Scratch an Actor and You’ll Find an Actress

Dorothy Parker? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker was well known for her sometimes controversial witticisms. Apparently, one of her remarks was based on clichés about the vanity, mannerisms, and/or sexuality of actors. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in 1940: 1

Don’t use “Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actress!” It’s an oldie of Dorothy Parker’s.

Winchell stated that the remark was already old, and it probably would have been difficult to publish in a newspaper in the 1920s when Parker was delivering lines at the Algonquin Roundtable.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Many variants in the “scratch an actor” family of sayings are presented in a separate article located here. One of the first seen by QI appeared in “The Talk of the Town” section of “The New Yorker” magazine in 1928. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

While on this stock subject of actors we will put down the latest—at the moment of writing—epigram. It was coined by one of our younger playwrights near the conclusion of the rehearsal period of his latest show and was uttered sincerely: “Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actor.”

One interpretation of this quip suggests that top actors submerge themselves in roles so thoroughly that they do not maintain separate identities.

The Dorothy Parker attribution for the quotation under analysis was circulating by 1940 as mentioned previously.

In 1973 “The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes” by Leslie Halliwell included the saying: 3

Dorothy Parker:
Scratch an actor — and you’ll find an actress.

In 1988 Marion Meade’s biography “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?” ascribed the comment to Parker. 4

“The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations” and other references have also attributed the remark to Parker: 5

Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actress.
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) US writer. Attrib.

In conclusion, QI believes that Dorothy Parker probably did make this remark. Social mores have changed since the 1920s and 1940s.

(Thanks to the anonymous person who wanted to know about this quotation and other sayings within the “scratch an actor” family. QI will create a separate article about this general topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1940 September 6, Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1928 January 14, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town: Between Performances, Start Page 11, Quote Page 12, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (New Yorker digital scans; accessed archives.newyorker.com on May 15, 2018)
  3. 1974, The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes by Leslie Halliwell, Section: Actors and Acting, Quote Page 4, (Reprint of 1973 edition Granada Publishing, London), Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1988, Dorothy Parker: A Biography: What Fresh Hell Is This? by Marion Meade, Chapter 14: Bad Fights 1937-1941, Quote Page 300, Villard Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1989, The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations, Section: Actors, Quote Page 4, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)