Say Anything You Like About Me, But Spell My Name Right

George M. Cohan? P. T. Barnum? Mae West? Elinor Glyn? Babe Ruth? Damon Runyon? James J. Johnston? Charley Murphy? Max Schmeling? Walter Winchell? Oscar Wilde? Samuel Johnson? Ed Sullivan?

Dear Quote Investigator: A person once planned to write an article or book containing derogatory material about a celebrity. The unruffled response of the celebrity to this prospect was surprising. Here are three versions:

  1. I don’t care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right.
  2. I don’t care how much you pan me, but please spell the name correctly.
  3. Boost me or knock me; it doesn’t mean a thing. Just make sure you spell my name right.

This notion has been credited to Broadway musical icon George M. Cohan, showman P. T. Barnum, actress Mae West, baseball slugger Babe Ruth, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in several U.S. newspapers in 1888. The line was delivered by P. T. Barnum who was a founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus. He also operated a museum filled with curiosities and hoaxes. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

P. T. Barnum was once interviewed by a woman who told him that she was writing a book, and that it would contain something disagreeable about him. “No matter, madam,” was his reply, “say anything you like about me, but spell my name right — P. T. B-a-r-n-u-m, P. T. Barnum — and I’ll be pleased anyway.” The blackmailer retired in confusion.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1750 the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson penned a thematically related statement about the desirability of public recognition even if it is negative: 2

There is nothing more dreadful to an author than neglect; compared with which, reproach, hatred, and opposition, are names of happiness.

Trying to convince observers to spell names correctly has a long history. In 1863 “Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature” published an account from the U.S. Civil War. A witness encountered a talkative soldier who displayed a ball as big as a thumb. The man stated that the projectile had “jest fell out o’ my leg”. He wanted to be sure that the witness would spell his name properly in any account penned for the general public: 3

As I cantered away he shouted after me: ‘Be sure you spell my name right! It’s Smith with e — S-m-i-t-h-e.’

Another example from the military domain appeared in the 1866 book “Personal Recollections of Distinguished Generals”. James B. Steedman experienced a presentiment of death and before riding into battle he asked a friend for a “great favor”: 4

“See that my name is spelled right in the newspapers. The printers always spell it Stead.”

In 1888 a lengthy version of the P. T. Barnum anecdote appeared in a Vermont newspaper under the title “Barnum and the Blackmailer”: 5

On one occasion when Barnum’s Museum was located at the corner of Ann street and Broadway, a lady “from the country” entered the museum and inquired for Mr. Barnum. After an effort she found him in his little office, and here is what took place: “Mr. Barnum, I’ve been looking all around for you, and I’m glad to see you.”

“I am delighted you have found me,” said Barnum, “what can I do for you–have you seen the museum?” “No, sir; I want to tell you I am writing a book.” “Madame, you delight me more; it is a grand thing for a woman to write a book; I hope you will have success; go round and see the museum; go into the lecture room and see the performance; good by, madam.”

Her ladyship left, looked at the curiosities, went into the lecture room, and after a while paid the greatest showman on earth another visit. “I’ve come again, Mr. Barnum.” “Yes, madam, I see you have ; hope you’ve seen the show; how do you like it? fine, isn’t it?” “Yes, Mr. Barnum; but I want to speak about that book.” “Madam, I have thought of it ever since you told me. I like the idea. I hope you will succeed.”

“Yes, Mr. Barnum; but I am going to have something in it about you you may not like.” “No matter, madam; write your book, publish it, make money out of it, say anything you like about me, but spell my name right — P. T. B-a-r-n-u-m, P. T. Barnum — and I’ll be pleased anyway.” That blackmailer did not succeed a cent’s worth.

In July 1890 Oscar Wilde began to serialize “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine”. A character who had painted a magnificent portrait refused to put it on public display. Another character chided the painter with a thematically pertinent statement: 6

You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away. It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

In 1915 the prominent writer Damon Runyon attributed the saying to the boxing promoter and manager James J. Johnston: 7

Say anything about us you like, but please spell my name right.

