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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February 13, 2014

“Each man kills the thing he loves.” (Sometimes with a straight razor.)

On February 13, 1898, the first edition of Oscar Wilde’s now famous poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was published in London by publisher Leonard Smithers.

Those initial copies of the slim volume of poesy did not mention Wilde’s name. The author was given as “C.3.3.,” a reference to Wilde’s cell number while he was in the Reading prison from 1895 to 1897, serving a two year sentence for being a homosexual.

C.3.3. was prison shorthand for Block C, third floor, third cell.

Because of his highly-publicized conviction for “sodomy,” Smithers and Wilde decided to omit the poet’s real name on the first edition of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” fearing it might hurt sales.

After the first small run sold out and several subsequent editions also sold well, Wilde’s name finally appeared on the seventh edition.

The most famous and quoted line from the poem is “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.”

But “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is not some sappy love ode. It is a dark rumination on murder, the harshness of prison life and the execution of a fellow prisoner of Wilde’s, referred to as “C.T.W.” in the poem.

C.T.W. was Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a former trooper in Her Majesty's Royal Horse Guards in London.

Wooldridge and his young wife Nellie, whose full maiden name was Laura Ellen Glendell, had a short, unhappy marriage. He suspected her of infidelity and abused her. She decided to live apart from him in Windsor.

In March of 1896, trooper Wooldridge begged Nellie to meet him at his barracks in London to discuss reconciliation.

She supposedly agreed, but didn’t show up. So he took a train to Windsor.

On on March 29, 1896, Charlie went to Nellie’s home and cut her throat with the straight razor he’d brought along.

He was quickly arrested, convicted of murder, then sent to the Reading Gaol, which is where Wilde met him.

Wilde apparently liked Charlie and viewed him as a tragic figure deserving of sympathy. But it was a short relationship. On July 7, 1896 Wooldridge was executed by hanging at age 30.

After Wilde was released from prison, he wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”

It starts with a dedication that says: “In Memoriam, C. T. W. Sometime Trooper of the Royal Horse Guards.”

Here, is a key part of the poem that reflects Wilde’s sympathetic view of Wooldridge:

“He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame
On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
Into an empty space.”

The poem goes on in that way for quite a while. In fact, it’s much longer. But the excerpt above is enough to understand the main point Wilde was trying to make.

I get it. And I recognize the brutal nature of what was considered to be “justice” in the Victorian era. I especially sympathize with Wilde over the absurdly harsh treatment he received simply for being gay.

But I find it hard to feel sorry for Charles Wooldridge.

And, I am hereby dedicating this post on This Day in Quotes to poor Nellie.

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Related reading and viewing…

February 10, 2014

10 famous quotes and phrases linked to the date January 10

1. and 2. “The die is cast.” and “cross the Rubicon”

“The die is cast” was
Julius Caesar’s famous remark on January 10, 49 B.C. as he led his troops across the Rubicon River to start a civil war for control of the Roman Empire. This event also led to the idiom “to cross the Rubicon.” Both phrases are now commonly used as way of saying “pass the point of no return.”
3. “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.”

Famous line spoken by the character Mortimer in the play
Arsenic and Old Lace, which premiered on Broadway on January 10, 1941. (Cary Grant played Mortimer in the in the 1944 movie version.)
4. “Doom and gloom, gloom and doom.”

Line said repeatedly by the Og the pessimistic leprechaun in the musical
Finian’s Rainbow, which opened on Broadway on January 10, 1947. Though the words “doom and gloom” may have been used together previously, it was their use in this hit play that popularized them as a modern phrase.
5. “45 RPM”

The term for the record format
introduced by RCA on January 10, 1949. This soon became the standard format used for vinyl “singles” for several decades. (RPM stands for “revolutions per minute.”)
6. “Well since my baby left me, 
      I found a new place to dwell.
      It’s down at the end of lonely street
      At Heartbreak Hotel.”

Lyrics from the song “Heartbreak Hotel,”
recorded by Elvis Presley on January 10, 1956, in his first great recording session for RCA. It became his first No. 1 single and his first million selling record (a 45 RPM). 
7. “That Was the Week That Was.”

Title of the satirical
Sixties TV show that first aired in America on January 10, 1964 and popularized the idiom “that was the [week/month/year/etc.] that was” in the U.S. The show was based on the earlier BBC version that began airing in the UK in 1962.
8. “Uh, Breaker One-Nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck...
      Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy.”

Spoken words from the single record
“Convoy,” by C.W. McCall, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on January 10, 1976. The recording helped popularize a number of CB (“Citizens’ Band”) radio slang phrases, including “breaker 1-9,” the CB slang phrase that a truck driver used used to tell other CB users he was ready to start talking.
9. “Excedrin headache”

Phrase created for Excedrin ads and registered as a trademark by Bristol-Myers Company on January 10, 1978. In the ads, various headaches caused by different things were given numbers, such as “
Excedrin headache number 24.”

10. “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

Advertising slogan for Motel 6, originally ad-libbed by spokesman
Tom Bodett in his first recording session for the company in 1986. It was later registered as a trademark by Motel 6 on January 10, 1989.

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