Fanny Brice? Beatrice Kaufman? Joe E. Lewis? Sophie Tucker? Johnny Hyde? Jack Herbert? Harold Gray? Bernice Fitz-Gibbon? Bob Mankoff?
Dear Quote Investigator: A newly wealthy person sometimes feels sentimental about an earlier period of poverty. Yet, one well-heeled individual unapologetically proclaimed:
I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. And, believe me, rich is better.
These words have been ascribed to entertainer Fanny Brice, singer Sophie Tucker, comedian Joe E. Lewis, writer Beatrice Kaufman, and others. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in May 1937 in the popular syndicated gossip column of Leonard Lyons who credited the writer Beatrice Kaufman. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
At the Tavern Mrs. George S. Kaufman urges a noted theatrical figure to accept the movie offers being tendered him. “Listen, and take my advice,” she urges. “Don’t overlook the money part of it. I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Rich is better!”
The above citation was listed in the important reference works “The Yale Book of Quotations” 2 and “The Quote Verifier”. 3 Kaufmann is the leading candidate for creator of this remark although in subsequent years it was employed by many others. Even columnist Lyons credited multiple people.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
An example of romanticized poverty appeared in “Hirell: A Novel” by John Saunders in 1869: 4
I have been rich, and I have been poor, and I have come to believe that in poverty alone can a man rule his soul and his fortunes, with something of that divine order by which the mighty possessions of God are ruled.
In April 1937 the widely distributed comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray depicted a pointed conversation between Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks and Annie: 5
Oliver Warbucks: STILL, I’VE BEEN RICH AND POOR, AND A POOR MAN SURE HAS A LOT LESS TO WORRY ABOUT-
Annie: YEAH- AND A LOT LESS TO EAT, SOME TIMES- I’D RATHER WORRY ‘BOUT A FEW MILLIONS I HAD THAN ‘BOUT HOW TO GET TWO BITS-
In May 1937 Lyons reported the comments of Beatrice Kaufman as noted previously:
“Listen, and take my advice,” she urges. “Don’t overlook the money part of it. I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Rich is better!”
In 1939 Leonard Lyons featured the saying again in his column, but he credited a showbiz agent named Johnny Hyde: 6
Paul Draper, one of America’s foremost dancers, still refuses to accept any screen offers untill every artistic demand of his is met . . . Johnny Hyde, the agent, suggested that he sign the movie contract offered him. “Take my advice and don’t sneer at the financial angle,” Hyde told him. “I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich. Rich is better.”
In 1945 an article in the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” of Missouri described magician Jack Herbert who delivered humorous lines during his performance: 7
He conducts his ad libbing while doing card tricks. A sample Friday was as follows: Passenger to bus driver: “Do you atop at the Jefferson, driver?” Bus driver: “H—–, no, not on my salary.”
Here’s another sample: “I’ve been rich, I’ve been poor. I’ll tell you something. Rich is better.”
In 1946 a columnist reported that prominent comedian Joe E. Lewis employed the line during his act at The Copacabana nightclub in New York City: 8
As for Lewis, well, he’s forever Lewis and that satisfies everyone for Lewis is always hilarious. He kidded about his recent marriage, his horses that never came in and confided, “I’ve been rich. I’ve been poor. I’ll tell you something—it’s a lot nicer being rich.”
In February 1953 Leonard Lyons reported that popular radio personality Fanny Brice spoke the line to him personally: 9
Her vaudeville salary then was $10,000 a week, and as “Baby Snooks,” in radio, she was getting $5000 a week. “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” she told me one night in counseling me about an offer I’d had. “Believe me, rich is better.”
In November 1953 Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, advertising director of Gimbel’s department store, delivered a speech containing the remark with an attribution to singer Sophie Tucker: 10
She urged colleges to stop sending graduates into “fusty, dusty publishing houses” and “musty museums” in the belief that the littler a job paid “the more respectable it must be.”
“There’s nothing immoral about getting into the big money,” said Miss Fitz-Gibbon. She quoted singer Sophie Tucker as saying: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. And, believe me, rich is best”
In 2006 “The New Yorker” published a cartoon by Bob Mankoff showing two men conversing in the back seat of a car with a caption cleverly referencing the saying under examination: 11
“I’ve been rich and I’ve been super-rich. Super-rich is better.”
In conclusion, currently the earliest evidence points to Beatrice Kaufman as coiner of this saying. It has been popular with show business stars, agents, advisors, and columnists.
(Thanks to Fred R. Shapiro, Ralph Keyes, and Barry Popik for their research on this topic.)
- 1937 May 12, The Washington Post, The Post’s New Yorker by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 13,Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Beatrice Kaufman, Quote Page 415, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 179, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1869, Hirell: A Novel by John Saunders, Volume 1 of 2, Quote Page 254 and 255, Alphons Dürr, Leipzig, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1937 April 2, Richmond Times Dispatch, Comic: Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray, Quote Page 27, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1939 August 13, The Washington Post, Broadway Chaff by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page L3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1945 March 18, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Section: The Everyday Magazine, Jack Herbert, Ad Lib Artist, At Jefferson, Quote Page 7H, Column 3, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1946 October 28, The Waco News-Tribune, New York by L. L. Stevenson, Quote Page 4, Column 8, Waco, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1953 February 23, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 19, Column 7, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1953 November 6, Dixon Evening Telegraph, Bigger Than All of Us! (Associated Press), Quote Page 1, Column 4, Dixon, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2006 December 4, The New Yorker, Caption of cartoon showing two men conversing in the back seat of a car; Cartoon signed by Mankoff, Quote Page 38, Condé Nast, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans) ↩