Alexander Woollcott? W. C. Fields? Frank Rand of St. Louis? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The candor of my favorite saying makes it wonderfully humorous. Here are three versions I have seen:
- All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening.
- Anything in life that’s any fun is either immoral, illegal or fattening
- Everything good in life is either illegal, immoral, or fattening.
Can you track this down?
Quote Investigator: In the past, this saying has been attributed to the noted wit Alexander Woollcott who was an influential columnist in The New Yorker magazine and a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table. Now QI has found a significant piece of new evidence indicating that Alexander Woollcott was not the coiner of this popular phrase, but he was an important locus for its popularization.
On September 16, 1933 the Albany Evening News of Albany, New York published a column called “As I Hear It” by “The Listener” which reported on the content of recently broadcast radio programs. The columnist stated that Alexander Woollcott could be heard on the WOKO radio station on Wednesday and Friday nights at 10:30 PM.
The program began with a cry of “Hear ye! Hear ye!” and the ringing of a bell according to “The Listener”. Indeed, Woollcott’s CBS radio show “The Town Crier” used precisely that introduction. Fortunately for 21st century researchers, the columnist decided to record some of the remarks made by Woollcott over the air: 1
As for instance quoting Woollcott’s story about the Mr. Frank Rand of St. Louis who in the interest of his girth was lunching on bouillon cubes and undressed lettuce.
“Do you eat that stuff because you like it?” someone asked Rand.
“No, I hate it,” he replied. “But it seems as if anything I like is either illegal or immoral or fattening.”
Hence, the first known instance of the expression occurred in an anecdote told by Woollcott to his radio audience, and the words were credited to a person named Frank Rand. Top-notch researcher Suzanne Watkins identified “The Listener” as Mary A. O’Neill based on an engagement notice in the Albany Evening News in February 1934 that stated she was the writer of the “As I Hear It” column. 2
The second earliest citation appeared in the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest in December 1933 where the saying was directly credited to Woollcott: 3
All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal or fattening. — Alexander Woollcott
The saying was printed on a page titled “Patter” which listed a collection of fourteen unrelated miscellaneous quotations. No precise source was given for the Woollcott attribution. QI hypothesizes that the phrase was derived from the radio broadcast, but a process of simplification and elision resulted in the omission of Frank Rand’s name.
Here are additional comments and selected citations in chronological order.
- 1933 September 16, Albany Evening News, “As I Hear It” by The Listener, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1934 February 19, Albany Evening News, “Mary O’Neill Engaged to Warren H. Flood; Alliance Tea Wednesday Announcement of Coming Wedding by Parents of Bride-to-Be”, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton) (Text identifying The Listener as O’Neill: “She is employed in the State Department of Audit and Control and is also the writer of the “As I Hear It” column of The Knickerbocker Press.”) ↩
- 1933 December, Reader’s Digest, Volume 24, Patter, Quote Page 109, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm) ↩