I Want to Be What I Was When I Wanted To Be What I Now Am

Marlon Brando? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: We are unable to anticipate the full consequences of the changes we make to ourselves. The following wistful and convoluted expression reflects this unease:

I want to be who I was when I wanted to become who I am now.

While listening to the radio I heard this attributed to the famous actor Marlon Brando, but I cannot find any citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence linking this expression to Marlon Brando.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in an article published in the journal “Christianity Today” in July 1967 about the rebellious young generation. The words were printed as a slogan on a button, and no ascription was provided. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

When it comes to expressing their views on life, they say by button: “I Want to Be What I Was When I Wanted To Be What I Now Am,” or “Neuroses Are Red, Melancholy Is Blue, I’m Schizophrenic, What Are You?,” or “End Poverty, Give Me $10.” They further advise: “Reality Is Good Sometimes for Kicks But Don’t Let It Get You Down,” and “Even Paranoids Have Real Enemies.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The words appeared on walls as well as buttons. In 1970 the author Charles R. McCabe encountered the statement in the bohemian New York enclave Greenwich Village. The phrasing was slightly different: 2

I remember seeing a graffito in the men’s room of a New York saloon-restaurant down in Greenwich Village. What it said was in its way memorable:
“I want to be what I was when I wanted to be what I am now.”

Collectors Robert Reisner and Lorraine Wechsler saw the expression at a different location in New York and placed it into their 1974 reference “Encyclopedia of Graffiti”: 3

I want to be what I was when I wanted to be what I am now.
(Ladies’ room, Ninth Circle Restaurant, New York City)

By 1980 the writing on the wall had moved across an ocean to another city as recorded in “The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations”: 4

I want to be what I was when I wanted to be what I am now.
Graffito, London, 1980

The version above was included in the 1992 collection “And I Quote: The Definitive Collection of Quotes, Sayings, and Jokes for the Contemporary Speechmaker” compiled by Ashton Applewhite et al. 5

The website Someecards.com has an ecard that presents a variant using “who” instead of “what”. No date is listed on the website. The statement in the original question at the top of this article also used “who”: 6

I want to be who I was when I wanted to be who I am now

In conclusion, the creator of this saying is anonymous. It appeared as a button slogan by 1967 and as a graffito in New York by 1970. Future researchers may find citations that provide clues to the creator’s identity.

(Great thanks to Nicolas Anderson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1967 July 21, Christianity Today, Dear Slogan-Lovers by Etychus III, Page 20, Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1970, The Fearless Spectator: Being a Collection of Original Observations and Profound Pronouncements by Charles R. McCabe, Chapter: Like It Was, Quote Page 154, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1980 (Copyright 1974), Encyclopedia of Graffiti, Collected by Robert Reisner and Lorraine Wechsler, Topic: Psychology, Quote Page 293 (Reprint of 1974 edition from Macmillan, New York), Galahad Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1986, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Fred Metcalf, Topic: Ambition, Quote Page 13, Viking Penguin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1992, And I Quote: The Definitive Collection of Quotes, Sayings, and Jokes for the Contemporary Speechmaker by Ashton Applewhite, William R. Evans III, and Andrew Frothingham, Topic: Identity Quote Page 156, A Thomas Dunne Book: St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. Website: Someecards, Article title: Reminders Memes, Creator: jules1904, Date on website: No date specified, Website description: “Someecards launched in 2006 as a uniquely voiced ecard site”. (Accessed someecards.com on May 1, 2018) link