No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Clare Boothe Luce? Oscar Wilde? Walter Map? Marie Belloc Lowndes? James Agate? Leo Pavia? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: For centuries moral philosophers have propounded a conventional viewpoint about the rewards and punishments delivered by a deity. Here is an example from the “Summa Theologica” by Saint Thomas Aquinas who lived during the 13th century: 1

For as punishment is to the evil act, so is reward to a good act. Now no evil deed is unpunished, by God the just judge. Therefore no good deed is unrewarded, and so every good deed merits some good.

A comically acerbic statement transforms this perspective. Here are two versions:

  • Every good deed brings its own punishment.
  • No good deed goes unpunished.

These words are often attributed to playwright and diplomat Clare Boothe Luce and to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Clare Boothe Luce did receive credit for the saying by 1949, but the attribution was weak because the phrase had been circulating for multiple years before that date. Also, the saying was implausibly assigned in 1972 to Oscar Wilde who had died in 1900. Details are given further below.

Courtier Walter Map wrote “De Nugis Curialium” (“Courtiers’ Trifles”) in the 12th century. The Medieval Latin text was translated into English and published by an Oxford University scholar in 1923. Map described the actions of Eudo who was a rapacious adherent of an inverted morality. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

He put the worst of men to command the bad, he gave additional authority and power to those who were wickedest in their attacks on the innocent, and promoted over all others those to whom pity was unknown. He spared none of his band who inclined to spare any, left no good deed unpunished, no bad one unrewarded; and when he could find no rival and no rebel on earth, like Capaneus, he challenged opposition from heaven. He spoiled churchyards, violated churches, and desisted not either for fear of the living or respect for the dead…

The passage above contained a match for the saying under examination, but it was not really in proverbial form. It was a remark about one person or about a class of wicked people instead of a general adage.

In August 1927 the prominent author Marie Belloc Lowndes published a short story in “The Windsor Magazine” titled “A Breaker of Hearts” which included an interesting precursor statement. Lowndes referred to “kindness” which is one type of “good deed”: 3

“Are you doing a wise thing, Laura? It’s dangerous work, you know, bringing about a marriage between middle-aged people. The couple don’t always thank you afterwards.”

“Kindness,” said the Duchess thoughtfully, “often brings its own punishment. But I don’t think it will in this case!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Notes:

  1. 1917, The “Summa Theologica” of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Third Part, Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Fourth Number (QQ LXXXIV-Suppl. XXXIII), Chapter XIV: Of the Quality of Satisfaction, Quote Page 222,R. & T. Washbourne, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1983, De Nugis Curialium: Courtiers’ Trifles, Author: Walter Map, Edited and Translated by M. R. James, Revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors, Section: Distinctio iv: The Fourth Distinction, Start Page 278, Quote Page 331, (Translation based on 1923 edition by E. Sidney Hartland with notes by Sir John Lloyd; 1983 edition brought together English text and Medieval Latin text), Published: Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1927 August, The Windsor Magazine, A Breaker of Hearts by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, Start Page 297, Quote Page 308 and 309, Ward, Lock & Company, London. (Verified with scans at archive.org)

Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

Leonardo da Vinci? Clare Boothe Luce? Leonard Thiessen? Elizabeth Hillyer? William Gaddis? Eleanor All? Apple Computer Company? Anonymous?

cave10Dear Quote Investigator: The following aphorism has often been attributed to the brilliant Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Strangely, I have been unable to find any solid source for this ascription. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: Several researchers have been unable to locate this adage in the works of Leonardo da Vinci. The earliest attribution to da Vinci located by QI appeared in 2000. Hence, there is no substantive evidence supporting the connection at this time. Perhaps future exploration will uncover a citation in Italian.

The earliest strong match found by QI employed a different wording to communicate a comparable idea. Clare Boothe Luce was a successful playwright who became one of the first female U.S. Ambassadors. In 1931 she published a novel titled “Stuffed Shirts” which contained the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“Yes,” continued Mrs. Gunn, patting Lucile’s hand condescendingly. “I have resolved to grow old, naturally and gracefully, content in the knowledge that the greatest intellects are the homeliest ones, and that the height of sophistication is simplicity.”

