There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.
This one, ever popular, has seen spiking circulation since Jonathan Swan’s awkward Axios interview with President Trump aired August 3rd on HBO. Here are just a couple of the hundreds of invocations I found from the last few days, mostly commenting on or responding to the Axios interview, or advocating that Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger, abstain from debating the president prior to the November election.
Mark Twain never said these words, nor anything resembling them.
On November 13, 1956, Hal Boyle, a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the Associated Press, published a profile of actor Yul Brynner, who was having a hell of a year. Brynner had already appeared in The Ten Commandments and The King & I. The next month would see the premier of a third blockbuster, Anastasia, with Brynner playing opposite Ingrid Bergman. The three films would be nominated for eighteen Academy Awards and take home seven oscars between them, including a Best Actor trophy for Brynner.
As its subject was one of the hottest actors in Hollywood, Boyle’s profile was syndicated by hundreds of newspapers across the United States. When the reporter asked one of those standard celebrity interview questions – “What is the greatest advice you have ever received?” – Brynner replied by quoting his close friend, Jean Cocteau.
Cocteau, a renowned French poet, playwright, and filmmaker, had befriended Brynner when he was an unknown actor in Paris. Their relationship jumpstarted his career, as Cocteau connected him with other famous artists and influential producers. The two remained fast friends even after Brynner moved to the U.S. and became a Hollywood icon. Brynner’s then wife, actress Virginia Gilmore, reported that Cocteau was “the only other man that matched his vanity” and “Yul seemed to take lessons from him.” A few years later, Brynner would appear in Cocteau’s The Testament of Orpheus (1960), the final installment of a trilogy which would come to be regarded as groundbreaking experimental cinema.
In reviewing Cocteau’s voluminous published writings, I have not been able to establish that the statement Brynner attributes to him appears anywhere except the Boyle profile. It does, however, appear to be part of a trend of Brynner using Cocteau as cover when he wants to say something off-color or insulting. At the premier of Testament, he berated a hostile audience of studio executives by saying, “Cocteau was right when he told me that this movie should be forbidden to imbeciles!” And, at the afterparty following his acceptance of another acting award, he drunkenly shared some more of Cocteau’s purported advice, as chronicled by biographer Jhan Robbins,
“Jean [Cocteau] gave me some excellent advice I want to share with all of you. Jean told me that when you see yourself becoming famous, you should never let anybody think you go to the bathroom. You must never allow your fans to connect you with excretion.”from Yul Brynner: The Inscrutable King (1987) by Jhan Robbins
It is quite possible that Brynner simply like to trade on Cocteau’s reputation to give gravitas to his own, less revelatory, observations. Whoever was responsible for the original “idiots on their own level” remark, it has had a long, strange afterlife, during which it has been completely severed from its origins in midcentury cinema. For at least the last thirty years the quote has not been, so far as I can tell, ever attributed to Cocteau, Brynner, or Boyle.
Instead, a wide variety of iterations have been attributed to a range of celebrities, including Kevin Garnett, George Carlin, and, most frequently, Mark Twain.
The conflation of argue and associate happened as early as 1958, when, in his column for the student newspaper at University of North Carolina, Frank Crowther misquoted Cocteau. Crowther would graduate later that year and begin a tragically short, but noteworthy career as a Democratic speechwriter and government bureaucrat. Pithy quotations are a crutch of mediocre newspaper columnists and Crowther was the first of many who would circulate this one, though the last appearance I can find with the original attribution to Cocteau comes from the Kaplan Herald in 1987. Thereafter, the aphorism continued to appear in some form every few years, often with no attribution at all. Just often enough to keep it in circulation.
That changed in 1998, when during one twelve-month period, versions were published in the Atlanta Constitution, Daily Oklahoman, Elmira Star-Gazette, Kansas City Star, Longview News-Journal, and Moline Dispatch. Oddly, on none of these occasions was the quote attributed to any specific person. Sometimes the columnist said he had gotten the quote from a reader, sometimes he gave the impression he had come up with it himself.
It wasn’t just the newspaper columnists either. Early that year, before any journalist took credit for the aphorism, a neurosurgeon from Denver put it, along with a bunch of other received wisdom, in his chapter on “Accountability” in a state medical journal.
Why 1998? This remains a mystery to me. It does not appear in any of the George Carlin broadcasts, albums, or books from this period, the very height of his popularity. It’s possible that people attribute the quote to Carlin for the same reason they attribute it to Twain: he has a reputation for dark humor and a cynical outlook on mankind.
From the ’90s forward, the aphorism is permanently severed from its original wording, context, and attribution, but it is also increasingly popular. Tom Logan used it, without attribution, in the revised edition of his popular book on commercial acting, Acting in The Million Dollar Minute (2005). It appeared in Great Negotiators (2006), a handbook by business consultant Tom Beasor. It was part of a late-nineties advertising campaign for Crescent Market, reportedly the oldest grocer in Oklahoma. And it continued to appear in hundreds of newspapers columns, letters to the editor, memoirs, obituaries, and yearbooks. The aphorism was reaching peak circulation in print media just as the social media revolution took off in the mid-2000s, so the transition was inevitable. This is the earliest iteration I can find on Twitter:
The quote appears as early as 2005 on Facebook. As has so often been the case with Twain apocrypha, the misattribution is a product of digital circulation. While the correct attribution to Cocteau, Brynner, and Boyle was lost to print media by the late 1980s, I could find no instance in which a newspaper columnist or reporter arbitrarily ascribed the aphorism to Twain until after it had saturated social media.