In 1923 a columnist in Plainfield, New Jersey attributed the saying to an unnamed “famous sports promoter”: 8

Somehow or other, we just cannot keep “Sass” Kline from breaking into print. “Sass” is not exactly like the famous sports promoter who said, “Keep my name in the paper; I don’t care what you say about me as long as you spell my name correctly.” No, “Sass” is not quite like that; but he does like to see the ink spread on the nice white paper.

Jack Kerns was a boxing promoter and manager of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. In 1924 he was jailed for drunkenness, and he employed the saying: 9

“Believe me, I have been in lots better jails than this; so has everybody. Don’t drag Jack Dempsey’s name into this; he is a nice, clean boy, just like you; all of you; but as for me, I don’t care what you say, just so you spell my name right.”

In 1925 an instance of the saying was employed within a description of popular novelist Elinor Glyn. The ellipses in the following passage were present in the original text: 10

On the boulevard: There goes Elinor Glyn, wearing her leopard head-gear . . . she writes her stories while in the bath tub . . . with a victrola playing seductive strains. . . . “Yes, you may quote me on that matter . . . or any matter . . . just spell my name correctly” . . . seems to be her policy.

Charley Murphy became wealthy by purchasing part of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. In 1928 a columnist in the “Los Angeles Evening Express” printed a verse about Murphy: 11

My name is Charley Murphy.
I don’t care how you pan me;
But if you want to make me fight
Just forget to spell my name right.

The verse was based on a comment made by Murphy to Chicago journalists who had criticized him:

“I don’t care how much you pan me, boys, but just spell the name correctly,” he told them.

Damon Runyon once received an odd request from a sports promoter. He wanted Runyon to state that an upcoming highly-anticipated wrestling match was probably fake and was bound to be terrible. The promoter had discovered that controversial matches had higher attendance. Runyon declined to criticize the match, but he wrote about the episode in a 1929 column. The experience caused him to recall the comment he heard back in 1915 : 12

He is not the first promoter to openly seek knocks, either. I have known the crafty little James J. Johnston, the old boy bandit, to court calumny for his enterprises.
“Just spell my name right,” implores Mr. Johnston.

In 1930 a sports columnist in Hackensack, New Jersey relayed an instance of the saying: 13

“Boost me, knock me—it doesn’t mean a thing,” says Jake Taylor of Englewood, “but for the love of Mike, please spell my name right.”

In 1931 heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling spoke about the criticism he had received: 14

“Everybody cheers Jack Dempsey now. I am told there was a time when he was booed. Most of the champions have had to go through all that. But in the end it is forgotten. I do not care so long as they spell the name right and come to see me fight.

In March 1932 a columnist in Florida printed a few lines spoken by baseball player Babe Ruth whose nickname was “Bambino”: 15

Private operative L2 reports from St. Petersburg:

“Pursuant to your instructions, I popped the following questions at Mr. Babe Bambino Ruth:

“Q. I want to interview you, Mr. Ruth?
“A. Oke. Say anything you want. Just spell my name right.
“Q. How many times have you joined the boy scouts?
“A. Between 35 and 40 times.
“Q. Why haven’t you advanced from tenderfoot to second class?
“A. No answer.

The same Florida columnist highlighted Ruth’s response a second time: 16

. . . Mr. Bambino will discuss any and everything for the benefit of the press. “Print anything about me you want to, just spell my name right,” is the way Mr. Bambino puts it.

In August 1932 the gossip columnist and later television impresario Ed Sullivan reported that comedian Milton Berle had been accused of stealing jokes from his colleagues, but Berle’s career had not suffered: 17

Advertising experts might be interested in studying the strange case of Milton Berle. His experience on Broadway, since he made his debut not long ago as a vaudeville comedian, apparently proves that there is no such thing as bad advertising. The old gag, “Say anything at all about me so long as you spell my name right,” is proved to be a fact.

In February 1933 syndicated columnist Walter Winchell stated that musician Enric Madriguera had been threatened with the exposure of some unpleasant details from his life, but the performer had been unmoved: 18

One such baddie pulled the trick on Enric, who replied: “Be sure and spell my name right—and if there is great publicity from the expose—return and I will give you what I think it is worth to me”

In August 1933 a columnist in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin uncertainly attributed the saying to both George M. Cohan and P. T. Barnum: 19

George M. Cohan (or did you hear that it was P. T. Barnum) once said to a newspaper man—“I don’t give a damn what you say about me, just so you spell my name right.” We thought all theatrical folk were of the same idea until recently.

