You’re Only As Good As Your Last Performance

James R. Quirk? Douglas Fairbanks? Walter Winchell? Louella Parsons? Barbara Stanwyck? Jack Osterman? Al Jolson? Walter Huston? Will Rogers? Hedda Hopper? Marie Dressler? Arthur Ashe? Laurence Olivier? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popularity and power of an entertainer, top athlete, or financial whiz can ascend vertiginously, but it can also decline precipitously. A harshly pragmatic family of adages describes the fickleness of admirers. Here is sampling of statements from a variety of domains:

  • A star is only as good as her last picture.
  • A rock group is only as good as their latest album.
  • A columnist is only as good his last column.
  • A coach is only as good as the most recent season.

Often the expression employs the pronoun “you”:

  • You’re only as good as your last performance.
  • You are only as good as your last time at bat.
  • You’re only as good as the last song you wrote.
  • You’re only as good as your last press release

Would you please explore the history of this collection of sayings?

Quote Investigator: A close precursor appeared in “Photoplay Magazine” in 1924. The journal’s editor, James R. Quirk, conducted a survey of business people who operated movie theaters to identify the stars who achieved the best box-office results. Quirk recognized that the rankings would fluctuate over time. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Were a vote taken six months from now the vote might be entirely different. Generally speaking a star is as good as his last few pictures.

The statement above did not use the word “only” and referred to a “few pictures” instead of the “last picture”. Excerpts from Quirk’s article were reprinted in other periodicals. For example, in July 1924 “The Indianapolis Sunday Star” reprinted the star ranking data and the commentary which included the text above. 2

A couple years later in July 1926 “Photoplay Magazine” printed an instance that clearly fit into the family of sayings. The prominent actor, screenwriter, and producer Douglas Fairbanks received credit for the adage: 3

No mere actor-idol can last beyond a short allotted time. Fairbanks, Lloyd, Chaplin are not mere actors. They are artists—producers. We go to see them because their names assure great entertainment.

“A man’s only as good as his last picture,” says Doug, and I heartily concur. An actor who endures as an idol must have not only character but creative force—and the chance to exercise it.

QI conjectures that the saying evolved over time. James R. Quirk crafted a version that was further refined by Douglas Fairbanks into a pithy memorable remark. On the other hand, the members of this family are highly variable and searching for them is difficult. Therefore, future researchers may discover earlier instances necessitating amendments to this conjecture.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You’re Only As Good As Your Last Performance

Notes:

  1. 1924 May, Photoplay Magazine: The National Guide to Motion Pictures, Volume 25, Number 6, The Greatest Box Office Attractions By Vote of Moving Picture Exhibitors by James R. Quirk, Start Page 44, Quote Page 109, Photoplay Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Internet Archive) link
  2. 1924 July 6, The Indianapolis Sunday Star, Mary Pickford Leads Stars in Drawing Power, Section 7, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1926 July, Photoplay Magazine, Volume 30, Number 2, Close-Ups and Long-Shots: Satire Humor and Some Sense by Herbert Howe, Start Page 44, Quote Page 45, Photoplay Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Internet Archive) link

In The Zone

Arthur Ashe? Anonymous?

twilight11Dear Quote Investigator: While engaging in a difficult physical or mental task one sometimes achieves a state of sublime concentration that enables remarkable performance. Athletes employ the following phrase to describe this ideal status:

In The Zone

Would you please explore the origin of this expression?

Quote Investigator: During 1973 and 1974 the top tennis player Arthur Ashe kept an audio diary, and in 1975 he published “Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion” primarily based on his daily recordings. The earliest evidence of the phrase located by QI appeared in a diary entry dated February 22, 1974 in which he discussed a match with another prominent player named Bjorn Borg. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I thought I was playing unconscious, but Borg beat me 6-4, 7-6 tonight, and he is in what we call the zone. (That comes originally from “twilight zone” and translates, more or less, into “another world.”) The kid has no concept of what he is doing out there—he is just swinging away and the balls are dropping in. He has no respect for anybody. Hell, he should win the whole tournament.

The award-winning original television series “The Twilight Zone” ran from 1959 to 1964 and featured supernatural and science-fictional plot elements. Thus, the figurative underpinnings of “in the zone” suggested magical or mystical superhuman powers acquired for a temporary period.

Ashe was the central locus for the popularization of the phrase. It was possible that the saying emerged from a group discussion in which Ashe participated; hence, he used the word “we” in the passage above. Alternatively, it was crafted by an unknown person, and Ashe quickly learned about its meaning and its connection to the television series.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading In The Zone

Notes:

  1. 1976 (1975 Copyright), Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion by Arthur Ashe with Frank Deford, Chapter 16: Playing Europe and the Zone, Diary Entry for February 22, 1974, Quote Page 201, Ballantine Books, New York. (Originally published in 1975; verified with scans of 1976 paperback edition)