The Most Fun You Can Have Without Laughing

H. L. Mencken? Woody Allen? Walter Winchell? Alfred Lunt? Sarah Bernhardt? E. V. Durling? Jim Bishop? Colonel Stoopnagle? Frederick Chase Taylor? Leo Rosten? Humphrey Bogart? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following declaration of high praise has been applied to love making:

The most fun you can have without laughing.

Influential commentator H. L. Mencken and popular comedian Woody Allen have both received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: H. L. Mencken did place a version of this saying into his massive 1942 compendium of quotations, but he did not take credit; instead, he asserted that the author was unidentified. More than three decades later Woody Allen employed an instance in his 1977 Oscar-winning movie “Annie Hall”.

The earliest match located by QI occurred in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in January 1938. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The latest definition of necking: How you can have the most fun without laughing.

QI hypothesizes that a comparable statement referring to sex was circulating at the time. Winchell or his informant bowdlerized the remark to yield the version about “necking”. Taboos of the period restricted depictions of carnality in newspapers.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Most Fun You Can Have Without Laughing

Notes:

  1. 1938 January 25, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, On Broadway Walter Winchell, Quote Page 24, Column 6, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

Scratch an Actor and You’ll Find an Actress

Dorothy Parker? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker was well known for her sometimes controversial witticisms. Apparently, one of her remarks was based on clichés about the vanity, mannerisms, and/or sexuality of actors. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in 1940: 1

Don’t use “Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actress!” It’s an oldie of Dorothy Parker’s.

Winchell stated that the remark was already old, and it probably would have been difficult to publish in a newspaper in the 1920s when Parker was delivering lines at the Algonquin Roundtable.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Scratch an Actor and You’ll Find an Actress

Notes:

  1. 1940 September 6, Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Clare Boothe Luce? Oscar Wilde? Walter Map? Marie Belloc Lowndes? James Agate? Leo Pavia? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: For centuries moral philosophers have propounded a conventional viewpoint about the rewards and punishments delivered by a deity. Here is an example from the “Summa Theologica” by Saint Thomas Aquinas who lived during the 13th century: 1

For as punishment is to the evil act, so is reward to a good act. Now no evil deed is unpunished, by God the just judge. Therefore no good deed is unrewarded, and so every good deed merits some good.

A comically acerbic statement transforms this perspective. Here are two versions:

  • Every good deed brings its own punishment.
  • No good deed goes unpunished.

These words are often attributed to playwright and diplomat Clare Boothe Luce and to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Clare Boothe Luce did receive credit for the saying by 1949, but the attribution was weak because the phrase had been circulating for multiple years before that date. Also, the saying was implausibly assigned in 1972 to Oscar Wilde who had died in 1900. Details are given further below.

Courtier Walter Map wrote “De Nugis Curialium” (“Courtiers’ Trifles”) in the 12th century. The Medieval Latin text was translated into English and published by an Oxford University scholar in 1923. Map described the actions of Eudo who was a rapacious adherent of an inverted morality. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

He put the worst of men to command the bad, he gave additional authority and power to those who were wickedest in their attacks on the innocent, and promoted over all others those to whom pity was unknown. He spared none of his band who inclined to spare any, left no good deed unpunished, no bad one unrewarded; and when he could find no rival and no rebel on earth, like Capaneus, he challenged opposition from heaven. He spoiled churchyards, violated churches, and desisted not either for fear of the living or respect for the dead…

The passage above contained a match for the saying under examination, but it was not really in proverbial form. It was a remark about a one person or about a class of wicked people instead of a general adage.

In August 1927 the prominent author Marie Belloc Lowndes published a short story in “The Windsor Magazine” titled “A Breaker of Hearts” which included an interesting precursor statement. Lowndes referred to “kindness” which is one type of “good deed”: 3

“Are you doing a wise thing, Laura? It’s dangerous work, you know, bringing about a marriage between middle-aged people. The couple don’t always thank you afterwards.”

