The Men the American People Admire Most Extravagantly Are the Most Daring Liars

H. L. Mencken? George Jean Nathan? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous curmudgeon H. L. Mencken asserted that the most daring liars were rewarded with public admiration. I do not recall the precise phrasing Mencken employed. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1922 “The Smart Set” magazine published a piece under the byline of H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan containing the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth. A Galileo could no more be elected President of the United States than he could be elected Pope of Rome.

The proper ascription to Mencken was clarified when the quotation appeared in his collections titled “Prejudices Fourth Series” and “A Mencken Chrestomathy”. The details are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Men the American People Admire Most Extravagantly Are the Most Daring Liars

Notes:

  1. 1922 August, The Smart Set: The Aristocrat Among Magazines, Volume 68, Number 4, Répétition Générale by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, Start Page 45, Quote Page 49, Column 2, Smart Set Company Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Puritanism — The Haunting Fear That Someone, Somewhere, May Be Happy

H. L. Mencken? George Jean Nathan? Nellie McClung? Beverly Gray? John Cleese? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Here are four versions of a mordant definition of puritanism:

  1. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
  2. The lurking fear that someone somewhere is happy.
  3. The gnawing worry that someone somewhere might be happy.
  4. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.

This quip has been attributed to the prominent journalist Henry Louis Mencken. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In January 1925 “The American Mercury” published a collection of items under the title “Clinical Notes” by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. The following remark appeared as a freestanding item. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Puritanism.—The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

The proper ascription to Mencken was clarified when the quotation appeared in his 1949 collection “A Mencken Chrestomathy”. The details are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Puritanism — The Haunting Fear That Someone, Somewhere, May Be Happy

Notes:

  1. 1925 January, The American Mercury, Volume 4, Number 13, Clinical Notes by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, Start Page 56, Quote Page 59, Column 1, The American Mercury, New York. (Unz)

I Am Omnibibulous, or, More Simply, Ombibulous

H. L. Mencken? George Jean Nathan? Errol Flynn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During the December holiday season imbibing is commonplace. “Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words” lists ‘ombibulous’ with the following definition: 1

someone who drinks everything (H. L. Mencken).

How is the famous commentator and curmudgeon Mencken connected to this word? Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1920 a piece containing this distinctive word together with the closely related synonym ‘omnibibulous’ appeared in “The Smart Set” magazine with two authors specified in the byline: George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

As for me, I am prepared to admit some merit in every alcoholic beverage ever devised by the incomparable brain of man, and drink them all when the occasions are suitable—wine with meat, the hard liquors when the soul languishes, beer on jolly evenings. In other words, I am omnibibulous, or, more simply, ombibulous.

The prefix ‘omni’ means all, and ‘bibulous’ means fond of alcoholic beverages sometimes to excess.

In later publications Mencken indicated that the 1920 passage above was his. Mencken did not coin the word ‘omnibibulous’, but QI‘s exploration suggests that he did coin the shortened form ‘ombibulous’. See below for additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Am Omnibibulous, or, More Simply, Ombibulous

Notes:

  1. 1980 (1974 Copyright), Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by Josefa Heifetz Byrne, Entry: ombibulous, Quote Page 145, Column 1, University Books: Citadel Press, Secaucus, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1920 February, The Smart Set, Volume 61, Number 2, Répétition Générale by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, Start Page 45, Quote Page 47, Column 1, Smart Set Company, Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link

He’s a Writer for the Ages—For the Ages of Four to Eight

Dorothy Parker? George Jean Nathan? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The trenchant prose of Dorothy Parker has always impressed me. Reportedly she once lacerated a writer who was receiving a superfluity of undeserved accolades with the following:

He is a writer for the ages — the ages of four to eight.

