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.
- 1938 January, Reader’s Digest, Volume 32, Patter, Quote Page 19, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 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) ↩