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

It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So

Mark Twain? Josh Billings? Artemus Ward? Kin Hubbard? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Oscar-winning 2015 film “The Big Short” begins with a display of the following statement:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

The brilliant humorist Mark Twain receives credit, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. This quip is very popular. Would you please investigate?

Quote Investigator: Scholars at the Center for Mark Twain Studies of Elmira College have found no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to Mark Twain. 1

The observation has been attributed to several other prominent humorists including: Josh Billings (pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw), Artemus Ward (pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne), Kin Hubbard (pen name of Frank McKinney Hubbard), and Will Rogers. Yet, it is unlikely then any of them said it. The creator remains anonymous based on current evidence.

The saying is difficult to trace because it falls within an evolving family of remarks concerning faulty knowledge and memory. Three processes operate on members of the family to generate new members and ascriptions incrementally:

  1. Statements are rephrased over time.
  2. Statements are hybridized together to produce new statements.
  3. Attributions are shifted from one prominent humorist to another.

The family contains some comments with genuine ascriptions. For example, in 1874 a compendium of wit and humor from Josh Billings was published. The work employed dialectical spelling which causes headaches for modern researchers who are attempting to find matches using standard spelling. The following pertinent item appeared in a section labeled “Affurisms”, i.e., “Aphorisms”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.

Here is the statement written with standard spelling:

I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.

This remark partially matched the saying under investigation, and it acted as a seed in the evolving family of remarks.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So

Notes:

  1. Website: Center for Mark Twain Studies, Article title: The Apocryphal Twain: “Things We Know That Just Ain’t So.”, Article author: Matt Seybold, Date on website: October 6, 2016, Website description: Center dedicated to fostering and supporting scholarship and pedagogy related to all aspects of Mark Twain based at Elmira College in Elmira, New York. (Accessed marktwainstudies.com on November 18, 2018) link
  2. 1874, Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, Section: Affurisms: Sollum Thoughts, Quote Page 286, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link

The Single Most Important Fact, Perhaps, of the Entire Movie Industry: Nobody Knows Anything

William Goldman? Will Rogers? Kevin Smith? Gus Van Sant? Robert Towne? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Predicting the box office success of a forthcoming movie is apparently impossible. It is also difficult to anticipate the critical response. These challenges are encapsulated in a Hollywood adage of exasperation:

Nobody knows anything.

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: William Goldman wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Stepford Wives (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Marathon Man (1976), The Princess Bride (1987) and other significant films. In 1983 he published “Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting” which included the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The “go” decision is the ultimate importance of the studio executive. They are responsible for what gets up there on the silver screen. Compounding their problem of no job security in the decision-making process is the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry:

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.

Interestingly, the famous humorist Will Rogers who suffered financial setbacks in the film world made a similar observation in a 1928 essay that was reprinted in his autobiography: 2

I can’t write about the movies for I don’t know anything about them, and I don’t think anybody else knows anything about them.

It’s the only business in the world that nobody knows anything about. Being in them don’t give any more of an inkling about them than being out of them.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Single Most Important Fact, Perhaps, of the Entire Movie Industry: Nobody Knows Anything

Notes:

  1. 1983, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman, Chapter One: The Powers That Be, Quote Page 39, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1949, Autobiography of Will Rogers, Selected and Edited by Donald Day, Chapter 13: It’ll Take Two Generations to Sweep Up the Dirt, (The passage appeared between entries dated September 2 and September 6, 1928), Quote Page 184, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)

Diplomacy Frequently Consists in Soothingly Saying “Nice Doggie” Until You Have a Chance to Pick Up a Rock

Will Rogers? Walter Trumbull? Franklin Rodman? Frances Rodman? Robert Phelps? Wynn Catlin? Harold Winkler? Robert Phelps?
Dear Quote Investigator: The reassuring words of a diplomat may sharply diverge from the true agenda of the envoy. The following metaphor depicts hidden hostility:

Diplomacy is the art of being able to say “nice doggie” until you have time to pick up a rock.

The popular humorist Will Rogers receives credit for this expression, but I do not think he made many jokes with this type of implied cruelty. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in September 1925 in “The Honolulu Advertiser” of Hawaii. The saying occurred within a miscellaneous set of statements printed under the title “The Week in Epigram”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Diplomacy frequently consists in soothingly saying “Nice doggie” until you have a chance to pick up a rock—Walter Trumbull.

