You Can Never Be Too Rich or Too Thin

Babe Paley? Wallis Simpson? Suzy Knickerbocker? Mrs. J. Gordon Douglas Sr.? Gregg Moran? Truman Capote? Dorothy Parker? Joan Rivers? Zenith Carburetor? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Achieving wealth and a svelte body have become idealized goals in some cultural milieus. Here are three versions of a pertinent maxim:

  • You can never be too rich or too thin.
  • You can’t be too thin or too rich.
  • A woman can never be too thin or too rich.

As knowledge of the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia has grown this saying has become more sinister to some. Would you please explore its origin?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the July 1963 issue of the U.S. fashion magazine “Harper’s Bazaar” within an article titled “High Living on Low Calories”. The attribution was anonymous. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

Ponder, now, our week’s worth of diet menus, based on the latter part of that wise old adage, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” High living on low calories, indeed!

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Human bodies are not the only entities which can be described as rich and thin. In 1920 an advertisement for a Zenith Carburetor appeared in a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania newspaper. An automobile carburetor mixes air and fuel for an internal combustion engine. The mixture can be described as rich and thin: 2

Never too rich, never too thin, this mixture gives uninterrupted efficiency — and therefore, economy.

In 1963 the adage under investigation appeared in “Harper’s Bazaar” as mentioned previously.

In April 1967 the gossip columnist Suzy Knickerbocker described an event held at a private dancing club. The saying was attributed to Mrs. J. Gordon Douglas Sr. of Newport who was one of the attendees: 3

It is Mrs. Douglas who is responsible for one of the most trenchant remarks of recent years. “A woman,” quoth she, “can never be too thin or too rich.” Think about it.

In July 1967 a columnist in a Montgomery, Alabama newspaper printed the following statement. The terms “rich” and “thin” were permuted, and “socialite” was spelled as “socialit”: 4

A Newport socialit sums it up for all womankind when she states, “A woman can never be too rich or too thin.”

In October 1967 a book reviewer in the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois referred to the remark previously printed by Suzy Knickerbocker: 5

“A woman can never be too rich or too thin,” said one of the Beautiful People as reported by Suzy Knickerbocker last spring.

In May 1968 the socialite Babe Paley, wife of television executive William S. Paley, was given credit for the expression within a gossip column in the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” of Pennsylvania: 6

And I said: “Well, of course, you know her most profound saying? She said that a woman can’t be too rich or too thin.”

And she said: “Oh, everyone knows she said THAT! For a while there, they were going to put it on our silver dollars instead of In God We Trust because it more near reflects our modern faith.”

In March 1969 a newspaper piece discussing a Palm Beach, Florida couple Gregg and Daniel Moran mentioned a pillow emblazoned with the saying: 7

On a square cushion tossed on the huge bed in the Moran’s glass-walled bedroom, she has set down the message in needlepoint: “You can’t be too rich or too thin.”

In May 1970 an article about the Duchess of Windsor (Wallis Simpson) mentioned another pillow displaying the adage: 8

There is a needlepoint pillow that rests on the corner of one of the beige satin sofas in the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s Waldorf Towers suite. It says, “You can’t be too rich or too thin.”

This saying certainly reflects the woman — the Duchess of Windsor — who is sitting at the other end of the sofa — her wit, her love of life, her fashionable figure.

In 1979 “The San Francisco Examiner” of California published a profile of the well-known actor David Niven. He tentatively attributed the saying to a famous wit: 9

… I think Dorothy Parker said you can never be too rich or too thin

In 1980 quotation researcher Alec Lewis published the reference “The Quotable Quotations Book”, and he attributed the saying to a prominent writer based on the testimony of the writer: 10

In the social world, both the Duchess of Windsor and Mrs. William Paley are credited with the observation that “no woman can be too rich or too thin.” But Truman Capote maintains it was he who first said it, on the “David Susskind Show” in 1958. It’s more in his character and I believe him.

In September 1980 a newspaper printed some remarks made during a television show under the “‘Tonight Show’ quotes”: 11

Joan Rivers: “You can never be too rich — or too thin.”

In conclusion, based on the 1963 citation in “Harper’s Bazaar” QI believes this adage should be labeled anonymous. There is evidence Mrs. J. Gordon Douglas Sr. used the saying by April 1967, but QI believes it was already in circulation.

(Great thanks to previous researchers on this topic including Ralph Keyes, Fred R. Shapiro, and Barry Popik. Their efforts inspired QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1963 July, Harper’s Bazaar, Volume 96, Issue 3020, High Living on Low Calories, Start Page 48, Quote Page 48, Column 2, Hearst Corporation, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1920 July 17, The Wilkes-Barre Record, Zenith Carburetor (Advertisement from John Zorzi), Quote Page 28, Column 3, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1967 April 24, Philadelphia Daily News, The News of International Society: Something Doing All the Time by Suzy Knickerbocker, Quote Page 25, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1967 July 23, The Montgomery Advertiser, Section: Alabama Sunday Magazine, Pertinent Paragraphs by Burns Bennett, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1967 October 15, Chicago Tribune, Section: Book World, Two lamb chops, three saltines and 100 years of Bazaar (Book review of “Harper’s Bazaar: 100 Years of the American Female”) by Alice Glaser, Quote Page M5, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  6. 1968 May 13, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Squirrel Cage by Douglass Welch, Quote Page 41, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1969 March 25, The Hartford Courant, Inside Fashion: Rich and Thin Mixed and Mingled by Eugenia Sheppard, Quote Page 19, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  8. 1970 May 23, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Meticulous Duchess of Windsor Emanates Charm, Wit and Chic (Special to The Inquirer and Women’s Wear Daily), Quote Page 24, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1979 September 16, The San Francisco Examiner, David Niven Would Rather Be Called a Gentleman Than a Star by George Haddad-Garcia, Quote Page 29, Column 2,San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1980, The Quotable Quotations Book, Compiled by Alec Lewis, Section: Introduction, Quote Page vii, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1980 September 21, Statesman Journal, ‘Tonight Show’ quotes, Quote Page 39H, Column 1, Salem, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)