Dear Quote Investigator: According to Hollywood legend when the tyrannical chief of a powerful movie studio died many were surprised to see that his funeral was well attended. When the leader of a competing studio was asked for an explanation he said:
The turnout was large because so many people wanted to make sure he was dead.
Would you please explore this sardonic tale?
Quote Investigator: This questionable story was printed in the 1960 biographical work “Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer”. Mayer was a very successful movie producer who was a co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. He died in 1957, and the cutting remark above has been attributed to fellow mogul Samuel Goldwyn. The details for this citation are listed further below.
Interestingly, barbs of this type have been circulating for more than 125 years. For example, in 1889 and 1890 multiple newspapers recounted a story from the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California about a longstanding bitter quarrel between two people named Jones and Fogarty. Jones felt some empathy for Fogarty when he learned that his brother had died. So he made an effort to end the dissension by attending the funeral, but his gesture of reconciliation backfired. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1 2 3
He displayed becoming grief and sorrow, but he did not have a chance to speak to Mr. Fogarty. A few days after he met Mr. Fogarty and went up to him with outstretched hand and a sympathetic look on his face. To his surprise Mr. Fogarty drew himself up and glared at him:
“May I inquire, sir, what the devil you were doing at my brother’s funeral?”
The Christian feeling in Mr. Jones evaporated. He took in the outstretched hand, and said with considerable force: “I went to make sure he was dead.” The war is fiercer than ever.
The story above exhibited a comparable punchline and provided a thematic match; however, it did not refer to a large turnout at a funeral. A different thematic match appeared in multiple newspapers in 1934 when a serialized mystery called “The Kennel Murder Case” by S. S. Van Dine was published. A police officer questioned a suspect: 4 5
“If you think your uncle was such a wash-out and you were so glad to find he’d been croaked, why did you run over to him and kneel down, and pretend to be worried?”
Hilda Lake gave the Sergeant a withering, yet whimsical, look.
“My dear Mr. Policeman, I simply wanted to make sure he was dead.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1952 a prominent comedian released a self-titled collection of humor called “Joey Adams’ Joke Book”. It contained a quip about the funeral of an unsympathetic figure which strongly matched the saying under examination: 6
When he died, thousands showed up, not to mourn him but to make sure he was dead.
I saw Muscovites by the countless thousands shuffle through the cold March days and nights, in long lines that stretched for miles into the suburbs, to see the dead body of the grim dictator.
One Russian whispered to me: “They’ve come to make sure he’s really dead.”
In 1958 a newspaper in North Carolina printed a variant of the jest when reporting on the death of a state politician: 9
For W. Kerr Scott, farmer, commissioner, governor, United States senator, had come at last back to the beginning to be laid to rest in Hawfields cemetery in the presence of 7,000 peers.
It was an impressive funeral, just as the old Squire had predicted. Some came in sorrow, some out of curiosity and “a few just to make sure he was dead.” But they all knew that a distinctive North Carolina personality had passed on.
In 1960 Bosley Crowther authored a critical biography titled “Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer” which included the following supposed remark about Mayer: 10
And Samuel Goldwyn, a rugged individual who never loved him, remarked tersely at the end. “The reason so many people showed up at his funeral was because they wanted to make sure he was dead.”
The quip together with its ascription to Goldwyn was widely disseminated when the book was reviewed by the movie and TV critic of the Associated Press in 1960: 11
The book has one limitation. The author has as much distaste for Mayer as did Sam Goldwyn, who is quoted on Mayer’s last rites: “The reason so many people showed up at his funeral was because they wanted to make sure he was dead.”
In 1969 a book about Hollywood chiefs called “The Moguls” by Norman Zierold included a discussion of the remark attributed to Goldwyn, and the author asserted that it was probably apocryphal: 12
The two remained contentious until Mayer’s death in 1957, but it is doubtful that Goldwyn made the remark attributed to him by several authors: “The reason so many people showed up at his funeral was because they wanted to make sure he was dead.” In Hollywood one hears that sentiment attributed to other moguls at other funerals. It’s a good story, and the temptation to use it is almost irresistible. Goldwyn, however, denies making the remark. He did not go to the funeral, was in fact not invited, but his son who was with him on that day says he was deeply moved despite the fact he never liked Mayer.
The 1976 biography “Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth” by Arthur Marx took the opposite stance on the authenticity of the remark: 13
After that remark made the columns, Goldwyn denied ever having said such a cruel thing about his former rival. But as with a good many of his disavowed statements, he probably did say it, for the history of mutual hatred between the two producers was long and bitter, and neither of them made much of an effort to conceal their animosity for one another.
In conclusion, QI believes that key elements of the funeral anecdote were already present in the 1889 story. The joke evolved over the decades, and a concise instance of the popular modern version was in circulation by 1952. Clearly, Samuel Goldwyn did not originate the quip. Indeed, QI suspects that some comic simply assigned the line to Goldwyn, and the Mayer funeral tale setting was apocryphal.
Image Notes: Painting titled “Funeral in the Snow near the Old Tower” by Vincent van Gogh via wikiart.org and vangoghgallery.com. Publicity photo of Joey Adams as the host of the radio program Spend a Million via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to the two anonymous individuals whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1889 November 28, The Parsons Sun (The Parsons Weekly Sun), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2,Parsons, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1890 January 12, The Morning Reporter (Independence Daily Reporter), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Independence, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1890 May 20, Arkansas City Traveler (Arkansas City Daily Traveler), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Arkansas City, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1934 January 12, Valley Weekly (Valley Morning Star), ‘The Kennel Murder Case’ Thrilling Tale of a Man’s Death Twice by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Harlingen, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1934 August 31, The Alton Democrat, The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Alton, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1952, Joey Adams’ Joke Book by Joey Adams, Quote Page 213, Frederick Fell, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1953 November 22, The Anderson Herald, Ex-Moscow AP Writer Tells Thanks Meaning by Eddy Gilmore (Associated Press Staff Writer), Quote Page 30, Column 1, Anderson, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1953 November 23, Panama City News-Herald, Eddy Gilmore Writes What Thanksgiving Means to Him by Eddy Gilmore (Associated Press), Quote Page 12, Column 6 and 7, Panama City, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1958 April 19, Statesville Record And Landmark, Down In Iredell, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Statesville, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1960, Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer by Bosley Crowther, Quote Page 6, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1960 March 21, The Evening Sun, Book On Late Louis Mayer Off the Press by Bob Thomas (AP Movie-TV Writer), (Includes Book Review of Bosley Crowther’s “Hollywood Rajah”), Quote Page 14, Column 4, Hanover, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1969, The Moguls by Norman Zierold, Quote Page 151, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1976, Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth by Arthur Marx, Quote Page 24, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