Volume 30, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 78, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1989, The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations, Section: Old Age, Quote Page 400, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Old age, Quote Page 313 and 314, Cassell, London and Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1955, The American Treasury: 1455-1955, Edited by Clifton Fadiman, Assisted by Charles van Doren, Section of quotations ascribed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Start Page 777, Quote Page 783, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York.(Verified with scans) ↩