The name Walter Trumbull was ambiguous, but it probably referred to a sports writer for the North American Newspaper Alliance who also reprinted the quip in his column in 1931.

The attribution to Will Rogers occurred by the 1980s which was very late, and QI believes the linkage was spurious.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Diplomacy Frequently Consists in Soothingly Saying “Nice Doggie” Until You Have a Chance to Pick Up a Rock

Notes:

  1. 1925 September 14, The Honolulu Advertiser, The Week in Epigram, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)

Liberty Don’t Work as Good in Practice as It Does in Speech

Will Rogers? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular American humorist Will Rogers once made a memorable remark about liberty. Unfortunately, the precise phrasing was not memorable enough. Here are several versions:

  • Liberty don’t work as good in practice as in speech.
  • Liberty don’t work as good in practice as it does in speech.
  • Liberty don’t work as good in practice as it does in speeches.
  • Liberty doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in speeches.
  • Liberty don’t work near as good in practice as it does in speeches.

Would you please help me to determine whether Will Rogers really delivered one of these lines?

Quote Investigator: In 1927 a collection of pieces by Will Rogers was published under the title “There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia & Other Bare Facts”. Rogers composed the following adage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Liberty don’t work as good in practice as it does in Speech.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Liberty Don’t Work as Good in Practice as It Does in Speech

Notes:

  1. 1927, There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia & Other Bare Facts by Will Rogers, Chapter 5, Quote Page 101 and 102, Albert & Charles Boni, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

There Are No Strangers Here; Only Friends You Haven’t Yet Met

William Butler Yeats? Will Rogers? Edgar Guest? Margaret Lee Runbeck? Dorothy C. Wegner? Roberta Lieberman? Mitch Albom? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Nobel Prize winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats often receives credit for the following sentiment:

There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.

Is this ascription accurate?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find substantive support for the linkage to Yeats. The popular poet Edgar Guest included a similar statement in a widely distributed 1915 poem called “Faith”. Here are the first two verses. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I believe in the world and its bigness and splendor,
That most of the hearts beating round us are tender;
That days are but footsteps and years are but miles
That lead us to beauty and singing and smiles;
That roses that blossom and toilers that plod
Are filled with the glorious spirit of God.

I believe in the purpose of everything living,
That taking is but the forerunner of giving;
That strangers are friends that we some day may meet,
And not all the bitter can equal the sweet;
That creeds are but colors, and no man has said
That God loves the yellow rose more than the red.

The Davenport Democrat” of Iowa and other newspapers reprinted Guest’s work with an acknowledgement to “The Detroit Free Press” of Michigan. 2

QI conjectures that the quotation evolved from the line written by Guest.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading There Are No Strangers Here; Only Friends You Haven’t Yet Met

Notes:

  1. 1915 August 19, The Boston Globe, Poem: Faith by Edgar A. Guest (In the Detroit Free Press), Quote Page 10, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1915 August 22, The Davenport Democrat and Leader, Poem: Faith by Edgar A. Guest (In the Detroit Free Press), Quote Page 11, Column 6, Davenport, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)

Good Judgment Depends Mostly on Experience and Experience Usually Comes from Poor Judgment

Rita Mae Brown? Will Rogers? Fred Rose? C. H. White? Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.? Uncle Zeke? Barry LePatner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Good judgement is rooted in experience, but a humorous addendum notes that the crucible of experience is poor judgment. This notion has been credited to humorist Will Rogers and activist Rita Mae Brown. Would you please explore its origin?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Muncie Evening Press” of Muncie, Indiana in 1932. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Fred Rose quoted this comment at the Rotary Club-Central Senior Class meeting Tuesday: “Good Judgment depends mostly on experience and experience usually comes from poor judgment.”

The phrasing signaled that the saying was anonymous, and Rose was not asserting coinage. This article presents a snapshot of current knowledge, and earlier citations may be discovered in the future. Rita Mae Brown used the expression in 2001 after it had been circulating for decades.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Good Judgment Depends Mostly on Experience and Experience Usually Comes from Poor Judgment

Notes:

  1. 1932 February 17, The Muncie Evening Press, In the Press of Things, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Muncie, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

Using Money You Haven’t Earned To Buy Things You Don’t Need To Impress People You Don’t Like

Will Smith? Walter Winchell? Robert Quillen? Edgar Allan Moss? Tony Wons? Ken Murray? Emile Gauvreau? Will Rogers?

