Dorothy Parker? Leonard Lyons? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker was a friend of Alexander Woollcott, a notable writer for “The New Yorker” magazine. When Woollcott’s ancient cat developed a serious malady he was told by a veterinarian that the animal would have to be put to sleep. Uncertain of how to proceed, he consulted with Parker who said, “Have you tried curiosity?”
I offer my apologies to cat lovers for retelling this anecdote. Would you please examine the veracity of this incident?
Quote Investigator: To understand Parker’s quip the reader must be aware of an odd piece of proverbial wisdom that was in circulation by the 1800s:
Curiosity killed the cat.
A precursor proverb using the same template employed the word “care” instead of “curiosity”; the term “care” referred to worry and anxiety. For example, Shakespeare wrote in “Much Ado About Nothing” circa 1599:
What! courage, man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.
The earliest instance of the Parker quip located by QI appeared in the popular syndicated gossip column of Leonard Lyons in 1966. This version of the tale did not involve Woollcott, and the incident described occurred one week before the publication of the column when Dorothy Parker visited the residence of the actor Zero Mostel. Boldface has been added to excerpts. Ellipses were present in the original text:
Ian Hunter also was among the guests, and Mostel asked him about his cat — which terrorizes everyone: “Have you killed that cat yet?” … “No, I haven’t,” Hunter said. “Frankly, I can’t afford it — to pay the fee for killing my cat.” … Mrs. Parker suggested: “Have you tried curiosity?”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading Have You Tried Curiosity?
Lord Rochester? John Wilmot? James A. Magner? Mrs. John McLauchlan? Leonard Lyons? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A very funny comment about child-rearing has implausibly been attributed to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester:
Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.
Wilmot died in 1680, and I do not think this quotation was crafted in the 17th century because the language is too modern. Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a close match found by QI appeared in a 1946 pamphlet titled “Parent Education Through Home and School”. The document was released by the Family Life Bureau, a Catholic Church organization. A section written by Reverend James A. Magner began with the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
“Before I got married,” wrote Lord Rochester, “I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children—and no theories.”
Historically, the designation “Lord Rochester” has been used for John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, but it was very unlikely that a joke Wilmot wrote or spoke before his death in 1680 was somehow hidden for 266 years and only emerged in 1946. To date QI has located no substantive linkage between Wilmot and the quotation.
An interesting precursor to the quip was circulating by 1916. Detailed information is given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading I Had Six Theories About Bringing Up Children
Joseph Stalin? Leonard Lyons? Beilby Porteus? Kurt Tucholsky? Erich Maria Remarque?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a vivid statement that typifies a heartless attitude toward human mortality:
A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
These words are often attributed to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, but I have not found a precise citation for this harsh expression. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI linking this saying to Joseph Stalin was published in 1947 by the popular syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Lyons in “The Washington Post”. The ellipsis in the following passage was in the original text. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
In the days when Stalin was Commissar of Munitions, a meeting was held of the highest ranking Commissars, and the principal matter for discussion was the famine then prevalent in the Ukraine. One official arose and made a speech about this tragedy — the tragedy of having millions of people dying of hunger. He began to enumerate death figures … Stalin interrupted him to say: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
QI does not know what source Lyons used to obtain the details of this noteworthy scene and quotation. Without additional corroborative evidence or an explanation QI believes that this citation provides weak support for the ascription to Stalin. Perhaps future researchers will locate further relevant evidence.
There are several interesting precursors that illustrate the possible evolution of this expression, and additional selected citations are presented below in chronological order. The family of sayings examined here is variegated, and the denotations are often distinct, but QI believes that grouping them together is illuminating.
Continue reading A Single Death Is a Tragedy; A Million Deaths Is a Statistic