Oscar Levant

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What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.

Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906August 14, 1972) was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was better known for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, than for his music.


  • It certainly will be if you are still around.
    • In response to Gershwin's query, "I wonder if my music will be played a hundred years from now"; as quoted in "George the Ingenuous" by Alexander Woolcott, in Cosmopolitan (November 1933); reprinted in Ch. IV: "'...A Young Colossus...'" from Gershwin Remembered (1992) by Edward Jablonski, pp. 44-45
    • If George is around, it will. (This version was recounted by Howard Dietz in Dancing in the Dark (1974), p. 61, in response to a virtually identical query—i.e. as to whether Gershwin's music would still be played in 100 years—posed by Newman Levy.)
  • Tell me, George, if you had it to do all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?
    • as recounted by Levant in A Smattering of Ignorance (1940); quoted in "Books and Things" by Lewis Gannett, in The New York Herald Tribune (January 13, 1940), p. 11
  • It would have been better if you had died and Gershwin had written the elegy.
  • I would like to have been present, if I could have my choice of all moments in music history, when Stokowski suddenly became conscious of his beautiful hands. That must have been a moment. Like stout Cortez [sic] on a peak in Darien (I know it was Balboa) he saw before him a limitless expanse, a whole uncharted sea that might be subjected to his influence, free from the encumbrance of a baton.
    • In "Music in Aspic," Harper's Magazine (October 1939) and A Smattering of Ignorance (1940); as quoted by Ray C. B. Brown in "Lightning Wit Plays On American Musical Scene; Oscar Levant Answers Unspoken Request for 'Information, Please' With Uncensored Comments on Exalted Persons" The Washington Post (January 14, 1940), p. E4
  • He never asks the orchestra to do anything which contradicts the players' feeling of what the music signifies or what the printed notes of the score actually mean in plain musical language. To his credit he does not pretend to omniscience. When a certain progression of programs with the Philharmonic decreed that he conduct the Brahms Fourth Symphony two seasons ago, he disavowed intensive rehearsals with the simple statement to the orchestra: "Gentlemen, you know the work better than I do." Both the compliment and the attitude endeared themselves so much to the orchestra that they literally forgot themselves in a mass effort to justify his statement—and, as one of those who heard the performance, I can testify that they delivered one of the most powerful and integrated interpretations of the score that New York has experienced in years.
    • On conductor George Enescu, in "Music in Aspic," Harper's Magazine (October 1939) and A Smattering of Ignorance (1940); as quoted in "Lightning Wit Plays On American Musical Scene; Oscar Levant Answers Unspoken Request for 'Information, Please' With Uncensored Comments on Exalted Persons" by Ray C. B. Brown, in The Washington Post (January 14, 1940), p. E4
  • This piano plays. Which is more than I can say for her.
    • Commenting on a sour-faced society matron in Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1941)
  • It's not a pretty face, I grant you. But underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.
    • Describing himself, in lines he contributed to An American In Paris (1951), although officially credited to Alan Jay Lerner, as told in The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965); also quoted in The Dictionary of Biographical Quotation of British and American Subjects (1978) by Richard Kenin and Justin Wintle, p. 485.
  • The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.
    • As quoted in The New Speaker's Treasury of Wit and Wisdom (1958) by Herbert Victor Prochnow, p. 322.
  • I don't drink liquor. I don't like it. It makes me feel good.
  • I'm a study of a man in chaos in search of frenzy.
    • As quoted in Time magazine (May 5, 1958).
  • There is a thin line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.
    • As quoted by Cleveland Amory in Celebrity Register: An Irreverent Compendium of American Quotable Notables (1959).
  • Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you will find the real tinsel underneath.
    • As quoted by Theodor Reik in Jewish Wit (1962), p. 104, also in Inquisition in Eden (1965) and Nat Shapiro Whatever It Is, I’m Against It (1984).
  • I once said cynically of a politician, "He'll double-cross that bridge when he comes to it."
    • The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965), p. 13; also quoted in The Quotable Politician (2003) by William B. Whitman, p. 31.
  • An epigram is only a wisecrack that's played at Carnegie Hall.
    • As quoted in Coronet Magazine (September 1968).
  • I heartily approve of her campaign to beautify America. It would be greatly improved if the First Family were kept out of sight.
    • On Lyndon & Lady Bird Johnson, The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968)
  • Zsa Zsa Gabor not only worships at The Golden Calf, she insists on barbecuing it for lunch.
    • The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968)
  • Ballet is the fairies' baseball.
  • The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Democrats let the poor be corrupt, too.
  • John O'Hara was a terrible bore as a young man—always looking for a fight, and making sure he never found one.
    • as quoted by Burt Prelutsky in "Oscar the Magnificent" The Los Angeles Times (January 26, 1969), p. 468. The comment about the Democrats and the Republicans is also quoted by William B. Whitman in The Quotable Politician (2003), p. 30.
  • Happiness isn't something you experience; it's something you remember.
    • As quoted in Time (August 28, 1972).
  • He writes the kind of music you whistle on the way into the theater.
  • If George is around, it will.
    • In response to a question posed by Newman Levy, as to whether Gershwin's music would still be played a hundred years hence; as quoted in Dancing in the Dark (1974), p. 61
  • It's an advantage having a limited output. When George Gershwin is asked to play his repertoire, he plays all evening. I just play "Lady Play Your Mandolin" and I'm through.
    • As quoted in Dancing in the Dark (1974), p. 61
  • I envy people who drink — at least they know what to blame everything on.
    • As quoted by Jon Winokur in The Portable Curmudgeon (1992), p. 88.
  • What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.
    • As quoted by Gene Perret in On the 8th Day — God Laughed (1995), p. 95.
  • I am no more humble than my talents require.
    • As quoted in Memorable Quotations: Jewish Writers of the Past (2005) edited by Carol A. Dingle.
  • I have given up reading books; I find it takes my mind off myself.
    • As quoted in Memorable Quotations: Jewish Writers of the Past (2005) edited by Carol A. Dingle.
  • I was once thrown out of a mental hospital for depressing the other patients.
    • As quoted in Memorable Quotations: Jewish Writers of the Past (2005) edited by Carol A. Dingle.
  • Once he makes up his mind, he's full of indecision.
    • On President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as quoted in The Nastiest Things Ever Said about Republicans (2006) by Martin Higgins, p. 83.
  • Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.
    • Quip about Monroe's conversion to Judaism, on The Oscar Levant Show, as quoted in They Knew Marilyn Monroe: Famous Persons in the Life of the Hollywood Icon (2012) by Les Harding

