Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Samuel Rogers? Walter Besant? Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Georges Clemenceau?
Dear Quote Investigator: An amusing remark about longevity and libido has been ascribed to septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians. A venerable gentleman was sitting on a park bench with a friend, and he gazed at a beautiful woman who walked by them. He turned to his companion and said one of the following:
1) Oh, to be sixty again!
2) Ah! To be seventy again, with thirty years more to live!
3) Ah! What wouldn’t I give to be seventy again!
4) If I could only be eighty once more.
This type of comment has been attributed to the French author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, the English poet Samuel Rogers, and the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1813 a collection of letters was published under the title “Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique”. A letter dated February 1, 1757 discussed Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and his place in the exclusive salons of France. Fontenelle had died during the previous month when he was 99 years old. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Sans sa surdité qui l’empêchait de prendre part à la conversation, il eût été aussi agréable dans la société qu’il l’avait été à l’âge de trente ans. Il disait, il n’y a pas longtemps à une jeune femme, pour lui faire sentir l’impression que sa beauté faisait sur lui: Ah! si je n’avais que quatre-vingts ans.
Here’s one possible translation into English:
If his deafness hadn’t kept him from participating in conversation, he would have been as pleasant in society as he was at the age of 30. Not long ago he said to a young woman, to show her how impressed he was by her beauty, “Ah, would that I were only 80 years old!”
The remark above was the earliest instance in this family located by QI. During the 1800s, 1900s, and 2000s the expression was often ascribed to Fontenelle though the precise phrasing and circumstances varied. QI conjectures that other members in the family were derived directly or indirectly from the words of Fontenelle.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1813, Title: Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique: Adressée à Un Souverain d’Allemagne, depuis 1753 jusqu’en 1769, Part 1, Volume 2, Letter Date: 1er Février 1757 (February 1, 1757), Letter Location: Paris, Start Page 147, Quote Page 151 and 152, Publisher: Longchamps, F. Buisson, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