It’s Nice To Be Important, But More Important To Be Nice

Roger Federer? John Templeton? Walter Winchell? Kay Dangerfield? James H. Lane? Tony Curtis? Bob Olin? Sidney Blackmer? Joe Franklin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Antimetabole is a clever literary technique in which a phrase is repeated, but key words are reversed. For example:

It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.

This line has been attributed to the tennis superstar Roger Federer and the renowned investor and philanthropist John Templeton. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI conjectures that this statement evolved from an adage composed by the powerful widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell. Yet, many years before Winchell’s brainstorm an interesting precursor appeared in the “Trenton Times” of Trenton, New Jersey in 1905. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1905 February 21, Trenton Times, For the Window Garden, Quote Page 6, Column 2 and 3, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

“If it is important to be nice, it is nearly as important to look nice. You may be full of kindness and desire to make others happy, but if you cannot cross a room without knocking down a chair or two, or answer a question without turning crimson and glaring at the floor, people will never really believe in your good intentions.”

The statement above contained two very similar repeated phrases, but the key words were not reordered; hence, antimetabole was not employed. In addition, the overall meaning differed substantially from the expression under examination.

In April 1937 Walter Winchell concluded his column with a remark he had sent via telegram. Winchell used the slang word “swell” which corresponded to “nice” in that time period:[ref] 1937 April 13, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, Walter Winchell On Broadway (Syndicated), Quote Page 11, Column 2, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

In reply to the wire of Jeff L. Kammen, of Chicago: The last line was: “Your New York Correspondent, who wishes to remind celebrities that it is swell to be important—but more important to be swell!”

QI hypothesizes that someone during the following decade exchanged “swell” and “nice” to produce the popular modern saying from Winchell’s adage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In July 1937 Winchell’s remark continued to circulate. The journalist Kay Dangerfield stated that she had interviewed a large number of gracious women for her column in a Pennsylvanian newspaper:[ref] 1937 July 31, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, Palette: Vignettes of the Valley by Kay Dangerfield, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Each woman has been an entirely different type and all have been perfectly charming. A modern definition of what I mean has been stated as “It is swell to be important but more important to be swell.”

In 1939 the “Harrisburg Telegraph” of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania linked the saying to a local political figure:[ref] 1939 December 21, Harrisburg Telegraph, The Campaign Front: Four (Or More) in Running For Secretary to Mayor by Paul Walker, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

County Commissioner-elect James H. Lane is credited by his friends with coining this phrase: “It’s swell to be important but it’s more important to be swell.”

In 1948 a Texas newspaper printed the earliest instance of the modern saying located by QI. An acknowledgment to a New England periodical accompanied the words:[ref] 1948 May 26, Lubbock Morning Avalanche, The Woman’s Angle by Margaret Turner, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Lubbock, Texas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

According to the Rhode Island Parent-Teacher magazine, “it’s very nice to be important—but it’s more important to be nice.”

In 1950 a paper in North Carolina reprinted a piece from Georgia newspaper that included an instance:[ref] 1950 July 12, The Robesonian, Other Papers Say: It’s Nice to be Important – But (Pelham. Ga., Journal), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Lumberton, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Yes, it’s nice to be important but it’s far more important to be nice. The important man who doesn’t know that will not remain important very long.

In 1953 Winchell noticed that the saying with the word “nice” was being attributed to two well-known individuals, and he pointed to his earlier expression using “swell”:[ref] 1953 July 19, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Walter Winchell (Syndicated), Quote Page 10, Column 2, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Talk about copycatting, Tony Curtis and Bob Olin were credited this week with: “It is nice to be important but it is more important to be nice.” . . . Your long-ago “It is swell to be important but it is much more important to be swell” signoff!

In 1954 influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper mentioned the saying:[ref] 1954 January 22, Boston Traveler, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: CinemaScope Oscar Urged by Hedda Hopper, Quote Page 13, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Sidney Blackmer, noticing some actors snubbing fans, writes: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

In 1983 the adage was credited to Joe Franklin, the host of a remarkably long-lived television talk show.[ref] 1983 March 7, The Call-Leader, Over 50 by Bernard J. Schuck, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Elwood, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

In 1994 investor John Templeton published “Discovering the Laws of Life”, and he selected the adage as one of the Laws of Life:[ref] 1995 (1994 Copyright), Discovering the Laws of Life by John Marks Templeton, Section: Week Thirty-Nine, Quote Page 288, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. When the pattern of our life is woven from this philosophy, we set in motion a circular effect that creates for us all we could ever hope for. What we do for others certainly comes back to us.

In 2007 “The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection” by Rene Stauffer stated the following about the tennis phenom:[ref] 2007, The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection by Rene Stauffer, Chapter: The Person: Nice but Firm, Quote Page 183, New Chapter Press, Washington, D.C. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

Roger Federer was still a teenager and just emerging as an up-and-coming player when I first heard him utter the sentence that would become his life’s motto—“It’s nice to be important—but it’s more important to be nice.” I once ran across these words of wisdom in a book by philanthropist Robert Dedman, an American, who started his career as a dishwasher and succeeded in becoming a successful millionaire building resorts and private clubs.

In conclusion, Walter Winchell crafted an expression using “swell” in 1937. By 1948 a version using “nice” was in circulation. QI believes that the 1937 instance evolved to yield the 1948 instance. John Templeton and others have used the “nice” expression.

(Great thanks to Bobbie Kerns whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research on this topic. Popik located the important citations in 1950 and 1953.)

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