My Idea of a Gentleman Is He Who Can Play a Cornet and Won’t

Oscar Wilde? Mark Twain? Frank Fiest? Will Rogers? Walter Armstrong? Herman Lindauer? William M. Lewis? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: What do the following musical instruments have in common: cornet, ukulele, saxophone, bagpipes, accordion, and banjo? Each of these instruments has a distinctive sound that is unpleasant to some listeners providing inspiration for a family of comical insults. Here are three typical barbs:

(1) A true gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, and doesn’t.

(2) A considerate person is one who could play a saxophone but doesn’t wish to.

(3) A man who can play the accordion but won’t, is a good neighbor.

The well-known wits Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have received credit for this kind of quip, but I have been unable to find any supporting citations. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in January 1917 within the pages of “The Atchison Weekly Globe” of Atchison, Kansas. A mellow brass instrument was disparaged by a joke ascribed to a local man named Frank Fiest. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:1

Frank Fiest: “My idea of a gentleman is he who can play a cornet and won’t.” Well said, Mr. Fiest.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In February 1917 the same joke appeared in the “Portsmouth Daily Times” of Ohio under the title “Definition of the True Gentleman”, and Fiest received credit:2

Lord Chesterfield had his own crude ideas about what a gentleman should be, but Frank Fiest of Atchison, says a gentleman is a man who can play a cornet but won’t.—Kansas City Star.

Five days later, an instance of the joke belittling the “ukelele” appeared in an Indiana newspaper. The instrument name is more commonly spelled as “ukulele”. The paper also omitted the apostrophe in “won’t”:3

OUR idea of a gentleman is a man who can play a ukelele
AND wont.

A week later “The Syracuse Herald” of New York printed the cornet version of the jest while acknowledging Frank Fiest of Atchison.4

In 1922 a letter writer in “The News-Sentinel” of Fort Wayne, Indiana reported an instance critical of the saxophone. The tale involved the prominent humorist Will Rogers, but the letter writer indicated that Rogers did not tell the joke; instead, the joke was told to Rogers by his companions:5

Then he appeared in person and was asked if he knew the definition of gentleman. He said no so his friends told him. “A gentleman is a man who plays a saxophone but won’t”

In 1923 a newspaper in Bellingham, Washington printed an instance with a “considerate person” instead of a “gentleman”:6

Walter Armstrong’s idea of a kind, considerate person is one who could play a saxophone but doesn’t wish to.

Also in 1923 a similar version of the joke was credited to another person in the pages of a Deming, New Mexico newspaper:7

Herman Lindauer’s idea of a kind, considerate person is one who could play a saxophone but doesn’t wish to.

In 1924 the cornet was depicted negatively in a Buffalo, New York newspaper:8

Dr. William M. Lewis, president of George Washington University, who introduced the chief justice, declared that one of his students had furnished him with the definition of a gentleman. A gentleman, according to this, is a man who knows how to play the cornet and doesn’t.

In 1928 a Biloxi, Mississippi published a version with a “good neighbor” instead of a “gentleman”:9

A man who can play the saxophone but won’t, is a good neighbor.

In 1933 a periodical connected to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville suggested that individuals who were mastering the cornet should practice in a remote location:10

Keeping in mind Dr. Hoxton’s definition of gentleman as “a man who can play the cornet and doesn’t” we advise the depths of Poe’s Ragged Mountains as an excellent spot for all those who have not outgrown the instrument to practise it . . .

In 1965 the bagpipes were targeted in a Portland, Oregon paper:11

Today’s Chuckle
A true gentleman is one who can play the bagpipes—and doesn’t.

In 1965 “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut published the confession of a bagpiper:12

“I put my bagpipes in the closet where they belong,” he said, “out of sympathy for my neighbors.”

A newspaper quotation reinforced MacIntosh’s feeling that he had done the right thing. It said: “A gentleman is a fellow who knows how to play the bagpipes, but doesn’t.”

In 1972 the book “After the Ball” by Ian Whitcomb printed an instance attacking yet another instrument:13

One pro wit defined a gentleman as one who ‘knows how to play an accordion but doesn’t’.

