“I Am My Own Worst Enemy” “Not While I’m Alive”

Groucho Marx? Ernest Bevin? George S. Kaufman? Cotton Ed Smith? Franklin P. Adams? Alan Hale? Walter F. George? Oscar Levant?

Dear Quote Investigator: A comment which acknowledges criticism has been coupled with a harshly comical riposte. Here are three examples:

  1. “I’m my own worst enemy. ” “Not while I’m in the room.”
  2. “She is her own worst enemy.” “Not while I am around.”
  3. “He is his own greatest enemy” “Not while I’m alive, he ain’t.”

Would you please explore the provenance of this type of exchange?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this schema located by QI appeared in a 1933 article by Franklin P. Adams in the “New York Herald Tribune”. Adams was reviewing a book filled with abbreviations, informal language, and flexible spelling; hence, he decided to retain that style in his analysis. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . only the other night when I said I am my own worst enemy 4 fellows rushed in to say loyaly not while they was alive.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1939 a columnist in “The Augusta Chronicle” of Georgia wrote about a gathering of unnamed U.S. Senators who expressed unhappiness with the actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt mixed with respect for the high office he held: 2

“After all, boys,” said one conscientious patriot finally, a little disgusted, “he’s our President, and we ought to be loyal.”
“That’s right,” said another.
“After all, the President’s his own worst enemy.”
One of the elder Senators pounded on the table.
“Not while I’m alive!” he shouted.

In August 1939 the Augusta columnist revisited the scenario and attributed the punchline to South Carolina Senator Ed Smith whose nickname was “Cotton”: 3

Someone has renewed the tale that begins “Someone on the Hill remarked that Roosevelt is his own worst enemy.” This time it’s Cotton Ed Smith who is supposed to have exclaimed, “Not while I’m alive!”

In September 1939 “The Jewish Chronicle” of Newark, New Jersey printed a joke credited to Harry Hirshfield: 4

One concerns a Mr. Ginsburg who overheard two Germans of the more liberal type discussing Nazism… “The trouble,” said one of the Germans, “is with Hitler—he’s his own worst enemy”……Ginsburg couldn’t help interrupting……..“Not while I’m alive!” he exclaimed.

In January 1940 a syndicated columnist discussed the recently released movie “The Fighting 69th” during which the actor Alan Hale employed the punchline: 5

Incidentally, the howlingest line in “Fighting 69th” is where Pat O’Brien, referring to Cagney, says, “He’s his own worst enemy!” “Not while I’m around,” retorts Alan Hale.

In July 1940 Georgia Senator Walter F. George received credit for the riposte: 6

Senator George, of Georgia, who was one of those in that famous “purge,” heard someone remark, “Roosevelt is his own worst enemy.”
“Not while I am alive,” shot back the Senator.

In 1945 the book “I Am Gazing Into My 8-ball” by Earl Wilson ascribed the barb to Ed Smith: 7

Old Cotton Ed Smith’s blue-streaked verbiage is pretty well known, and when in the august Senate of the United States he was never reticent. Somebody once told him, “Roosevelt is his own worst enemy.” Cotton Ed roared, “Not while I’m alive!”

In 1947 an Iowa newspaper credited the famous comedian Groucho Marx: 8

At a Hollywood party, Groucho Marx met an actress he detested. Fearing that her popularity was waning, she repeatedly pestered her fellow performers to assure her that such was not the case.

“She worries too much,” commented one guest. “She’s her own worst enemy.”

“Not while I’m around, she isn’t.” said Groucho.

In 1948 a piece in the “Los Angeles Times” of California presented an anecdote crediting Adams with delivering the line: 9

At a gathering of literary and theatrical personalities, a well-known producer was holding forth on the countless mistakes he had made in his business and how much money they had cost him.

“I declare,” he announced, “I’m my own worst enemy.”

“Not while I’m in the room,” was Franklin P. Adams’s rejoinder.

