Epitaph: At Last She Sleeps Alone

Robert Benchley? Irvin Cobb? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A variety of quips have been credited to the great wit and stylish film actor Robert Benchley, but I don’t see his name very often on this website. Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes contains a story that illustrates his sharp humor. Benchley was attending a Hollywood bash and sitting next to a beautiful actress who married often and engaged in love affairs even more frequently. A popular party game called for each guest to write his or her own epitaph [BRB]:

She complained that she could not think what to write about herself. The humorist suggested: “At last she sleeps alone.”

Would you please explore this tale to see if Benchley concocted this zinger?

Quote Investigator: In addition to Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes this popular witticism appears as a punch line in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations [ORB] and the Yale Book of Quotations [YRB].  All three references credit Benchley and the earliest citation of 1943 is given by the YBQ.

QI has found an instance of this yarn with Benchley composing the jocular epitaph that was published at the slightly earlier date of 1942. But another famed humorist was a participant in a very similar story, and he produced the same punch line several years before this date. Since the joke is somewhat risqué and also a bit unkind QI was surprised to find it ascribed to the folksy entertainer Will Rogers in 1935.

Yet the quip without the supplementary anecdote may have been in circulation for an even longer period. One well-known historian states that the joke was told by the columnist Irvin Cobb about a high-profile socialite named Sally Ward who died in 1896. Here are selected instances in chronological order.

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