The Discriminating Thief

Damon Runyon

One of my fair readers, evidently a very nice lady, wrote that she thought my column the best in the world.

Well, it ought to be in view of the many years I have been stealing from the greatest writers that ever lived to entertain and instruct my parishioners.

I tell you, dearly beloved, that at times my efforts in intellectual larceny in your behalf have been positively superhuman. I do not say my column would be more than just real good if I relied entirely upon my own noodle, but with centuries of writing to prowl through, and pick and choose from, I would be a poor stick, indeed, did I not make it the best.

Sometimes I wonder if youse appreciate me.

I steal from Plato, Socrates, Woodrow Wilson, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Mr. Dooley, Euripides, Nat Fleischer’s All-Time Ring Record, Lincoln’s speeches, Ingersoll’s lectures, LaGuardia’s readings of the comic strips, Caesar (Irving and Arthur and Julius), Butler (Nick, Sam, Ben and Bill), Dickens, Cato, Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman.

I steal from Dante, Goethe, Aesop, Confucius, Karl Marx, Yussel Stalin, Conrad, James G. Blaine, Demosthenes, Sheridan (Dick and Phil), Disraeli, Nick the Greek, Joe Louis, Bob Fitzsimmons, Hans Christian Andersen, Grimm, L. B. Mayer, Henry Mencken, Good Time Charley, George Jean Nathan, George Washington, Grover Cleveland, Clay, Calhoun, Talleyrand, Thomas Paine and Jim Farley.

I would like to see another column that presents as great a variety of brains burglary as this. Other columnists steal from a limited number of sources and with great timidity. I steal from everybody and as bold as brass. And yet I feel that in depredations I am a sort of an intellectual Robin Hood. I steal from the rich in wisdom and give it to the poor, if the members of my congregation will pardon the simile.

However, I have developed considerable cunning in my book banditry. I exercise caution in stealing from anyone who has not been dead many years, as I have learned the danger of long memories among the living putting the finger on one quite unexpectedly.

It is not that there is any legal penalty involved. It is simply that personally I do not fancy being caught at my larceny lest my own erudition thereafter be suspect. I mean I do not like to encounter glances that tell me that the glancer is saying to himself, this Runyon is an intellectual gonniff.

I have learned that it is safest to stick to stealing from the classics which, though they are always spoken of quite favorably in our best intellectual circles, are seldom read; hence with just a slight touching up you can get away with their wisdom as your own, and acquire the reputation of being an educated fellow.

In fact, if you are slick enough about it, posterity may quote you as the original author. For instance Lincoln is always credited with the immortal lines, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” though over thirty years before he said it at Gettysburg, Daniel Webster put it this way:

“The people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.”

And long before Webster, Charles James Fox of England, expressed the thought in a toast to “our sovereign, the people” which got him in a fine jam.

I found in a magazine another example of what I mean. General Douglas MacArthur was credited with saying to an aide: “Do you want to live forever?”

Now MacArthur may have said it all right—I am not doubting the authors—but if he did he was remembering Floyd Gibbons’ quotation of Sergeant Dan Daly who is supposed to have yelled back in 1918 at his Marines in the Boise Belleau:

“Come on you ———, do you want to live forever?”

Nor do I doubt that Franklin P. Adams said, as reported in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but the betting is best that way,” only I think Hughy Keough said it first.

I agree that it is no great thought, no sparkling gem of wisdom any way you take it, but when Bartlett’s prints something, I want it accurate because Bartlett’s is one of my favorite sources of thievery and I like to know who I am stealing from.