Old Age Sure Ain’t for Sissies

Bette Davis? Ruth S. Hain? Malcolm Forbes? John S. Whelan? Paul Newman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One grows in wisdom as the decades accumulate, but the challenges to health and intellect also increase. Here are four versions of a spirited adage:

  • Old age is no place for sissies.
  • Getting old is not for sissies.
  • Aging is not for wimps.
  • Gettin’ old ain’t for wimps.

In this context, the words sissy and wimp refer to a weak or cowardly person. This adage has been credited to Academy Award winning actress Bette Davis. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the “Reader’s Digest” magazine of April 1968 within a section called “Life in These United States” which printed vignettes contributed by readers. A piece from Ruth S. Hain of Castro Valley, California described a group of elderly friends who gathered together and shared tales of arthritic joints and hardening arteries. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

. . . one old gentleman detailed his stomach distress—all with considerable general comment. “Well, it just proves one thing, Hilda,” one woman finally said to her neighbor. “Old age sure ain’t for sissies.”

The guidelines published in “Reader’s Digest” state that vignettes submitted to the periodical “must be true, unpublished stories from your own experience”. 2 QI conjectures that the punchline was crafted by the anonymous discussion participant above and popularized by Hain although it remains possible that Hain was recycling a pre-existing quip.

There is good evidence that Bette Davis owned a pillow with the slogan: Old Age Ain’t No Place for Sissies. Yet, the supporting citations appeared years after the saying was already in circulation. See further below for details.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In subsequent months, the “Reader’s Digest” piece appeared in several newspapers with acknowledgement. For example, it was reprinted in the “Orlando Sentinel” of Florida in September 1968. 3 Also, it appeared in the “Springfield Leader and Press” of Missouri in February 1969 4 and the “Sioux Falls Argus-Leader” of South Dakota in June 1969. 5

In September 1969 “The Ada Weekly News” of Oklahoma printed a compressed single-sentence version of the joke with a slightly different punchline: 6

What with lumbago, arthritis and shooting pains, old age ain’t for sissies.

In 1978 the “Daily News” of New York printed on the cover of the “Sunday News Magazine” section a picture of woman next to a pillow displaying the following words: 7

OLD AGE AIN’T NO PLACE FOR SISSIES

The “Daily News” magazine section included an article titled “The Moxie Generation” which mentioned the pillow: 8

They’re a determined, spunky lot, and as Janet Jamar, their friend at City Hall, said, “groovy.” There’s a pink pillow with red lettering at the Woman’s Exchange that sums matters up nicely, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”

Also, in 1978 entrepreneur Malcolm S. Forbes published “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” which included the following saying: 9

OLD AGE
is not for sissies.

In 1983 a columnist in “San Francisco Examiner” of California remarked on postcard that depicted Bette Davis together with a pillow: 10

A reader has sent me a picture postcard of Bette Davis holding sampler cushion with “Old age ain’t no place for sissies” stitched across it.

Davis ain’t no sissie. The Academy Award-winning actress, who was born in 1908, recently told a newspaper reporter she plans to continue working. “What else would I do?”

In 1986 “The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” included the adage: 11

Old age is not for sissies.
Variously ascribed

In 1989 a newspaper in Sydney, Australia printed a variant using the word “wimps”: 12

Old age is no place for wimps.

In 1991 a letter printed in a St. Petersburg, Florida newspaper included another variant: 13

Maybe I should go in the recycling business. I guess getting old is not for wimps or sissies.
John S. Whelan
Hudson

In 2001 “Random House Webster’s Quotationary” attributed the saying to Bette Davis based on the testimony of Paul Newman: 14

Getting old ain’t for sissies.
BETTE DAVIS (1908-1989). Quoted by Paul Newman, James Lipton television interview, Inside the Actors Studio, BVO, 31 May 1995

In 2006 Charlotte Chandler published the biography “The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis”. The book presented the testimony of Larry Cohen who was the writer and director of Davis’s final movie released in 1989. Cohen visited Davis at her house to discuss the script: 15

“She had the famous cushion on the sofa, ‘Old Age Ain’t No Place for Sissies.’ I’ll never forget that.

“She’d had plenty of awards, but nothing displayed in the apartment. She had nothing on the walls of the apartment that would indicate she was a movie star.

The adage is memorable enough that it is included in the valuable 2012 reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”. 16

On conclusion, the adage was popularized by Ruth S. Hain starting in 1968 via an anecdote published in the “Reader’s Digest”. The creator was anonymous. Bette Davis owned a pillow displaying the adage which also aided its propagation.

Image Notes: Illustration of a clock from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

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

Notes:

  1. 1968 April, Reader’s Digest, Volume 92, Life in These United States, Start Page 81, Quote Page 82, Column 2, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with microfilm)
  2. 1968 April, Reader’s Digest, Volume 92, Have You An Amusing Anecdote—An Unusual Story?, Quote Page 12, Column 1, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with microfilm)
  3. 1968 September 26, Orlando Sentinel, Sentinel Laughs (Acknowledgement to Reader’s Digest), Quote Page 6F, Column 4, Orlando, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1969 February 6, Springfield Leader and Press, Off Beat (Acknowledgement to Reader’s Digest), Quote Page 33, Column 1, Springfield, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1969 June 17, Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, Voice of the People: Not for Weak (Acknowledgement to Reader’s Digest), Quote Page 4, Column 7, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1969 September 11, The Ada Weekly News, Strayed From the Herd by Connie Nelson, Quote Page 4, Column 6,Ada, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1978 December 3, Daily News, Section: Sunday News Magazine, (Cover image shows pillow with lettering: Old Age Ain’t No Place For Sissies), Quote Page 1, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1978 December 3, Daily News, Section: Sunday News Magazine, The Moxie Generation, Start Page 6, Quote Page 48, Column 4, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1978, The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm by Malcolm S. Forbes, Chapter Passing Parade, Topic: Old Age, Quote Page 86, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1983 March 30, San Francisco Examiner, Seniorities: Ain’t no place for sissies by David Steinberg, Quote Page AA2, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1986, The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 216, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1989 February 15, The Sydney Morning Herald, Department: Letters to the editor, Letter title: Maintaining the aged rage, Letter from: K. M. Rogers, Vista Street, Pymble, Letter date: February 9, Quote Page 14, Column 3, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1991 December 13, St. Petersburg Times, Section: Pasco Times, Department: Letters to the Editor, Letter title: County’s recycling plan is really difficult to swallow, Letter author: John S. Whelan of Hudson, Quote Page 2, Column 2, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Topic: Age, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified with hardcopy)
  15. 2006, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, a Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler, Chapter 11: “Old Age Ain’t No Place for Sissies”, Quote Page 277 and 278, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on hardcopy)
  16. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with hardcopy)