Never Blame the Booster for What the Sucker Does

Damon Runyon? W. C. Fields? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous Broadway show “Guys and Dolls” was based on stories and characters from the pen of journalist Damon Runyon. Apparently, he was once asked about his favorite motto, and he presented the following:

Never blame the booster for what the sucker does.

Would you please help me to find a citation? Also, would you clarify the meaning of this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1939 Damon Runyon published a syndicated newspaper column under the title “The Brighter Side”.[ref] 1939 May 15, The San Francisco Examiner, The Brighter Side by Damon Runyon, Quote Page 10, Column 2, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] He credited the motto to a fictional character, “our old man”, in a piece he wrote on May 15th. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1939 May 15, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Damon Runyon Says: Never Blame the Booster, Quote Page 14, Column 2, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Our old man used to have a motto that he had printed out himself in big letters pasted on the wall of his bedroom. It read: NEVER BLAME THE BOOSTER FOR WHAT THE SUCKER DOES. It was one of his favorite sayings, too.

He said it meant that you should never hold a fellow responsible for the consequences of an effort to do you a nice turn. He said many of his own troubles in life had come from getting the blame from friends he was only trying to help …

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

“Booster” has a slang meaning that Runyon would certainly have known. A “booster” acts as a confederate to a confidence trickster. A “booster” supports, i.e., boosts, a fraudulent activity such as a rigged card game.[ref] Website: Green’s Dictionary of Slang, Entry: booster noun, Website description: online historical dictionary of English slang. (Accessed on March 21, 2022) link [/ref] A “sucker” is a person who is deceived. A “sucker” loses money or valuables to a confidence trickster.

Damon Runyon’s explanation of the motto in 1939 employed a more benign interpretation for “booster”. Runyon presented scenarios in which the booster genuinely intended to be helpful. For example, the old man encountered a woman who was looking for a boarding house. He took her to a fine establishment operated by his friends, a married couple. The boarder was an excellent client, and the old man was thanked many times. Unfortunately, one day the boarder and the husband ran away together. The angry wife harshly denounced the old man.

He sent the wife a copy of this motto: NEVER BLAME THE BOOSTER FOR WHAT THE SUCKER DOES.

The final example in the 1939 column displayed a closer match to the slang definitions. The old man was convinced to buy a gold mining stock by a supposed friend named Chris. Subsequently, Chris left town, and the stock was revealed to be worthless. The old man intended to have Chris arrested, but he decided not to act when Chris sent him a copy of his motto.

In 1940 “Ladies’ Home Journal” asked several well-known people for mottoes, and the resultant collection included these three items:[ref] 1940 November, Ladies’ Home Journal, Journal About Town, Quote Page 9, Column 1, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest) [/ref]

“What would it be,” we suddenly asked some people, “if you had a framed motto over your bureau?” Damon Runyon came right back with, “Never Blame the Booster for What the Sucker Does.” . . .

Christopher Morley would frame this from Spinoza: “As Long as a Man Believes He Can’t Do a Thing, He Can’t.” . . .

While Orson Welles said his would be, “A Man Who is Capable of Framed Mottoes is Capable of Anything.”

In 1946 the collection “In Our Town” by Runyon reprinted the piece under the title “Our Old Man”.[ref] 1946 Copyright, In Our Town by Damon Runyon, Chapter: Our Old Man, Start Page 3, Quote Page 3, Creative Age Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref] Also, in 1958 “A Treasury Of Damon Runyon” contained a reprint under the title “On Good Turns”.[ref] 1958, A Treasury Of Damon Runyon, Selected by Clark Kinnaird, Chapter: On Good Turns, Start Page 379, Quote Page 379, The Modern Library: Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref] Thus, the saying continued to circulate.

In 1984 a piece in “The Washington Post” attributed the saying to actor and comedian W. C. Fields who had died in 1946:[ref] 1984 May 30, The Washington Post, Kemper Draws Large Crowds by Excelling in Small, Quiet, Pleasures by Thomas Boswell, Quote Page D1, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) [/ref]

W.C. Fields had two favorite cynical expressions: “Don’t blame the booster for what the sucker does” and “Somebody has to shear the sheep.”

In conclusion, Damon Runyon popularized this saying when he printed it in his syndicated column in 1939. It was reprinted in collections such as “In Our Town” (1946) and “A Treasury Of Damon Runyon” (1958). QI believes Runyon probably crafted it. The linkage to W. C. Fields is unsupported.

(Great thanks to Steven Teitelbaum whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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