If I Had Known I Was Going To Live So Long, I’d Have Taken Better Care of Myself

Eubie Blake? Erma Bombeck? Mickey Mantle? Adolph Zukor? Billy Noonan? Robert Henley? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Looking back on one’s younger years it is natural to experience some regrets. The following comment has a humorous edge:

If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.

This saying has been attributed to U.S composer Eubie Blake, baseball player Mickey Mantle, Hollywood producer Adolph Zukor and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a Minneapolis, Minnesota newspaper in September 1951. Seventy-year-old editorial columnist Billy Noonan attended a dinner with fellow journalists who praised him. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

At the dinner many nice things were said about Billy and the hope was expressed that he would live forever.

Noonan responded: “If I had known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

There is some evidence that others such as Eubie Blake and Adolph Zukor employed this saying in later years as indicated further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Robert Henley, Earl of Northington served as the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain in the 1760s. In 1831 his grandson published a book about his prominent ancestor. Henley who died in 1772 sometimes experienced severe fits of gout, a form of inflammatory arthritis. His grandson reported a remark he made that was thematically related to the expression under analysis: 2

When suffering from its effects, he was once overheard in the House of Lords to mutter after some painful walks between the Woolsack and the Bar, “If I had known that these legs were one day to carry a Chancellor, I’d have taken better care of them when I was a lad.”

In 1907 a newspaper in Frederick, Maryland reported that the Governor of the state spoke to an unnamed man who had a different type of regret: 3

The Governor asked the old gentleman whether he had a wife.

“No,” he replied, “she died several years ago and I thought I was about to die. If I had known I was going to live this long, I might have had two or three more wives.”

In 1915 a newspaper in Evansville, Indiana reported on a religious leader who posed a question to his followers about re-experiencing life. One respondent made an earnest point that was thematically similar to the quotation under examination: 4

Instead of a sermon last night, Rev. C. C. Edwards read letters from his congregation which answered the question: “What would you do if you could live life over again?”
. . .
Another said: “I would have gone into athletics more. I should have taken much better care of my health. This has much to do with the happiness of every life. Too many boys think they can treat their bodies as they please without consequences.

In 1927 “Trenton Evening Times” of New Jersey sent out a journalist to gather responses to a question about going through life a second time: 5

A Times reporter asked five persons if they had their lives to live over would they live differently.
. . .
George Premerman, driver, 33 Wilkinson Place—”Yes, if I had it to do over again. One of the first things that I would do would be to save more money and put it to good use for later in life. I’d take better care or my health, too.”

In 1931 the anecdote about the Earl of Northington resurfaced, but the name was changed to Northampton: 6

Lord Northampton, a Lord Chancellor in Great Britain during the eighteenth century, was intemperate during the early part of his life. One day in his declining years as he tottered into court he was overheard to say: “Confound these legs. If I had known they were one day to carry a Lord Chancellor I would have taken better care of them.”

In September 1951 the quotation under investigation appeared in a Minnesota newspaper. The words were spoken by journalist Billy Noonan as mentioned at the beginning of this article: 7

Noonan responded: “If I had known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

In October 1951 a newspaper in Centralia, Washington attributed the saying to an unnamed person who was between 90 and 99 years old: 8

Then there’s the Lewis county nonagenarian who says if he’d known he was going to live so long he’d have taken better care of himself.

In 1966 humorist Erma Bombeck employed a variant joke about her knees: 9

If someone had told me 10 years ago that my knees were going to be important, I’d have taken better care of them.

In 1969 syndicated columnist Earl Wilson printed the joke: 10

WISH I’D SAID THAT: A man came into a bar with a bad hangover and groaned, “If I’d known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Film producer Adolph Zukor was born in January 1873, and one hundred years later the quotation was attributed to him in the “Detroit Free Press” of Michigan: 11

I loved Adolph Zukor’s remark the day after his 100th birthday bash: “If I knew I was going to live to be 100, I would have taken better care of myself.”

Several close relatives of baseball player Mickey Mantle died at an early age due to Hodgins disease, and he suspected that his life would also be shortened by the ailment. In 1978 while being interviewed by a UPI reporter Mantle employed the saying: 12

Every morning he wakes up, Mickey Mantle, who is 46, counts his blessings. He never thought he’d make it this far.

“I’m almost 50,” he says. “If I knew I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

In 1979 a newswire story reported that prominent musician Eubie Blake employed the saying when he was 96 years old: 13

Even though he still smokes nonfilter cigarettes and eats what he likes, he remains in good health. However, asked how it felt to be 96, he borrowed another aphorism to reply: “If I’d known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself.”

In conclusion, the earliest close match was employed by Billy Noonan in September 1951. The same quip was attributed to an unnamed nonagenarian in October 1951. So it may already have been in circulation. QI suggests specifying an anonymous attribution. A precursor about legs was posthumously attributed to Robert Henley in 1831.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro and Moi whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to discussants Sam Clements, George Thompson, and Katherine Harper who located valuable citations. Additional thanks to Ralph Keyes, Nigel Rees, and Fred Shapiro for their pioneering research.)

Notes:

  1. 1951 September 16, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (Star Tribune), Section: Feature News, Billy Noonan: The Sage of Baudette (Continuation title: Noonan) by George L. Peterson, Start Page 1, Quote Page 10, Column 6, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1831, A Memoir of the Life of Robert Henley, Earl of Northington, Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain by The Right Honourable Robert Lord Henley (His Grandson), Quote Page 13, John Murray, Albemarle Street, London; Printer: C. Roworth and Sons, Bell Yard, Temple Bar, London. (Internet Archive archive.org) link
  3. 1907 July 13, The Daily News, Reception in Governor’s Honor, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Frederick, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1915 January 25, The Evansville Courier, If You Could Start Life Over, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1927 November 10, Trenton Evening Times, And They Said In Reply, Quote Page 25, Column 3, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1931 March 13, The Sedalia Democrat, Wit and Wisdom by D. Carl Voder, Quote Page 3, Column 7, Sedalia, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1951 September 16, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (Star Tribune), Section: Feature News, Billy Noonan: The Sage of Baudette (Continuation title: Noonan) by George L. Peterson, Start Page 1, Quote Page 10, Column 6, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1951 October 1, The Daily Chronicle, Peeple’s Colyum, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Centralia, Washington. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1966 May 12, Cleveland Plain Dealer, At Wit’s End: No Kneesy Way Out by Erma Bombeck, Quote Page 46, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) (The newspaper image incorrectly states “Irma Bombeck”)
  10. 1969 April 14, Florida Today New Skyscrapers—and More Girls by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 4D, Column 4,Cocoa, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1973 January 23, Detroit Free Press, It’s Raining Cats on Sandy Dennis by Shirley Eder, Quote Page 11A, Column 3, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1978 June 15, The Daily Herald, Mantle Counts His Blessings by Milton Richman (UPI Sports Editor), Quote Page 13, Column 4, Provo, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1979 February 5, The Decatur Daily Review, Pianist, composer Blake celebrates 96th birthday, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)