Oscar Wilde who died in 1900 was implausibly connected to a version of the joke in 1991 within the pages of “The Boston Globe” of Massachusetts:14

As Oscar Wilde said, “An Irish gentleman is someone who can play the bagpipes but won’t.” That would seem to disqualify any Scottish immigrant.

Mark Twain who died in 1910 was implausibly linked to an instance of the joke by 1993:15

“A gentleman,” Mark Twain allegedly said, “is someone who knows how to play the saxophone but doesn’t.” By that criterion, as everybody knows by now, Bill Clinton is no gentleman. But he is president of the United States.

In 1999 a newspaper in Sydney, Australia attacked the banjo:16

A great gentleman, it has been said, is one who knows how to play the banjo but does not.

In 2011 “The Los Angeles Times” credited Mark Twain with the banjo version of the joke:17

To quote Mark Twain, “A gentleman is a man who knows how to play the banjo and doesn’t.” That said, wild and crazy guy Steve Martin (below) shares his love for the much-maligned musical instrument in the special “Give Me the Banjo.”

In conclusion, Frank Fiest is currently the top candidate for creator of this family of jokes, and the cornet was the first target. Variants proliferated during the ensuing decades. The ascriptions to Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers are unsupported. This article presents a snapshot of contemporary knowledge and ascriptions may shift over time.

Image Notes: Illustration of a cornet from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Kate Styrsky, Bill Mullins, and Marian T. Wirth whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Styrsky discussed the topic back in April 2011 on the Freakonomics website. Mullins was inspired to ask QI when he encountered a variant joke about card tricks that was mentioned in a forum discussing magic. Wirth tweeted about the topic and mentioned the ukulele variant. Special thanks to Barry Popik who also explored this topic and found valuable citations.)

[1] 1917 January 25, The Atchison Weekly Globe, Half Minute Interviews, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Atchison, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)

[2] 1917 February 3, Portsmouth Daily Times, Doc Koko’s Kolumn, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Portsmouth, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)

[3] 1917 February 8, The Times, The Passing Show, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Newspaper Location: Munster, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

[4] 1917 February 15, The Syracuse Herald, Defining a True Gentleman, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)

[5] 1922 June 20, The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne News Sentinel), Private Opinions Publicly Expressed, (Letters to the Editor), Politeness: Letter from S.A.W., Quote Page 4, Column 3, Fort Wayne, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)

[6] 1923 March 26, Bellingham Herald, The Laugh Line, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Bellingham, Washington. (GenealogyBank)

[7] 1923 March 30, Deming Headlight, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 7, Column 2, Deming, New Mexico. (NewspaperArchive)

[8] 1924 March 4, Buffalo Evening News, Odds and Ends at the Nation’s Capital by Alfred H. Kirchhofer, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton)

[9] 1928 August 23, Daily Herald, Biloxi News Paragraphs: Things Seen in Biloxi, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Biloxi, Mississippi. (GenealogyBank)

[10] 1933 March 3, College Topics [Cavalier Daily], Communication by Dewitt Eldridge, Quote Page 2, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. (Google News archive)

[11] 1965 September 2, Oregonian, Today’s Chuckle (Upper-left corner of front page), Quote Page 1, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)

[12] 1965 November 29, Hartford Courant, Piper Bared As Tuba Muter by David Holmberg, Quote Page 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)

[13] 1972, After the Ball by Ian Whitcomb, Quote Page 176, Published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London. (Verified on paper)

[14] 1991 March 16, The Boston Globe, Getting your Irish up over St. Patrick by Chris Reidy (Globe Staff), (Continuation title) A nominee to replace St. Patrick, Start Page 9, Quote Page 12, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)

[15] 1993 March 24, The Tampa Tribune, Section: BayLife, Sometimes you gotta toot your own horn by Roderick Nordell (Christian Science Monitor), Quote Page 1, Column 4, Tampa, Florida. (Newspapers_com)

[16] 1999 November 12, The Sydney Morning Herald, Music: Pick of the Week, Quote Page 23, Column 2, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com)

[17] 2011 October 30, The Los Angeles Times, TV This Week: Friday, Quote Page D17, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)