Noël Coward? Winston Churchill? W. Somerset Maugham? Joe Drum? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: After major news events people often start exchanging jokes related to the subject matter. The recent tragic cruise ship accident has caused two versions of a comical anecdote to enter circulation. The punch line has been attributed to the statesman Winston Churchill and to the playwright Noel Coward. Examples of this joke are visible now [on January 21, 2012] when one searches for the phrase “women and children” on Twitter. Here is an example credited to Coward:
I only travel on Italian ships. In the event of sinking, there’s none of that ‘women and children first’ nonsense!
Could you explore this quotation?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke found by QI appeared in a Missouri newspaper in 1917. A travel writer, Henry J. Allen, described leaving a Paris railroad station and attempting to obtain transport in a taxicab; however, the number of taxicabs available was inadequate. The writer was reminded of a joke that he attributed to a “New York traveler” [KCNY]:
When we reached the outside our trouble began. There were some thirty or forty women from the train and as we watched the scramble for the very small number of taxicabs and 1-horse vehicles we were reminded of the reason a New York traveler once gave for traveling on a French liner: He said, “there is no foolishness about women and children first.”
Early instances of this barb were aimed at French vessels and crew and not Italian vessels. In March 1932 the name Joe Drum was attached to the tale by the syndicated gossip columnist O. O. McIntyre. But the fame of Joe Drum has faded with time, and today he is largely unknown [OOJD]:
Drum was sailing one day on a French ship. “I choose to cross with the gallant chevaliers of France,” he said, “where there is no hanky-panky about women and children first.”
In 1932 the saying was also credited to a more prominent individual, Noël Coward. Over the decades the attributions and embellishments have changed. By 1946 a more elaborate variant that mentioned food and drink was credited to an American Rear-Admiral. By 1985 the quip was ascribed to W. Somerset Maugham, and by 1993 an ornate version was credited to Winston Churchill.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.