A solid match using the same vocabulary was published in a Sunday newspaper magazine by an art critic named Leonard Thiessen in 1946. The prominent French sculptor Charles Despiau had created a work depicting the head of the well-known model Maria Lani. This artwork was “one of the most cherished treasures” of Frank Crowninshield who had been the influential long-time editor of “Vanity Fair” magazine. Thiessen used the adage when he commented on the graceful sculpture: 2

Perhaps Mr. Crowninshield’s preference for the Lani head, by the simple peasant sculptor who was his close friend, proves that the ultimate in sophistication is simplicity.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

Notes:

  1. 1931, Stuffed Shirts by Clare Boothe Brokaw (Clare Boothe Luce), Chapter 17: “Snobs, New Style”, Quote Page 239, Published by Horace Liveright, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1946 March 3, Omaha World Herald, Section: Sunday World-Herald Magazine, European Intrusion at Morrill Hall by Leonard Thiessen, Quote Page 17C, Column 4 and 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

“Age Before Beauty.” “Pearls Before Swine.”

Dorothy Parker? Clare Boothe Luce? Sheilah Graham? Snooty debutante? Little chorus girl?

Dear Quote Investigator: I think Dorothy Parker should be credited with the wittiest comeback ever spoken. She was attempting to go through a doorway at the same time as another person and words were exchanged. According to the story I heard the other person was the glamorous socialite and playwright Clare Boothe Luce.

“Age before beauty” said Luce while yielding the way. “And pearls before swine,” replied Parker while gliding through the doorway. Is this quotation accurate and is this tale true?

Quote Investigator: There is more than one version of this story, and the earliest description does not refer to Clare Boothe Luce by name. However, the second oldest version does identify her and Dorothy Parker as the antagonists. Further, this version was written by the Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham who claimed that she heard it directly from Parker in 1938.

In 1941 The New Yorker magazine referred to the supposed interchange as an “apocryphal incident”. In addition, Boothe has denied the skirmish occurred. QI thinks that there is strong evidence that Parker created the quip, and she spoke it. Yet, it is not completely clear whether she was addressing Boothe.

In this article Clare Boothe Luce will sometimes be referred to as Boothe. Confusion is possible because two names: Clare Boothe and Clare Boothe Luce are both used in media accounts. Clare Boothe married the powerful publisher Henry Luce in 1935, and the name Luce was added to her appellation. Both names have continued in use.

Here are the two earliest citations found by QI. On September 16, 1938 The Spectator, a London periodical, published this passage: 1

It is recorded that Mrs. Parker and a snooty debutante were both going in to supper at a party: the debutante made elaborate way, saying sweetly “Age before beauty, Mrs. Parker.” “And pearls before swine,” said Mrs. Parker, sweeping in.

Boothe was born in 1903 and was 35 when this article was published; hence, she probably would not have been referred to as a debutante. Yet, the article does not specify a date of occurrence, and the event may have happened several years before 1938.

On October 14, 1938 the Hartford Courant printed the celebrity gossip column of Sheilah Graham containing this tale: 2

Dorothy Parker tells me of the last time she encountered Playwright Clare Boothe. The two ladies were trying to get out of a doorway at the same time. Clare drew back and cracked, “Age before beauty, Miss Parker.” As Dotty swept out, she turned to the other guests and said. “Pearls before swine.”

Additional selected citations in chronological order and some background information are presented below.

Continue reading “Age Before Beauty.” “Pearls Before Swine.”

Notes:

  1. 1938 September 16, The Spectator, Best Sellers and the Atlantic by John Carter, Page 446, Column 2, London, England. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1938 October 14, Hartford Courant, Errol Flynn Plans Second Honeymoon by Sheilah Graham, Page 10, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)