Will Rogers? Ray Thompson? Walter Winchell? Milton Berle? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A talkative pet parrot can cause enormous embarrassment when it publicly recites phrases spoken in private. A comedian offered the following guidance:
Live your life so you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell your family parrot to the town gossip.
Popular entertainer Will Rogers has often received credit for this remark, but I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1928 in a Meyersdale, Pennsylvania newspaper which acknowledged another periodical. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
So live that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.—Troy Times.
QI has not located the pertinent issue of “Troy Times”. Hence, the creator remains anonymous at this time. Will Rogers received credit for the joke by 1946; however, this long delay weakens the value of this attribution.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The same item with an acknowledgement to the “Troy Times” appeared in other newspapers in 1928 such as “The San Diego Union” of California. 2
In 1936 several newspapers published a syndicated feature called “Annabelle’s Answers” by Ray Thompson. A version of the joke was presented using the format of a question and an answer: 3
DEAR ANNABELLE: CAN YOU TELL ME OF ANY REAL TEST OF VIRTUE? SUE.
Dear Sue: WOULD YOU BE ASHAMED TO SELL THE OLD FAMILY PARROT TO THE TOWN GOSSIP?
In 1946 the prominent syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell attributed the quip to well-known humorist Will Rogers: 4
It was Will Rogers who first said that the only time people dislike gossip is when you gossip about them. He added: “So live that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip!”
In 1949 “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” compiled by Evan Esar also credited the line to Will Rogers. 5
In 1980 Bryan B. Sterling edited and published “The Will Rogers Scrapbook”. Sterling’s introduction included the remark, but he did not present a citation. The spelling “wouldent” occurred in the book: 6
Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher, must surely look down on us and chuckle. And anyone within earshot will probably hear him drawl: “Don’t take yourself so serious! Just live your life so you wouldent be ashamed to sell your family parrot to the town gossip.”
In 1989 the compilation “Milton Berle’s Private Joke File” included the following close variant: 7
A truly good person is a guy who can sell his parrot to the town gossip without moving away.
In 1995 the quip appeared in “Will Rogers Speaks: Over 1,000 Timeless Quotations”. Unfortunately, the book’s editors were unable to provide a citation. The tag “Notes” signaled that the quotation appeared in their notes without a precise source. 8
Lead your life so you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.
In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. QI believes that the origin of this humorous remark remains anonymous for now. There is some support for attributing the joke to Will Rogers, but it is not strong enough because it occurred many years after the first appearance of the remark. It is conceivable that the “Troy Times” lifted the joke from a comedy routine by Will Rogers, but QI has not yet found support for this conjecture.
Image Notes: Painting of “Fruit and Vegetables with a Parrot” by Eugene Boudin circa 1869. Image has been cropped ad resized.
- 1928 July 12, Meyersdale Republic, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1928 July 15, The San Diego Union, (Filler item), Quote Page 15, Column 2, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1936 February 8, The Weekly Call, Annabelle’s Answers by Ray Thompson, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Birmingham, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1946 April 17, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, Walter Winchell, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Will Rogers, Quote Page 169, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) ↩
- 1980, The Will Rogers Scrapbook by Will Rogers, Selected and edited by Bryan B. Sterling, Section: Introduction by Bryan B. Sterling, Quote Page 7, Bonanza Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1989, Milton Berle’s Private Joke File: Over 10,000 of His Best Gags, Anecdotes, and One-Liners by Milton Berle, Edited by Milt Rosen, Topic: Church, Quote Page 146, Column 1, Crown Publishers, New York (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1995, Will Rogers Speaks: Over 1,000 Timeless Quotations by Bryan B. Sterling and Frances N. Sterling, Topic: Philosophy, Quote Page 219, M. Evans and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