Writers Are Just Schmucks with Underwoods

Jack L. Warner? Bill Davidson? Samuel Goldwyn? Louis B. Mayer? Harry Cohn? Apocryphal?

underwood06Insult: Schmuck? Schlep? Schnook?

Dear Quote Investigator: The attitude of Hollywood producers toward writers has been epitomized by the following callous remark:

A writer is a schmuck with an Underwood.

The Underwood Typewriter Company manufactured the best writing implements when the statement was made. Here is another version I’ve seen:

Writers are just schmucks with typewriters.

These words have been attributed to Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, and Harry Cohn. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1961. Oddly, two different versions were given by a journalist named Bill Davidson in that year. The book “The Real and the Unreal” recounted Davidson’s extensive experiences in Hollywood and included the following passage. Boldface has been added: 1

One of the Warner brothers, for example, used to call all writers—even William Faulkner, who was once under his command—“schmucks with typewriters” (schmuck is a derisive Yiddish expression for a bumpkin, an idiot). He used to make all his writers punch a time clock as they entered and left the studio…

While Faulkner was crafting screenplays he was employed by the powerful studio chief Jack Warner. Hence, Davidson was probably attributing the comment to Jack Warner who continued as an influential figure in the film business into the 1960s. This initial instance referred to “typewriters” instead of the particular brand “Underwood”.

In October 1961 Davidson wrote an article in “Show: The Magazine of the Arts”, and the content overlapped with material in his book. In the following excerpt the quotation incorporated the Yiddish term “schlep” instead of “schmuck”: 2

There are several ways of getting hired in Hollywood. The first, and most difficult, is to have talent. The talented are considered untrustworthy interlopers. One of the Warner brothers, for example, used to call all writers—even William Faulkner, who was once under his command—“schleps with typewriters” (schlep is a derisive Yiddish expression for a bumpkin, an idiot).

It is unclear why Bill Davidson presented two different quotations, and the inconsistency reduces the credibility of the ascription. Perhaps Davidson had collected conflicting reports. Etymologically “schmuck” can be traced to the Yiddish term for phallus, and it was considered vulgar by some speakers. This taboo association might have provided a motivation for replacing one term with another.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Writers Are Just Schmucks with Underwoods

Notes:

  1. 1961, The Real and the Unreal by Bill Davidson, Chapter 14: How to Get Fired in Hollywood, Start Page 241, Quote Page 242, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1961 October, Show: The Magazine of the Arts, Volume 1, Number 1, Hollywood: A Cultural Anthropologist’s View (Place in the Sun) by Bill Davidson, Start Page 80, Quote Page 81, Column 2, Hartford Publications, New York. (Verified on paper)