In 1954 a Tennessee newspaper presented a tale ascribing the zinger to British Labour politician Ernest Bevin who had died in 1951. The target was fellow Labour politician Aneurin Bevan: 10

According to the story, some of the Labour Party leaders were trying to persuade Bevin that Bevan wasn’t such a bad fellow after all

“You know Ernie,” they told him “’Ni Bevan is his own worst enemy”

Replied Bevin: “Not while I’m alive”

In 1965 pianist-comedian Oscar Levant published “The Memoirs of an Amnesiac” in which he credited Franklin P. Adams (known as F.P.A.): 11

Another show, someone was identified as “His own worst enemy.”
“Not while I’m around,” F.P.A. interrupted.

In 1967 “The Time of Laughter” by Corey Ford presented another anecdote crediting Adams: 12

Once a group at The Players was denouncing a fellow clubman disliked for his boorish behavior. One member rose to his defense. “After all,” he argued, “he’s his own worst enemy.” “Not while I’m around,” Adams snapped.

In 1974 “The Sydney Morning Herald” of Australia printed a tale crediting Bevin with the line: 13

The members of the then Labour Government did not love each other. Someone once remarked that Aneurin Bevan was his own worst enemy. Ernest Bevin, who was, of course, his Cabinet colleague, said, “Not while I’m alive, he ain’t.”

In 1974 Scott Meredith published a biography of playwright George S. Kaufman which included a discussion of Kaufman’s anger at Broadway producer Jed Harris: 14

And it was about Harris that Kaufman first spoke the line which has since been credited to a hundred other people. “Jed is his own worst enemy,” a mutual acquaintance said one day. “Not while I’m alive,” Kaufman said.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. QI tentatively credits Franklin P. Adams with originating this family of jokes based on the 1933 citation. The exchange was modified and recycled in tales told by columnists, humorists, and screenwriters about politicians and other celebrities.

Image Notes: Title: The slang duellists a shot at a hawke or the wounded pigeon!, Creator: Isaac Cruikshank, Date Published: June 20 1807, Source: British Cartoon Prints Collection of the Library of Congress. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.

(Great thanks to top researcher Nigel Rees whose discussion of this topic in his “Quote…Unquote Newsletter” led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to researcher Ralph Keyes. Additional thanks to Ben Zimmer for help verifying a citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1933 March 12, New York Herald Tribune, Section: Books, Life Is Just a Game of Baseball by Franklin P. Adams, (Book Review of “Lose With a Smile” by Ring Lardner), Quote Page 4, Column 1, New York, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1939 May 10, The Augusta Chronicle, Washington by Harlan Miller, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1939 August 16, The Augusta Chronicle, Washington by Harlan Miller, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1939 September 1, The Jewish Chronicle, Strictly Confidential by Phineas J. Biron, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Newark, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1940 January 12, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Hy Gardner’s Hollywood Gossip for Broadwayites, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1940 July 24, Wellsboro Agitator, Love and Best Wishes (Filer item), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1945, I Am Gazing Into My 8-ball by Earl Wilson, Chapter 19: Silver-Tongued Orators, Quote Page 101, Doubleday, Doran and Company, Garden City, New York.(Verified with scans)
  8. 1947 March 17, The Democrat and Leader, Homade Hooch by Bob Feeney, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Davenport, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1948 December 26, Los Angeles Times, Section: This Week Magazine, Best Laughs of 1948 by Irving Hoffman, Quote Page H4, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  10. 1954 November 27, Johnson City Press-Chronicle, Edson’s Notebook: Democrats Wax Poetic On Dixon-Yates By Peter Edson, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Johnson City, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1965, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac by Oscar Levant, Chapter 7: Variations on No Theme, Quote Page 163, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1967, The Time of Laughter by Corey Ford, Chapter 2: When I Was One-and-Twenty, Quote Page 14, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with hardcopy)
  13. 1974 July 27, The Sydney Morning Herald, Section: Weekend Magazine and Book Reviews, John Pringle’s Review (Book Review of Christopher Hollis’s “The Seven Ages: Their Exits and Their Entrances”), Quote Page 13, Column 2, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1974, George S. Kaufman and His Friends by Scott Meredith, Chapter 18: The Director, Quote Page 367, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)