Honoré de Balzac? Mario Puzo? Pierre Mille? Frank P. Walsh? Samuel Merwin? James Henry Yoxall? C. Wright Mills? Jane Bryant Quinn? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The popular 1969 novel “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo recounted the violent tale of a Mafia family, and the epigraph selected by the author was fascinating:
Behind every great fortune there is a crime.
While searching I found a few different versions of this saying. Yet, I have been unable to locate this maxim in a work written by Honoré de Balzac:
Behind every great fortune lies a great crime
Every great fortune begins with a crime
At the root of every great fortune there was a crime.
Should Balzac really be credited with this saying?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that this adage was inspired by a sentence that was written by Honoré de Balzac, but the expression has been simplified in an evolutionary process. Here is the original in French from a serialization of “Le Père Goriot” published in “Revue de Paris” in 1834: 1
Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.
Balzac published a series of interlinked novels called “La Comédie Humaine” or “The Human Comedy”, and “Le Père Goriot” was part of this series. Eventually all were translated into English, and here is a rendering of the statement above published in 1896: 2
The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.
Here is another translation into English that was published in 1900: 3
The secret of a great fortune made without apparent cause is soon forgotten, if the crime is committed in a respectable way.
Note that Honoré de Balzac did not pronounce a general rule that larceny was at the root of all large fortunes. However, the simplified statement that is popular in modern times is arguably more provocative and consequently more memorable.
The simplification process is illustrated by an instance of the saying printed in a periodical in 1912. The following words were credited to an unidentified “French writer”. QI hypothesizes that they were inspired by a schematic memory of Balzac’s words: 4
At the base of every great fortune there is a great crime.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1834, Revue de Paris, Volume 12, Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, Seconde Partie: L’entrée dans le monde, Start Page 237, Quote Page 258, Au Bureau De La Revue De Paris, Paris, France. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1896, Comédie Humaine by Honoré de Balzac, Edited by George Saintsbury, Old Goriot (Le Père Goriot), Translated by Ellen Marriage, Quote Page 124, J. M. Dent and Co., London and New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1900, The Standard Wormeley Edition: La Comédie Humaine of Honoré de Balzac, Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Père Goriot, Quote Page 142, Hardy, Prat & Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1912 May 18, Charleston News and Courier, Conan Doyle’s Yarn, (Paris Correspondence New York Sun), Quote Page 8, Column 5, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