“Kindness,” said the Duchess thoughtfully, “often brings its own punishment. But I don’t think it will in this case!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Notes:

  1. 1917, The “Summa Theologica” of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Third Part, Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Fourth Number (QQ LXXXIV-Suppl. XXXIII), Chapter XIV: Of the Quality of Satisfaction, Quote Page 222,R. & T. Washbourne, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1983, De Nugis Curialium: Courtiers’ Trifles, Author: Walter Map, Edited and Translated by M. R. James, Revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors, Section: Distinctio iv: The Fourth Distinction, Start Page 278, Quote Page 331, (Translation based on 1923 edition by E. Sidney Hartland with notes by Sir John Lloyd; 1983 edition brought together English text and Medieval Latin text), Published: Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1927 August, The Windsor Magazine, A Breaker of Hearts by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, Start Page 297, Quote Page 308 and 309, Ward, Lock & Company, London. (Verified with scans at archive.org)

Plays Are Not Written—They Are Rewritten

Steele MacKaye? Dion Boucicault? W. S. Gilbert? Sanford B. Hooker? David Belasco? Daniel Frohman? William M. Tanner? Walter Winchell? James Thurber? Michael Crichton?

Dear Quote Investigator: A magnificent work of art emerges in its final form like Venus from a scallop shell; no modifications are required according to one unrealistic approach to creativity. Numerous writers and composers strongly disagree and emphasize the need for painstaking refinement. A family of sayings highlights this process:

  • Great novels are not written, they are rewritten.
  • A stage play is not written but rewritten.
  • Good stories are not written but are re-written.
  • The secret of good writing is rewriting.

Would you please examine the provenance of this family?

Quote Investigator: In July 1889 the popular U.S. playwright and actor Steele MacKaye published in several newspapers a piece titled “How Plays Are Written: They Are the Product of Study and Patient Toil”. The first line presented his thesis. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Plays are not written—they are rewritten.
In this lies the advantage of the creative, as distinct from the critical, literature of the stage.

By 1894 the saying had been reassigned to the Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault, and by 1903 W. S. Gilbert had been assigned a variant referring to comic operas. Yet, the earliest evidence currently points to Steele MacKaye as crafter of the statement.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Plays Are Not Written—They Are Rewritten

Notes:

  1. 1889 July 28, Democrat and Chronicle, How Plays Are Written: They Are the Product of Study and Patient Toil: So Says Steele MacKaye (Written for the Democrat and Chronicle), Quote Page 9, Column 4, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)

A Drama Critic Leaves No Turn Unstoned

George Bernard Shaw? Catholic Standard and Times? Ethel Watts Mumford? Oliver Herford? Addison Mizner? Arthur Wimperis? Colette d’Arville? Ogden Nash? Diana Rigg?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw has been credited with a clever bit of wordplay concerning the role of a critic. The quip transforms the following venerable idiom describing a thorough search:

Leave no stone unturned

Shaw’s challenging plays sometimes received poor reviews, and according to legend he once responded:

A dramatic critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned.

The word “turn” refers to the performance given by an individual on the stage. Would you please help me to trace this comical phrase?

Quote Investigator: George Bernard Shaw received credit for this expression from a journalist in London in 1930. See further below. Yet, no precise source was specified, and the joke had already been circulating for many years.

In 1899 the characters “Hi Tragerdy” and “Lowe Comerdy” exchanged lines about an unsuccessful vaudeville show encountering a hostile audience. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Your experience in vaudeville, then, was not very pleasant?” Hi Tragerdy was saying.
“No,” replied Lowe Comerdy; “at Oshkosh they threw rocks at each one of us as we came on for our acts.”
“Pretty severe way of showing their disapproval.”
“Yes; in their efforts to impress us with their utter disgust they left no turn unstoned.”-Standard and Catholic Times

The above item appeared in multiple periodicals such as “The Dallas Morning News” of Dallas, Texas; “The Daily Northwestern” of Oshkosh, Wisconsin; 2 “The Record-Union” of Sacramento, California; 3 and “Puck” of New York City. 4 The Texas newspaper acknowledged the “Standard and Catholic Times”. The other three acknowledged the “Catholic Standard and Times”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Drama Critic Leaves No Turn Unstoned

Notes:

  1. 1899 August 17, The Dallas Morning News, Light Things, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1899 August 29, The Daily Northwestern (The Oshkosh Northwestern), Short Notes, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1899 September 15, The Record-Union, One Bad Turn Deserves Another (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Sacramento, California. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1899 October 11, Puck, Volume 46, Issue 1170, One Bad Turn Deserved Another, Quote Page 15, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)

It’s Nice To Be Important, But More Important To Be Nice

Roger Federer? John Templeton? Walter Winchell? Kay Dangerfield? James H. Lane? Tony Curtis? Bob Olin? Sidney Blackmer? Joe Franklin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Antimetabole is a clever literary technique in which a phrase is repeated, but key words are reversed. For example:

It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.