In 1935 several newspapers printed an anecdote about popular actress Mae West. A theater employee in Indiana who was responsible for putting up a sign for West’s latest extravaganza called “Belle of the Nineties” had mistakenly spelled it “Belle of the Nighties”: 20

Fearing the young man might lose his job, following the receipt of an apologetic letter from him, Miss West now filming “How Am I Doing?” wrote him a letter of forgiveness, stating in part: “As long as you spell my name right, I won’t worry about the rest of that sign.”

In 1973 the biography “George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway” by John McCabe ascribed the saying to Cohan with a date of 1912, but QI has not yet seen supporting evidence for this early date: 21

It was Cohan who first said to a newspaperman (who wanted some information about Broadway Jones in 1912), “I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right.”

In conclusion, QI believes that P. T. Barnum deserves credit for this saying based on the citations in 1888. Many other well-known and lesser-known individuals have subsequently employed versions of the saying including James J. Johnston, Max Schmeling, Mae West, and Babe Ruth.

(Thanks to previous researchers Nigel Rees, Fred Shapiro, Barry Popik, Stephen Goranson, and others. A wide variety of candidates for authorship of this saying have been mentioned over the years with scant supporting evidence. Many researchers pointed to the 1973 biography of George M. Cohan. Goranson located the military domain precursor in 1866 which is listed in this article. Popik also found a military domain instance in 1928.)

Notes:

  1. 1888 August 8, The Evening News, The Table Gossip, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Franklin, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1785, Harrison’s British Classicks, Volume 1, Reprint of the periodical “The Rambler” of Samuel Johnson, Issue Date of “The Rambler”: March 24, 1750, Quote page 7, Column 2, Printed for Harrison and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1863 February 28, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Conducted by William and Robert Chambers, The Prose of Battles, Start Page 129, Quote Page 131, Column 1, W & R Chambers, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1866, Personal Recollections of Distinguished Generals by William F. G. Shanks, Chapter 7: Peculiarities of Various Generals, Quote Page 285 and 286, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1888 August 9, The St Johnsbury Caledonian, Barnum and the Blackmailer, Quote Page 3, Column 3,St. Johnsbury, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1890 July, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter 1, Start Page 3, Quote Page 4, Published by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1915 November 18, The San Francisco Examiner, The Mornin’s Mornin’ by Damon Runyon, Quote Page 10, Column 2, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1923 August 15, Plainfield Courier-News, Joe’s Column by Joseph A. Gallagher (Sports Editor), Quote Page 12, Column 7, Plainfield, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1924 April 18, Beatrice Daily Express, Jack Kerns in Jail for Drunkeness, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Beatrice, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1925 September 19, The Rock Island Argus, Hollywood by Russell J. Birdwell (Syndicated), Quote Page 15, Column 7, Rock Island, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1928 January 30, Los Angeles Evening Express, Touching Every Base by Matt Gallagher, Quote Page 19, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1929 March 4, The Evening News, Runyon Says, Quote Page 19, Column 1, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1930 November 5, Bergen Evening Record, At Random In Sportdom by Al Del Greco, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Hackensack, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1931 January 29, The Evening Star, Max Looks Ahead To Sharkey Bout, Quote Page D2, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1932 March 12, Tampa Morning Tribune, Morning after by Red Newton, Section: Sports, Quote Page 15, Column 5, Tampa, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1932 March 18, Tampa Morning Tribune, Morning After by Red Newton, Quote Page 13, Column 4, Tampa, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1932 August 19, Daily News (Brooklyn Edition), Broadway by Ed Sullivan, Quote Page 33, Column 1, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  18. 1933 February 4, The Tampa Daily Times, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Tampa, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  19. 1933 August 31, Lake Geneva News Tribune, In Herb’s Hat, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  20. 1935 February 3, The Hartford Courant, Mae Saves Job For Worker Who Erred, Section 2, Quote Page A7, Column 8, Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com)
  21. 1973, George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway by John McCabe, Chapter 13: The Treadmill Years, Quote Page 196, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)