Virginia Woolf? Molière? Ferenc Molnár? Philippe Halsman? Ad Reinhardt?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I was invited to conduct a workshop about writing and creativity. While reviewing materials on this topic I repeatedly came across a humorous quotation that pertains to commercialism. Here is one version:
Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.
These words were credited to Virginia Woolf which frankly I found very unlikely. While trying to track down a credible origin the most intriguing attributions I found were to two playwrights: the French master of comedy Molière and the Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnár, but I was unable to locate an authoritative answer. Now that I’ve discovered your blog I was hoping that you might like to tackle this.
Quote Investigator: Congratulations on your sleuthing skills. I think that one of the names you give belongs to the true originator of this quip. Different versions of this quotation have been used by creative artists in multiple disciplines.
The Abstract Expressionist painter Ad Reinhardt, famous for his uncompromising philosophy of art that led to canvases covered with shades of black, used a version of the saying in the 1960s. But he did not originate the saying, and he placed quotation marks around it. Reinhardt used the saying to condemn commercial artists who believed that “painting is like prostitution”.
An anecdote set in the 1960s about the acclaimed photographer Philippe Halsman contained a version of the quotation. Halsman famously collaborated with the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to produce the book “Dali’s Mustache”. He also created many of the cover shots for Life magazine. In the anecdote Halsman said “I drifted into photography like one drifts into prostitution” and then he recited a version of the saying.
But QI believes that the primary locus of origination occurred during a conversation between the prominent drama critic George Jean Nathan and the playwright Ferenc Molnár. The words of Molnár were recorded in a 1932 book “The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan” as follows [NGN]:
We were sitting one morning two Summers ago, Ferenc Molnár, Dr. Rudolf Kommer and I, in the little garden of a coffee-house in the Austrian Tyrol. “Your writing?” we asked him. “How do you regard it?” Languidly he readjusted the inevitable monocle to his eye. “Like a whore,” he blandly ventured. “First, I did it for my own pleasure. Then I did it for the pleasure of my friends. And now—I do it for money.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.