February 17, 2016

“Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”

To paraphrase Firesign Theatre, everything most people know about some famous quotations is wrong.

A notable example is the famous line “Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”

Most people think that’s a quote by W.C. Fields.

However, Fields didn’t say it. (Nor did he say any of the common variations of the line, such as those using “kids” or “children” in place of the word babies.)

It’s actually a famous misquote based on something that was said about Fields in 1939 by Leo Rosten, a witty professor who later became a successful scriptwriter and author.

On February 16, 1939, a dinner was held in honor of W.C. Fields at the Masquers Club in Hollywood, the night before the premiere of his latest movie You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.

Rosten was in Hollywood at the time doing some research on the movie industry and was invited to attend.

After dinner, Rosten was asked to say something about Fields. He ad-libbed:

“The only thing I can say about Mr. W. C. Fields, whom I have admired since the day he advanced upon Baby LeRoy with an icepick, is this: Any man who hates babies and dogs can’t be all bad.”

Rosten’s quip brought down the house and was mentioned in an article in the February 27, 1939 issue of Time magazine.

Although the line was credited to Rosten by Time, he was little-known in 1939. His career and eventual fame as a screenwriter and author began in the 1940s.

Thus, like many other famous misquotes, Rosten’s quip was soon attributed to a more famous person — in this case, to Fields himself. Eventually even Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations attributed it to Fields.

That annoyed Rosten and he worked to correct the misattribution. Today, although the attribution to Fields persists, many books and online sources give Rosten credit for his quip.

However, quotation mavens William Safire and Ralph Keyes have also pointed out that the essence of Rosten’s line was not original.

As Keyes explained in his excellent book Nice Guys Finish Seventh:

In November, 1937 — nearly two years before the Masquers banquet — Harper’s Monthly ran a column by Cedric Worth about a New York cocktail party which took place in 1930. This party was dominated by a man who had a case against dogs. After leaving, Worth found himself in an elevator with a New York Times reporter. As the elevator made its way to the ground the reporter observed, “No man who hates dogs and children can be all bad.”

To be accurate, therefore, reference books should attribute “No man who hates dogs and children can be all bad,” to the Times reporter. His name was Byron Darnton. Byron who? That’s just the point. Who’s heard of Byron Darnton? Yet most of us know the name W.C. Fields. This is why Fields routinely gets credit for someone else’s words. He probably always will.

I searched several online databases of newspapers and books and couldn’t find any uses of Darnton’s line (or anything similar) prior to 1937. My guess is that Darnton probably does deserve credit for the first version of the saying about a man who hates dogs and children.

And, although most people have not heard of him, there is now an entry about Byron Darnton on Wikipedia.

He’s also mentioned in a book and website by Doral Chenoweth about war correspondents who were killed in action during World War II.

So, Byron Darnton is not forgotten. But I suspect that most people will continue to “know” that W.C. Fields said “Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.” 

RELATED POST: “It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast!”

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