Play It Again, Sam, No Matter Who Said It First

In writing the other day of looking up at William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon castle from the highway, I recalled a remark sometimes attributed to George Bernard Shaw:

"This is probably the way God would have done it if he had had the money."

My source for that quotation was "The Golden Days of San Simeon," by Ken Murray (Doubleday: 1971). The reference read as follows: "Shaw, after viewing San Simeon, is rumored to have said . . ."

Granted, the book was rather casual, historically, and that "rumored to have said" does not have the ring of authenticity. So I am not surprised to hear that at least two other people were the authors of that remark. (The book does have a photograph of the Irish wit standing in front of the castle door with Marion Davies, so we know the old gentleman was there.)

Mike Laurence of Sherman Oaks reports that in his autobiography, "Act One," the playwright Moss Hart recalls that after his first Broadway success, with George S. Kaufman, he built a mansion in Connecticut. When Kaufman came to see the showplace, Hart said, he observed: "Nice, Moss. Just what God would have done if he'd had the money."

Maurice Zolotow, the Hollywood historian, recalls also that it was Hart's nouveau-riche mansion that inspired the remark, but says the wit was playwright-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, not Kaufman. (And the house was in Bucks County, Pa., not Connecticut.)

On review, the remark sounds like one of those that are of apocryphal origin, and in time are ascribed to various authors who seem to suit them. Thus, the famous line, "I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini" is ascribed both to Alexander Woollcott and Robert Benchley. (Benchley did say it in a movie, but denied authorship. My research indicates that it was first used by Mae West.)

The producer Sam Goldwyn was a made-to-order patsy for invented malapropisms and blunders. Press agents and screenwriters festooned his image with hilarious lines that he denied ever saying.

In their book "They Never Said It" (Oxford University Press) Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George say that Goldwyn did not originate any of the following:

"Gentlemen, include me out!" "I can answer you in two words-- im possible!" "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." "Anyone who would go to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined."

Evidently these gems were thought up by wags who attributed them to Goldwyn to give them immortality.

The book also quashes the myth that in "Casablanca" Humphrey Bogart says, "Play it again, Sam"--a line that has become a part of the language. The authors note, correctly, that Ingrid Bergman says, "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.' " But they fail to note that in a later scene Bogart says, "You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can. Play it."

Other cherished misquotations are also exposed. Winston Churchill did not say "blood, sweat and tears." He said "blood and toil, tears and sweat." But evidently the press and the public altered the quote, making it stronger and eliminating the redundant toil and sweat .

Although Ronald Reagan said, "Win one for the Gipper" in the movie "Knute Rockne--All-American," and quoted it often in his political career, the words probably never passed the lips of the dying Gipp. Rockne himself invented the story later during a Notre Dame-Army game to inspire his team at half-time.

Generations of Americans have credited Horace Greeley with the advice, "Go West, young man." The phrase was first used by a forgotten writer, John Babsone Soule, in the Terre Haute Express. Greeley later reprinted the article in his New York Tribune, giving Soule full credit. But the phrase was ever after attributed to Greeley.

Both Mark Twain and Will Rogers are credited with saying, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Neither said it. Evidently it was invented by Charles Dudley Warner, a journalist, and attributed to Twain.

And bank robber Willie Sutton did not say, "I rob banks because that's where the money is." A reporter made it up.

Too bad. I have always thought that for sheer brevity, clarity and integrity, that was among the classics of all time.

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