Is this Parker’s joke? When was this written?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of a remark matching this template appeared in the ‘Patter’ section of “The Reader’s Digest” in 1938. The age limits were different, and the barb was aimed at a playwright, but the core joke was the same. In addition, the words were not attributed to Dorothy Parker; instead, another wit named George Jean Nathan was credited. Here are two examples from the ‘Patter’ section: 1

When the Critics Crack the Quip

Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra — and sank. —John Mason Brown in N.Y. Post

Mr. ———— writes his plays for the ages — the ages between five and twelve —George Jean Nathan

A decade later, in 1948 the anecdote and quotation collector Bennett Cerf published the volume “Shake Well Before Using”, and he included an instance of the saying ascribed to Parker: 2

Miss Parker was asked another time to express an opinion of an overpraised novelist. She remarked, “He’s a writer for the ages—for the ages of four to eight.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading He’s a Writer for the Ages—For the Ages of Four to Eight

Notes:

  1. 1938 January, Reader’s Digest, Volume 32, Patter, Quote Page 19, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1950, Shake Well Before Using by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 219, Garden City Books, Garden City, New York. (Reprint of 1948 Simon and Schuster edition; Verified on paper in 1950 Garden City Books edition)

I Did It For My Own Pleasure. Then I Did It For My Friends. Now I Do It For Money

Virginia Woolf? Molière? Ferenc Molnár? Philippe Halsman? Ad Reinhardt?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I was invited to conduct a workshop about writing and creativity. While reviewing materials on this topic I repeatedly came across a humorous quotation that pertains to commercialism. Here is one version:

Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.

These words were credited to Virginia Woolf which frankly I found very unlikely. While trying to track down a credible origin the most intriguing attributions I found were to two playwrights: the French master of comedy Molière and the Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnár, but I was unable to locate an authoritative answer. Now that I’ve discovered your blog I was hoping that you might like to tackle this.

Quote Investigator: Congratulations on your sleuthing skills. I think that one of the names you give belongs to the true originator of this quip. Different versions of this quotation have been used by creative artists in multiple disciplines.

The Abstract Expressionist painter Ad Reinhardt, famous for his uncompromising philosophy of art that led to canvases covered with shades of black, used a version of the saying in the 1960s. But he did not originate the saying, and he placed quotation marks around it. Reinhardt used the saying to condemn commercial artists who believed that “painting is like prostitution”.

An anecdote set in the 1960s about the acclaimed photographer Philippe Halsman contained a version of the quotation. Halsman famously collaborated with the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to produce the book “Dali’s Mustache”. He also created many of the cover shots for Life magazine. In the anecdote Halsman said “I drifted into photography like one drifts into prostitution” and then he recited a version of the saying.

But QI believes that the primary locus of origination occurred during a conversation between the prominent drama critic George Jean Nathan and the playwright Ferenc Molnár. The words of Molnár were recorded in a 1932 book “The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan” as follows [NGN]:

We were sitting one morning two Summers ago, Ferenc Molnár, Dr. Rudolf Kommer and I, in the little garden of a coffee-house in the Austrian Tyrol. “Your writing?” we asked him. “How do you regard it?” Languidly he readjusted the inevitable monocle to his eye. “Like a whore,” he blandly ventured. “First, I did it for my own pleasure. Then I did it for the pleasure of my friends. And now—I do it for money.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Did It For My Own Pleasure. Then I Did It For My Friends. Now I Do It For Money

Theatrical Review: I Saw It Under Adverse Conditions. The Curtain Was Up

Groucho Marx? Walter Winchell? George S. Kaufman? George Jean Nathan?

Dear Quote Investigator: When a friend asked me my opinion of a terrible play that I saw recently I answered:

I did not like it, but perhaps this judgment is unfair. I saw it under adverse conditions — the curtain was up.

Eventually she coaxed me into admitting that this joke is from Groucho Marx. However, my memory is imperfect so I decided to check with a Google search, and I found that a playwright named George S. Kaufman is also listed as the originator. Could you determine if this is a real Groucho quote or a fake one? Also, can you ascertain which show was being ridiculed?

Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that Groucho did utter a version of this quote in 1931 to Walter Winchell who promptly reported it in his widely-read and highly-influential newspaper column. The confusion about the attribution arises because Groucho gave credit to the playwright and humorist George S. Kaufman for the quip when he told it to Winchell. In fact, the initial newspaper report in 1931 mentions only Kaufman’s name.

The target of the jest was a show called “Vanities” by the major Broadway producer Earl Carroll, and he was not happy to hear the mocking comment. His anger was primarily directed at Winchell, but there were repercussions over a period of years including: strained relationships, publicly traded insults, and a theater attendance ban.

Continue reading Theatrical Review: I Saw It Under Adverse Conditions. The Curtain Was Up