Sophie Tucker? Kathleen Norris? Mary Kay Ash? Mrs. Price Smith? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is an old-fashioned saying about the stages of a woman’s life. It begins with a young child who needs good parents and health. It continues with a young adult who needs good looks followed by a middle-aged person who needs personality. It culminates with an old person who needs cash.
This saying has been credited to the popular entertainer Sophie Tucker nicknamed “The last of the red hot mamas”. The statement has also been attributed to the best-selling novelist and journalist Kathleen Norris. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In October 1935 “The Atlanta Constitution” of Georgia reported on a dinner gathering of supporters of the Tallulah Falls school. The treasurer was attempting to raise funds. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
So the beloved treasurer, Mrs. Price Smith, who is as clever as she is efficient, made an appeal for more money, in this wise:
“From the time a baby girl is born,” she began, “till she is 14 years old, she needs good health. From then until she is 40, she needs good looks. From 40 to 60, she needs personality. And from then on,” continued Mrs. Smith, “she needs cash. Ladies, your treasurer has reached that age when she needs cash.”
Mrs. Price Smith may have created this saying, or she may have simply repeated a statement that was already in circulation. QI does not know which of these possibilities is true.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In March 1936 the “Aiken Standard and Review” of South Carolina published another version of the saying as an anonymous filler item. The child required parents instead of good health. The final segment began at 50 instead of 60, and the word “money” occurred instead of “cash”: 2
At the age of 14 a young girl needs her parents; between 14 and 40 she needs good looks; between 40 and 50 she needs personality and after 50 she needs money.
In July 1943 another version of the saying appeared as a filler item in the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest”. The words were ascribed to novelist Kathleen Norris, and the milestone years were changed to 18, 35, and 55: 3
From birth to age 18, a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35, she needs good looks. From 35 to 55, a woman needs personality. And from 55 on, the old lady needs cash! —Kathleen Norris
During the same month the item from the “Reader’s Digest” was reprinted in newspapers such as “The Bessemer Herald” of Michigan 4 and the “Oakland Tribune” of California. 5 The first paper provided no attribution while the second credited Kathleen Norris.
In 1953 a gossip columnist in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Pennsylvania credited Sophie Tucker with the saying based on the testimony of a friend of the singer: 6
Sophie Tucker had dinner at the Cambridge Club during a recent stopover here and told her old friend, Jack Lynch, that she’d at last worked out a system whereby a woman can enjoy a satisfactory life.
“From birth to age 18,” explained the perennial Red Hot Mama, “a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35, she needs good looks. From 35 to 55, she needs a good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash. I’m saving my money.”
The thirteenth edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” appeared in 1955. The reference work attributed the saying to Sophie Tucker and suggested that she said it when she was 69 years old. Tucker’s entry specified a birth year of 1884; thus, she said it circa 1953 which fits the citation immediately above. 7
The linkage to Norris was not lost. In 1955 “Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms” by Herbert V. Prochnow contained the following: 8
From birth to age 18, a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35, she needs good looks. From 35 to 55, a woman need personality. And from 55 on, the old lady needs cash. Kathleen Norris
In 1979 the beauty entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash was profiled on the television program “60 Minutes”, and she employed the saying with the milestone ages of 14, 40, and 60: 9
MARY KAY: To the age of 14, a woman needs good parents and good health. And then from 14 to 40, she needs good looks. From 40 to 60, she needs personality. And after 60, I’m here to tell you what you need is cash! (Laughter . . . applause)
In 1991 “Life 101: Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life in School — But Didn’t” attributed the saying to Tucker. 10
In conclusion, the saying was employed by Mrs. Price Smith in the earliest citation in 1935 although whether she coined the expression remains uncertain to QI. An attribution to Kathleen Norris occurred in 1943, and an attribution to Sophie Tucker occurred in 1953. These two dates are rather late, so it is unlikely that either crafted the saying. Perhaps future researchers will clarify the situation.
Image Notes: Fantasy image of woman with timepieces in the background from KELLEPICS at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to L whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. L mentioned the attributions to Sophie Tucker and Kathleen Norris. Thanks also to previous researchers Ralph Keyes and Fred R. Shapiro who found citations beginning in the 1940s and 1950s.)
- 1935 October 21, The Atlanta Constitution, ‘Gold on Silver’ Tallulah Dinner Reveals Wit and Brilliant Repartee by Sally Forth, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1936 March 17, Aiken Standard and Review, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Aiken, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1943 July, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 43, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 84, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1943 July 16, The Bessemer Herald, Pick & Axe, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Bessemer, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1943 July 24, Oakland Tribune, DOUGH-RE-MI, Quote Page 18, Column 7, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1953 August 11, The Philadelphia Inquirer, It’s Happening Here by James R. George, Quote Page 17, Column 5, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1955, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Thirteenth Edition, Centennial Edition, Entry: Sophie Tucker, Quote Page 929 and 930, Macmillan and Company, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1955, Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms by Herbert V. Prochnow, Topic: Woman, Quote Page 326, Harper & Brothers, New York . (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1980, 60 Minutes Verbatim: Who Said What To Whom: The Complete Text of 114 Stories, TV Broadcast Date: October 28, 1979, The Pink Panther: Jim Jackson, Producer, (Profile of Mary Kay Ash), Start page 88, Quote Page 91 and 92, Arno Press: CBS News, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1991, Life 101: Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life in School — But Didn’t by John-Roger and Peter McWilliams, Chapter: Money, Quote page 302, Prelude Press, los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans) ↩