Tracking down a Groucho quote

A friend recently posted a challenge on facebook. He kept running into the following quote attributed to Groucho Marx:

"Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myselfI, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it."

This was driving him nuts; anyone who knows thing 1 about Groucho Marx would have a hard time imagining Groucho saying anything like this. The man never seemed to be happy a day in his life. It sounds more like AA recovery-speak or something. Yet, the quote shows up, attributed to Marx, on innumerable webpages, books of inspirational quotes, and such-like.
A blotter given to school kids by
The brown trading stamp co
(obviously), reprinted in the
Jersey Journal in 1906

This is just the kind of detective work I like to do - it comes up a lot in the ghostlore research, particularly the upcoming Ghosts of Lincoln book - so I got right on it. The quote seems to have first become commonly attributed to Marx in the late 1990s, thought it did appear in a newspaper in the early 1970s, where it was presented as a philosophy that worked for Groucho. No source was given, though.

Working on the assumption that the quote that's being spread around probably isn't an exact quote, I started looking up stray phrases from it, and found a few similar things. Slogans along those lines appeared in ads and lists of inspirational lines from time to time throughout the early 20th century; my favorite was a list of advice from the Brown Trading Stamps co that was apparently given to school children in the early 20th century. #6 is "have all the fun you can today; yesterday is dead and tomorrow has not yet been born. #11 was "using Brown Trading Stamps will make you happy. (#s 3 and 19 had similar advice).

I finally hit paydirt with a 1955 article where commedian Danny Thomas told the story of a 104 year old contestant on Groucho's You Bet Your Life TV show had said a very similar quote when Groucho asked him the secret of a long, happy life  - something to do with "When a man wakes up, he can choose to be happy or unhappy, I choose to be happy."

That being a heck of a clue, I started looking up more things of that nature and found two columns Groucho wrote in the early 1950s in which answered frequently-asked questions. One o them was "who has been your favorite contestant?" In both columns he mentioned several, but both times included Hannus Von Yannah, a 102 year old contestant, who had created a bit of a sensation by saying something of that nature. Here's the 1951 version:


And the 1952 version, with a slightly different version of the quote in question:


Now, this still left open the question of whether all of this really happened, exactly. I couldn't find a thing about Hannus Von Yannah being a real person from  quick search, and it seemed entirely plausible that Groucho just made the thing up.  There was a 102 year old man on an episode of the You Bet Your Life TV show that was easy to find on youtube, but when Groucho asks him the secret of a long life, the man says "I eat whatever I want." And that episode is from 1958, years after the columns.

A bit more poking hit paydirt again: A widely-circulated column by Erich Brandeis in April, 1951 reconted the story of hearing a recent episode of You bet Your Life (the radio version, not the TV show), in which a 102 year old Scandinavian said that he chose to be happy every day. Brandeis then went into a little sermon about why that was such a great philosophy.

All that this left was to find the actual show. Like most old time radio shows, it's easy enough to find most episodes simply by googling. Most are in the public domain and easy to download for free. In this case, since no exact date was given, the name Hannus Von Yannah only led to Groucho's columns, and "102 year old man" only brought up the 1958 TV show, I simply downloaded a bunch of March and April, 1951 episodes and browsed through them.

And there it was: on the March 28, 1951 episode, one of the contestants in the second half of the program said he was 102 years old, born in January, 1851. The first president he remembered was Abraham Lincoln  - "You must be pretty old to remember a Republican president!" said Groucho. He then asked him, "What is the secret of long life, longevity?" The man replied, "I think the secret of longevity is to be happy. Every day a man wakes up, he has the choice whether he will be happy or unhappy. I have chosen to be happy." "That's a wonderful philosophy," said Groucho.  You can download the episode for free here. 

So, there you have it. Like many lists of inspiration quotes, the attribution is shaky, at best. I've learned this the hard way; the Leonard Cohen quotes I worked into a zombie romance satire a few years back get attributed to me by skin care companies who post inspiration quotes on twitter all the time. 

Now, what a skin care company would be doing looking in a zombie book for skin care tips, I'll never know. 



8 comments:

Charlie said...

Good on you. Internet quotes are fatally suspect. George Carlin, Andy Rooney, and Thomas Jefferson are fist-pumping in Paradise.

Cate Hagman said...

Well done! These days I am cautious about attributions, and not only because everything is flung about with abandon in cyberspace. The whole episode with the USPS putting a misattributed quote on the Maya Angelou stamp ought to be a cautionary tale for us all. In that case there were already books in print mistakenly attributing the quotation to Angelou, when it was really a rewording of a line by Joan Walsh Anglund.

That's a great story about the zombie novel, by the way.

The O.G. said...

Great job tracking this down.

John Bescherer said...

Nice job. TCM is using that quote for their Facebook header of the Summer Under the Stars day for Groucho today. (August 14th) I knew as soon as I saw it that Groucho couldn't have said it. Now if we could only get the word out. 1900 people have already shared the header, meaning that it probably now unstoppable.

Adam Selzer said...

So that's where all this stuff is coming from!

Don said...

Interesting. For 2 days, I lived as an 102 year old happy Norwegian. Now I am back to being myself. Thanks.

Dr Ian Ellis-Jones said...

The sentiment is indeed pure Groucho, at least in his latter years. First, in a late 1950s LP in which Pete Smith interviewed a number of celebrities including Groucho, Danny Thomas, Bob Hope, Ethel Merman and many others, Groucho referred to the YBYL show in question and adopted that philosophy of choosing to be happy as his own. The sentiment can also be found in one of Groucho's last books, a book on the quiz show, entitled The Secret Word is Groucho, published in 1976. True, Groucho himself never said those exact words, and that point has been shown to be the case, but there is material that he expressly adopted that philosophy as his own. For those who say that they can't imagine Groucho saying or thinking words or sentiment of that kind, well, they neither met the man nor have read widely on him, especially as respects his latter years.

Anonymous said...

Really wonderful tracking!

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013