This line has been attributed to the tennis superstar Roger Federer and the renowned investor and philanthropist John Templeton. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI conjectures that this statement evolved from an adage composed by the powerful widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell. Yet, many years before Winchell’s brainstorm an interesting precursor appeared in the “Trenton Times” of Trenton, New Jersey in 1905. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“If it is important to be nice, it is nearly as important to look nice. You may be full of kindness and desire to make others happy, but if you cannot cross a room without knocking down a chair or two, or answer a question without turning crimson and glaring at the floor, people will never really believe in your good intentions.”

The statement above contained two very similar repeated phrases, but the key words were not reordered; hence, antimetabole was not employed. In addition, the overall meaning differed substantially from the expression under examination.

In April 1937 Walter Winchell concluded his column with a remark he had sent via telegram. Winchell used the slang word “swell” which corresponded to “nice” in that time period: 2

In reply to the wire of Jeff L. Kammen, of Chicago: The last line was: “Your New York Correspondent, who wishes to remind celebrities that it is swell to be important—but more important to be swell!”

QI hypothesizes that someone during the following decade exchanged “swell” and “nice” to produce the popular modern saying from Winchell’s adage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading It’s Nice To Be Important, But More Important To Be Nice

Notes:

  1. 1905 February 21, Trenton Times, For the Window Garden, Quote Page 6, Column 2 and 3, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1937 April 13, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, Walter Winchell On Broadway (Syndicated), Quote Page 11, Column 2, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

We Are Taught To Fly in the Air Like Birds, and To Swim in the Water Like the Fishes; But How To Live on the Earth We Don’t Know

George Bernard Shaw? Martin Luther King? Maxim Gorky? Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan? C. E. M. Joad? Walter Winchell? Jack Paar? Anonymous?

flyswim08Quote Investigator: Technological progress today is shockingly vertiginous, but advancements toward human reconciliation and harmony are glacially slow. A saying from the previous century treats this topic with poignancy:

Now that we have learned to fly the air like birds, swim under water like fish, we lack one thing—to learn to live on earth as human beings.

This saying has been attributed to the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw and the civil rights champion Martin Luther King. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that George Bernard Shaw wrote or spoke this statement. Martin Luther King did employ this saying in his Nobel Prize speech, but it was already in circulation. The earliest citation known to QI attributed the saying to the prominent Russian author Maxim Gorky who credited an anonymous peasant. Here is the key passage from the 1925 book “Social Classes in Post-War Europe” by Lothrop Stoddard. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Not long ago Maxim Gorky stated that the Russian peasant profoundly hates the town and all its inhabitants. According to the Russian muzhik, the city is the source of all evil. Modern “progress” does not appeal to him, the intellectuals and their inventions being regarded with deep suspicion. Gorky relates how, after addressing a peasant audience on the subject of science and the marvels of technical inventions, he was criticized by a peasant spokesman in the following manner: “Yes, yes, we are taught to fly in the air like birds, and to swim in the water like the fishes; but how to live on the earth we don’t know.” In Gorky’s opinion Russia’s future lies in peasant hands.

This evidence was indirect because it was not written by Gorky, and QI has not yet located this statement in his oeuvre. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading We Are Taught To Fly in the Air Like Birds, and To Swim in the Water Like the Fishes; But How To Live on the Earth We Don’t Know

Notes:

  1. 1925, Social Classes in Post-War Europe by Lothrop Stoddard, Quote Page 26, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)

Using Money You Haven’t Earned To Buy Things You Don’t Need To Impress People You Don’t Like

Will Smith? Walter Winchell? Robert Quillen? Edgar Allan Moss? Tony Wons? Ken Murray? Emile Gauvreau? Will Rogers?

shop09Dear Quote Investigator: Have you ever purchased an item and wondered the next day what motivated your inexplicable action? Here are two versions of an entertaining saying about consumerism:

1) Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.

2) We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.

