Mark Twain? Chauncey Depew? Ring Lardner? William Allen White? Big Jim Watson? Joseph Hodges Choate? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: New Year’s resolutions often feature plans for more exercise. Mark Twain was once asked if he engaged in exercise, and he supposedly said:
I take my only exercise acting as a pallbearer at the funerals of my friends who exercise regularly.
But this same joke is also credited to Chauncey Depew, a United States Senator and renowned after-dinner speaker, who reportedly said:
I get my exercise acting as a pallbearer to my friends who exercise.
While searching I found that this quip was phrased in many other different ways. Could you determine if Twain, Depew, or someone else originated this funny saying?
Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Mark Twain made this remark. In 1905 Harper’s Weekly reprinted a speech given by Twain at his 70th Birthday party. In the passage below Twain expressed his dislike of exercise. But he did not employ the expression under investigation. Nevertheless, the hostility he evinced may have caused later individuals to assume that clever statements on this topic should be reassigned to Twain: 1
I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is loathsome. And it cannot be any benefit when you are tired; I was always tired. (Laughter.) But let another person try my way, and see where he will come out.
I desire now to repeat and emphasize that maxim: We can’t reach old age by another man’s road. My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you.
A precursor of the quip appeared in 1922 in an article by the popular humorist Ring Lardner titled “My Week In Cuba” that was published in the magazine Cosmopolitan. Lardner’s remark included the notion of obtaining exercise by acting as a pallbearer, and his words were used in the caption of an illustration for the article which is shown below. In the following passage taxis are referred to as Flivingos: 2
We also visited the new country club and golf course which is patronized chiefly by Americans. As yet golf has not been generally took up by the natives who get plenty of exercise dodging Flivingos and acting as pall bearers.
In 1925 a version of the joke was printed in a syndicated news article about William Allen White who was a prominent American newspaper editor. White told the quip to his interviewer, but the phrasing he used differed from the common modern version. This key citation was located by Andrew Steinberg: 3
“You see in me the rocking chair expert of the Neosho Valley,” White says. “I have won every cup offered for long distance rocking chair prowess, and I get my exercise by acting as pallbearer for golfers who exercise to prolong useless lives.”
In 1926 another version of the joke appeared in a syndicated column about health titled “Play Safe in Taking Physical Exercise” written by a medical doctor named Royal S. Copeland. This instance was closer to the modern version. Copeland was recounting the remarks of an anonymous “old man”, and it is possible that he was reformulating the comments of William Allen White given above: 4
Somebody told a story about an old man so remarkably well that a newspaper reporter asked why he had lived so long and kept so strong. “I suppose it is because you take systematic exercise,” said the reporter.
The startling reply of the old gentleman was, “The only exercise I take is acting as pall-bearer to my friends who have indulged in strenuous exercise!”
This is a ridiculous yarn, but it has in it a suggestion of value. Exercise is useful so long as it really is exercise and not violent and difficult work.
Too many athletes die of heart or blood vessel trouble. Too much strain on the organs of circulation will do real and lasting harm.
By 1930 the humorous remark was credited to Chauncey Depew, and by 1950 the jest was assigned to Mark Twain.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1905 December 23, Harper’s Weekly, [Supplement to Harper’s Weekly], Mark Twain’s 70th Birthday: Record of a Dinner given in Celebration thereof at Delmonico’s on the Evening of December 5, 1905, Start Page 1884, Quote Page 1885, Column 2, Volume 49, Number 2557, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1922 August, Cosmopolitan, Volume 73, Number 2, My Week In Cuba by Ring W. Lardner, Start Page 48, Quote Page 51, International Magazine Company, New York, President: William Randolph Hearst. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1925 January 14, Evening Republican, “Thank Heaven It Was Sally” Says White: Kansan Admits He Was Ready to Wed Anyone, Page 1, Column 1, Mitchell, South Dakota. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1926 June 26, Chester Times, Play Safe in Taking Physical Exercise by Royal S. Copeland, M.D., Page 7, Column 7, Chester, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