Dear Quote Investigator: According to Hollywood legend when the tyrannical chief of a powerful movie studio died many were surprised to see that his funeral was well attended. When the leader of a competing studio was asked for an explanation he said:
The turnout was large because so many people wanted to make sure he was dead.
Would you please explore this sardonic tale?
Quote Investigator: This questionable story was printed in the 1960 biographical work “Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer”. Mayer was a very successful movie producer who was a co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. He died in 1957, and the cutting remark above has been attributed to fellow mogul Samuel Goldwyn. The details for this citation are listed further below.
Interestingly, barbs of this type have been circulating for more than 125 years. For example, in 1889 and 1890 multiple newspapers recounted a story from the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California about a longstanding bitter quarrel between two people named Jones and Fogarty. Jones felt some empathy for Fogarty when he learned that his brother had died. So he made an effort to end the dissension by attending the funeral, but his gesture of reconciliation backfired. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1 2 3
He displayed becoming grief and sorrow, but he did not have a chance to speak to Mr. Fogarty. A few days after he met Mr. Fogarty and went up to him with outstretched hand and a sympathetic look on his face. To his surprise Mr. Fogarty drew himself up and glared at him:
“May I inquire, sir, what the devil you were doing at my brother’s funeral?”
The Christian feeling in Mr. Jones evaporated. He took in the outstretched hand, and said with considerable force: “I went to make sure he was dead.” The war is fiercer than ever.
The story above exhibited a comparable punchline and provided a thematic match; however, it did not refer to a large turnout at a funeral. A different thematic match appeared in multiple newspapers in 1934 when a serialized mystery called “The Kennel Murder Case” by S. S. Van Dine was published. A police officer questioned a suspect: 4 5
“If you think your uncle was such a wash-out and you were so glad to find he’d been croaked, why did you run over to him and kneel down, and pretend to be worried?”
Hilda Lake gave the Sergeant a withering, yet whimsical, look.
“My dear Mr. Policeman, I simply wanted to make sure he was dead.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1889 November 28, The Parsons Sun (The Parsons Weekly Sun), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2,Parsons, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1890 January 12, The Morning Reporter (Independence Daily Reporter), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Independence, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1890 May 20, Arkansas City Traveler (Arkansas City Daily Traveler), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Arkansas City, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1934 January 12, Valley Weekly (Valley Morning Star), ‘The Kennel Murder Case’ Thrilling Tale of a Man’s Death Twice by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Harlingen, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1934 August 31, The Alton Democrat, The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Alton, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