May 05, 2019

“Live fast, die young and have [or leave] a good-looking corpse!”

The saying “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!” is often associated with actor James Dean.

Dean didn’t say it as a line in any of his own movies. Nor did he coin it.

But he was a fan of the classic 1949, noir film that made it a famous movie quote, Knock on Any Door.

Biographies of Dean indicate that he embraced the words as his own fatalistic motto and lived his brief life accordingly.

Indeed, two books about Dean use part of the saying in their title: John Gilmore’s 1997 biography Live Fast–Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean and Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause (2005) by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel.

Gilmore was an actor and writer who met Dean in 1953, became Dean’s close friend and (according to Gilmore) his lover.

Gilmore noted Dean’s fondness for the “live fast, die young…” line in his own book and in interviews he did for others.

For example, in an interview Gilmore did for the LIFE magazine book James Dean: A Rebel's Life in Pictures (2016), he said Dean once wondered aloud what they’d put on his tombstone, then quipped: “You remember the movie [Humphrey] Bogart made — Knock on Any Door — and the line ‘Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse?’ I’m going to be so good-looking they’re going to have to cement me in the coffin.”

If you’re a serious movie buff, you may know actor John Derek says the line “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!” in Knock on Any Door, which premiered in New York City on February 21, 1949.

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.

The movie gave the saying lasting fame, though it now often given in the variant form “…leave a good-looking corpse” (instead of have).

The movie line comes directly from the novel the film is based on, Knock on Any Door by the African-American novelist Willard Motley (1912-1965).

In Motley’s novel, Nick says it several times and cites it as his personal motto.

The novel was published on May 5, 1947 and became a popular bestseller.

At the time, it was unusual for an African-American author to write a book in which the central characters were white. But most readers didn’t care.

Some bigoted observers did complain about a “Negro” writing about white people.

Motley responded to their jibes by saying “My race is the human race” (a line he cited as his own personal motto).

Indeed, that empathetic concept is a central theme of the book and movie. And, the reason for empathy is memorably summed up by Humphrey Bogart’s character during a courtroom scene.

Bogart 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 notes in his great book The Quote Verifier that Motley was probably “recycling street talk” when he wrote the line “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.”

More recent research by quote guru Garson O’Toole, author of the excellent website and the book Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, found precursors of the saying dating back to the 1800s. 

O’Toole found also documented that the version Motley used in his novel was in common use by the 1920s.

So, although Motley’s novel and the movie adapted from it gave the saying wider familiarity, neither one is the origin.

Over the decades, there have been many witty reuses and variations on the line.

One of my favorites is spoken by Ricky Gervais in an episode of original BBC version of the TV series The Office.

In Season 2, Episode 3 of that show, Gervais 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.”

I like that motto much better than the one James Dean lived — and ultimately died — by.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the years, the original saying "Live fast, die young..." has launched many thoughtful and witty variations. To read some of my favorite take-offs, see the post on my site at this link.

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