Dear Quote Investigator: Have you ever purchased an item and wondered the next day what motivated your inexplicable action? Here are two versions of an entertaining saying about consumerism:

1) Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.

2) We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.

Statements like this have been credited to the famous comedian Will Rogers, the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, and the Hollywood star Will Smith. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a June 1928 column by the syndicated humorist Robert Quillen in which he labelled the expression “Americanism”: 1

Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Using Money You Haven’t Earned To Buy Things You Don’t Need To Impress People You Don’t Like

Notes:

  1. 1928 June 4, The Detroit Free Press, Paragraphs by Robert Quillen, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)

You Have the Whole Government Working for You. All You Have To Do Is Report the Facts. I Don’t Even Have to Exaggerate

Will Rogers? Apocryphal?

rogers09Dear Quote Investigator: While searching for a quotation on the subject of government in a reference book I came across a quip from the famous cowboy and Native American humorist Will Rogers:

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.

But the supporting citation was dated 1962, and Rogers died in 1935. Would you please determine if better citations exist?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI was contained in an anecdote published in multiple newspapers in June and July 1925 from a columnist named Frederic J. Haskin. Calvin Coolidge was the U.S. President at that time. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

It seems that Rogers recently had an interview with President Coolidge, in the course of which the president is said to have remarked that he didn’t see how Rogers thought up all his funny stories. “I don’t, Mr. President,” Rogers replied. “I watch the government and report the facts.”

A reviewer named Jud Evans saw a performance by Rogers on November 30, 1925 and wrote about it the next day in the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Richmond, Virginia. Rogers spoke a version of the joke during his show: 3

Because the crowd wasn’t exactly bulging out the doors, Will called all those in the balcony and in the rear rows down into the closer seats with the remark “Of course, you paid more down here, but you’ll know better next time.”

Nobody but Will Rogers can pull his gags any more than they can whirl his lariats. He gave the usual explanations for his comedy saying “I just watch the government and report the facts.”

There are many variants of this line and some are more elaborate than others. Rogers used the joke repeatedly during his performances and in his writings, and he varied the phrasing.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations on this topic and shared them on his website here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Have the Whole Government Working for You. All You Have To Do Is Report the Facts. I Don’t Even Have to Exaggerate

Notes:

  1. 1925 June 19, The Helena Daily Independent, The Haskin Letter: Watching the Government by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Helena, Montana. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1925 July 7, Los Angeles Times, Seeking Facts of Government: Civil Service League to Watch and Report, Will Rogers Anecdote Basis of New Slogan by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  3. 1925 December 1, Richmond Times Dispatch, Will Rogers Gives Ideas on Current Problems Here by Jud Evans, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)

Why Not Go Out On a Limb? Isn’t That Where the Fruit Is?

Mark Twain? Will Rogers? Frank Scully? Arthur F. Lenehan? H. Jackson Brown? Mother of H. Jackson Brown? Shirley MacLaine?

apple09Dear Quote Investigator: To succeed one must be willing to take risks and to enter the precarious realm of punishments and accolades. Here are four versions of an expression that appears in many self-help books:

1) Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.
2) Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?
3) Go out on a limb, that’s where the fruit is.
4) Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.

This notion has confusingly been attributed to two famous humorists: Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence supporting the linkage to either Mark Twain or Will Rogers.

The earliest instance located by QI was printed in the show business periodical “Variety” in September 1950. The journalist Frank Scully coined the memorable phrase and included it in his column “Scully’s Scrapbook”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To people who urge you not to go out on a limb I have a new twist. I gave it to Ken Murray and before he can use it I’m giving it to my public. It’s this: Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?

Within a week the powerful and widely-syndicated commentator Walter Winchell reprinted the saying in a section of his column called “Quotation Marksmanship”, and Winchell credited Scully: 2 3

Frank Scully: Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Why Not Go Out On a Limb? Isn’t That Where the Fruit Is?

Notes:

  1. 1950 September 20, Variety, Scully’s Scrapbook by Frank Scully, (Dateline: Dare’s Wharf, California, September 15), Quote Page 61, Column 4, Published by Variety Inc., New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1950 September 25, The High Point Enterprise, In New York: Winchell, Winchell, Plus Winchellisms by Walter Winchell (Syndicated), Quote Page 4, Column 7, High Point, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1950 September 25, Lincoln Evening Journal, Walter Winchell Your New York Correspondent (Syndicated), Quote Page 11, Column 5, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)