Steve Jobs? Colonel Harland Sanders? Ed Wynn? The Sportsmen? Skeets Gallagher? Clifford Odets?
Dear Quote Investigator: Steve Jobs was the most fascinating entrepreneur and business leader of modern times in my opinion. Several of his quotations were reprinted in articles after his death at the early age of 56. This one captured my interest [SJWJ]:
Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.
Did Jobs originate the expression in the first sentence or have other wealthy people used this saying?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this general expression located by QI was published in an interview in January 1932 with Ed Wynn who was a very popular comedian. He became wealthy performing in multiple venues: vaudeville, Broadway, radio, and films. He also lost most of his money in a business reversal before his earnings made him prosperous again. In 1932 he spoke of his life philosophy [EWBG]:
“I have no ambition to be the wealthiest man in the cemetery,” he said. “And that, my boy, is the most brilliant thing I ever said. It is worthy of a greater brain than mine.”
“I made and lost four million before I found I needed only one to be happy.”
This turn of phrase impressed the Boston Globe headline writer who incorporated it in the article title “Ed Wynn Doesn’t Yearn to Be Wealthiest Man in Cemetery”. Note, Wynn used the word “wealthiest”, but he was later quoted using the synonym “richest” that is more common in the modern versions of the saying.
The phrase was used by silent film star Douglas MacLean, playwright Clifford Odets, actor Skeets Gallagher, KFC entrepreneur Colonel Harland Sanders, and others in later years. It even appeared in the title of a song in 1948 according to Billboard magazine. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.