Statements like this have been credited to the famous comedian Will Rogers, the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, and the Hollywood star Will Smith. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a June 1928 column by the syndicated humorist Robert Quillen in which he labelled the expression “Americanism”: 1

Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Using Money You Haven’t Earned To Buy Things You Don’t Need To Impress People You Don’t Like

Notes:

  1. 1928 June 4, The Detroit Free Press, Paragraphs by Robert Quillen, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)

They’ve Absolutely Ruined Your Perfectly Dreadful Play

Tallulah Bankhead? Apocryphal?

orpheus11Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest one-line review of a movie I have ever encountered is the following:

Darling, they’ve absolutely ruined your perfectly dreadful play.

According to a show-business legend, the movie star Tallulah Bankhead delivered this mortifying judgement to the famous playwright Tennessee Williams when she saw the film version of his play “Orpheus Descending”. Would you please explore this tale?

Quote Investigator: In 1940 Tennessee Williams wrote a play titled “Battle of Angels”; however, at that time he was unable to successfully mount a full production. He rewrote and retitled the work “Orpheus Descending”, and in 1957 it was presented on Broadway, but the reception was muted. The construction of the play had been inspired by the tragic ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In 1960 “Orpheus Descending” was adapted into a film titled “The Fugitive Kind” with top performers in the cast: Marlon Brando played the Orpheus-type role and Anna Magnani played the Eurydice-type role. The critical notices were mixed, and the commercial performance was weak.

The earliest evidence located by QI of a match for the quotation appeared in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in May 1960. Winchell stated that Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams had recently resumed a friendship that previously had been strained. Bankhead’s candor was unhampered. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They witnessed the film “Fugitive Kind” (adapted from his “Orpheus Descending”) and she told him: “I think it’s disgraceful. They’ve absolutely ruined a bad play!” Tennessee enjoys being spiked by Talu the tiger.

The use of the pedestrian word “bad” in this version of the quotation reduced its humor. Yet, this instance might be the most faithful to the words Bankhead actually uttered. The word choice evolved as the tale was retold during the ensuing years.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading They’ve Absolutely Ruined Your Perfectly Dreadful Play

Notes:

  1. 1960 May 25, The Terre Haute Tribune, Walter Winchell of New York, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Terre Haute, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

You Have the Whole Government Working for You. All You Have To Do Is Report the Facts. I Don’t Even Have to Exaggerate

Will Rogers? Apocryphal?

rogers09Dear Quote Investigator: While searching for a quotation on the subject of government in a reference book I came across a quip from the famous cowboy and Native American humorist Will Rogers:

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.

But the supporting citation was dated 1962, and Rogers died in 1935. Would you please determine if better citations exist?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI was contained in an anecdote published in multiple newspapers in June and July 1925 from a columnist named Frederic J. Haskin. Calvin Coolidge was the U.S. President at that time. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

It seems that Rogers recently had an interview with President Coolidge, in the course of which the president is said to have remarked that he didn’t see how Rogers thought up all his funny stories. “I don’t, Mr. President,” Rogers replied. “I watch the government and report the facts.”

A reviewer named Jud Evans saw a performance by Rogers on November 30, 1925 and wrote about it the next day in the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Richmond, Virginia. Rogers spoke a version of the joke during his show: 3

Because the crowd wasn’t exactly bulging out the doors, Will called all those in the balcony and in the rear rows down into the closer seats with the remark “Of course, you paid more down here, but you’ll know better next time.”

Nobody but Will Rogers can pull his gags any more than they can whirl his lariats. He gave the usual explanations for his comedy saying “I just watch the government and report the facts.”

There are many variants of this line and some are more elaborate than others. Rogers used the joke repeatedly during his performances and in his writings, and he varied the phrasing.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations on this topic and shared them on his website here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Have the Whole Government Working for You. All You Have To Do Is Report the Facts. I Don’t Even Have to Exaggerate

Notes:

  1. 1925 June 19, The Helena Daily Independent, The Haskin Letter: Watching the Government by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Helena, Montana. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1925 July 7, Los Angeles Times, Seeking Facts of Government: Civil Service League to Watch and Report, Will Rogers Anecdote Basis of New Slogan by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  3. 1925 December 1, Richmond Times Dispatch, Will Rogers Gives Ideas on Current Problems Here by Jud Evans, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)