February 21, 2014

The real origin of “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse!”


The saying “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse!” is often wrongly attributed to actor James Dean.

Dean didn’t actually say it — at least not in his movies.

If you’re a classic movie buff, you may know that “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!” is actually a famous line said by actor John Derek in the film Knock On Any Door, which premiered on February 21, 1949 and was released nationwide the next day.

It was the first major film role for Derek, who later married and guided the early film career of Bo Derek.

He plays Nick Romano, a young Italian hoodlum from the Chicago slums who is accused of killing a cop. Humphrey Bogart plays his attorney, Andrew Morton.

In the film, Nick tells his girlfriend that “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!” is his motto in life.

This great noir movie is generally given credit as the origin of the famous line — which is now usually misquoted as “…leave a good-looking corpse!” (Instead of “have.”)

And, certainly, the movie made it a popular saying (either with “have” or “leave”).

However, Nick’s motto was first used two years earlier in the book the film was based on, Knock on Any Door by the African-American novelist Willard Motley (1912-1965).

In Motley’s 1947 novel, Nick Romano says his motto several times.

Back then, it was unusual for an African-American author to write a book in which the central characters were white. But Motley was ahead of his time in terms of color-blind thinking and the book became a popular bestseller.

When some color-sensitive critics complained about a “Negro” writing about white folks, Motley responded: “My race is the human race.”

Indeed, that empathetic concept is a central theme of the book and movie.

It is memorably summed up by Bogart in the film, when he says to the jury who will decide if Nick is executed: “Until we do away with the type of neighborhood that produced this boy, ten will spring up to take his place, a hundred, a thousand. Until we wipe out the slums and rebuild them, knock on any door and you may find Nick Romano.”

Quotation expert Ralph Keyes speculates in his book The Quote Verifier that Motley may have been “recycling street talk” when he wrote the line “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.”

I did some extensive online searching and found uses and variations of the phrase “live fast and die young” dating back to the early 1900s.

But I didn’t find any uses of the longer saying mentioning a corpse prior to the publication of Knock on Any Door. So, I think Motley’s book probably is the origin of that fatalistic slogan.

Personally, I prefer the Ricky Gervais variation. In an episode of The Office (the original BBC series), he says: “You know that old thing, live fast, die young? Not my way. Live fast, sure, live too bloody fast sometimes, but die young? Die old! That’s the way. Not orthodox. I don’t live by ‘the rules’ you know.”

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