Salary Is No Object; I Want Only Enough To Keep Body and Soul Apart

Dorothy Parker? Alexander Woollcott? Israel Zangwill? Oscar Wilde? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The body and the soul separate at the time of death according to many religious systems. Hence, the idiom “keep body and soul together” refers to maintaining life, i.e., earning enough money to maintain health and activity. A quipster once reversed this formula and said something like:

I only want enough money to keep body and soul apart.

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1928 poet, critic, and wit Dorothy Parker published a book review in “The New Yorker” magazine which included a comical plea for employment. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

And now that this review is over, do you mind if I talk business for a moment? If you yourself haven’t any spare jobs for a retired book-reviewer, maybe some friend of yours might have something. Maybe you wouldn’t mind asking around. Salary is no object; I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.

Dorothy Parker deserves credit for the remark immediately above. Yet, this type of joke has a longer history, and an 1891 citation for author Israel Zangwill appears further below.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

The idiom “keep body and soul together” has been in use for hundreds of years. For example, in 1677 a religious text by minister Thomas Gouge employed the phrase: 2

He that putteth his trust in the Lord shall be made fat, that is, he shall not only have such a competency, as is absolutely necessary to preserve life, or to keep body and soul together; but also such plenty and abundance, as will make him fat, and well-liking.

An unnamed writer in “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine” used the phrase “keep body and soul apart” in an interesting manner in 1876. The body represented an earthly and coarse connection to life, but the soul represented a heavenly and exalted connection: 3

From the beginning we find ourselves involved in a struggle to separate the meaning and poetic soul of the verse from its outward form—a struggle which is as hard as all other struggles to keep body and soul apart, and to understand the heavenly without, or in spite of, the earthly.

In 1891 Israel Zangwill published “The Bachelors’ Club”, and he made a joke that was similar to the one Parker made a few decades later: 4

I was not discouraged, for la joie de vivre was always strong in me, and I knew a few pressmen, who got me occasional work when I proffered to do it, so that I made enough for bread and cheese and kisses! They would not trust me with regular work, that had to be turned out with punctuality and despatch, but I earned enough to keep body and soul apart whenever desired.

In 1928 Dorothy Parker employed the quip in “The New Yorker” as mentioned previously: 5

Salary is no object; I want only enough to keep body and soul apart. The one thing I ask is that I have an occasional bit of time to myself. I want to read the papers.

Parker’s remark caught the eye of columnist Gilbert Swan, and he shared it with his audience shortly afterward in “The Pittsburgh Press” of Pennsylvania: 6

The best line I’ve read this week was Dorothy Parker’s comment in The New Yorker that she was trying to make just enough money “to keep body and soul apart.”

In 1929 critic and commentator Alexander Woollcott published a profile of dramatist George S. Kaufman in “The New Yorker”, and he used an instance of the joke: 7

(Kaufman) has hung on with puzzling tenacity to the same newspaper job with which he was, by a narrow margin, keeping body and soul apart when his first play was accepted for production. There is Mr. Kaufman for you in a nutshell.

In 1968 Parker received credit in “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan: 8

Discussing a job with a prospective employer, Mrs. Parker explained, “Salary is no object; I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.”

In 1981 “The Boston Globe” published a profile of Irish poet and translator Seamus Heaney who later received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Heaney attributed a thematically related saying to a famous Irish wit: 9

“Do know that Oscar Wilde said he drank to keep body and soul apart? That’s good, isn’t it?”

QI has been unable to find support for this ascription to Wilde.

In conclusion, Dorothy Parker deserves credit for the precise remark she penned in 1928 although a similar joke was crafted by Israel Zangwill in 1891. Alexander Woollcott used an instance after it was already in circulation. QI has not yet found substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde employed a similar joke about drinking.

Image Notes: Public domain image from geralt at Pixabay that is being used to illustrate the notion of a body and soul. Image has b

Notes:

  1. 1928 February 4, The New Yorker, Reading and Writing: A Good Novel, and a Great Story by Constant Reader (Dorothy Parker), Start Page 74, Quote Page 77, Column 1, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  2. 1677, A Word to Sinners, and a Word to Saints by Thomas Gouge, Chapter 18: Of living by Faith in Gods Promises, Quote Page 145, Printed by S. and B. Griffin for Tho. Parkhurst, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1876 February, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 119, A Century of Great Poets: No. X: Alphonse De Lamartine, Start Page 207, Quote Page 208, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Internet Archive archive.org) link
  4. 1891, The Bachelors’ Club by I. Zangwill (Israel Zangwill), Chapter 3: Hamlet Up To Date, Quote Page 69, Henry & Company, London. (Internet Archive archive.org) link
  5. 1928 February 4, The New Yorker, Reading and Writing: A Good Novel, and a Great Story by Constant Reader (Dorothy Parker), Start Page 74, Quote Page 77, Column 1, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  6. 1928 February 18, The Pittsburgh Press, In New York by Gilbert Swan, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)
  7. 1929 May 18, The New Yorker, Profiles: The Deep, Tangled Kaufman by Alexander Woollcott, Start Page 26, Quote Page 26, Column 1, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  8. 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, Chapter: Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 125, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  9. 1981 February 26, The Boston Globe, Poet Seamus Heaney: This most rooted of men, bard of the Irish soul by Shaun O’Connell (Special to The Globe), Quote Page 53, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)