Mark Twain? Groucho Marx? Wilson Mizner? Sydney J. Harris? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A funny man once said that he was embarrassed to discover that his behavior had always been scandalous; he had been born in bed with a lady. This line has been connected to Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, and Wilson Mizner. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI occurred in the 1930 book “Beds” by Groucho Marx. One section contained letters sent by Groucho in response to questions. The ellipsis in the following appeared in the original text: 1
It is Wilson Mizner, and not I, who recalls his embarrassment when he first came into the world, and found a woman in bed with him. . . . I wasn’t embarrassed.
Thus, Groucho credited the playwright, rogue, and wit Wilson Mizner. This citation is listed in the valuable reference “The Yale Book of Quotations” edited by Fred R. Shapiro. 2
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1949 “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” edited by Evan Esar printed an instance credited to Wilson Mizner. The phrasing matched the common modern version: 3
To my embarrassment I was born in bed with a lady.
In 1955 the line above appeared in the “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes” edited by Jacob M. Braude. Mizner received credit. 4
In 1957 the syndicated political columnist Sydney J. Harris molded the quip into the form of a definition: 5
A censor is a man who has never got over the initial embarrassment of having been born in bed with a lady.
In conclusion, Wilson Mizner should receive credit for this joke. Groucho Marx helped to popularize it although the phrasing he presented in 1930 is not self-contained. The 1949 phrasing is superior, but it appeared after Wilson Mizner’s death in 1933.
Image Notes: Picture of a bed from keresi72 at Pixabay. Image has been cropped.
- 1976 (Copyright 1930 on original edition), Beds by Groucho Marx, Quote Page 70 and 71, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Wilson Mizner, Quote Page 526, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Wilson Mizner, Quote Page 146, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) ↩
- 1955, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes by Jacob M. Braude, Topic: Embarrassment, Quote Page 135, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper in third Printing of May 1956) ↩
- 1957 February 14, The Waterloo Daily Courier, Strictly Personal: Harris Offers Slightly Cynical Definitions by Sydney J. Harris, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Waterloo, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