The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965)[edit]

  • The other night my daughter Lorna reminisced about the time I regressed to complete infantilism. We were having dinner and tapioca pudding was served. A wild glint came into my eyes and in the presence of my wife and children I shrieked at the top of my voice, “I love this more than anything in the world!” I had to be withdrawn from tapioca pudding slowly. It was one of the few times I wasn’t committed to achieve withdrawal.
  • When I used to speak of the lunatic fringe, I didn’t know I was going to be head of it.
  • Apropos of nothing, I asked [Truman] Capote, “Are you for integration?” He said, “Yes, are you for integration?” I said, “I’m for disintegration… personal disintegration.”
  • I rated the drug Demerol over sex as the ultimate pleasure at one time. Now I don’t have access to either.
  • As a rule I never read bad reviews about myself because my best friends invariably tell me about them.
  • A psychiatrist once diagnosed my troubles as “an abdication of will.”
  • Instant unconsciousness had been my greatest passion for ten years.
  • I have seizures of momentary sanity.
  • In the middle and late 50′s I was in hospitals constantly. I was committed every time I drew a breath or took an extra twelve pills–which never affected me much because I’m not suicidal.
  • When I was in my prime, I was an egomaniac and didn’t allow my wife to buy the best sardines–the King Oscars–which bear my name. I felt there should be only one king in my house.
  • [Ira Gershwin] said that [P.G.] Wodehouse will address a letter, stamp it and throw it out of his third-story window onto the street trusting in the good nature of passerby to pick it up and mail it.

Quotations about Levant[edit]

  • The book should be a happy introduction to a character who, if he did not exist, could not be imagined.
    • S. N. Behrman, from his introduction to Levant's first book, A Smattering of Ignorance (1940); as quoted in "'A Smattering of Ignorance' Acute As Well As Amusing" by T.H.P., in The Hartford Courant (January 14, 1940)
  • Oscar would have been here at the head table—but he was feeling well.
    • Milton Berle, addressing a Friars Club luncheon in 1958, as quoted in "Levant: Deadly With an Epigram" by Ross McLean, in The Toronto Globe and Mail (August 11, 1984), p. D11
  • I was fond of Oscar, but there was something about our twin natures which made us exchange insults. I told him that I wanted to make a date with him every day so that I would know where he was and could avoid the place.
  • I was on Information Please with him and afterward there was a party and idly Oscar sat down at the piano and began to play. I remember how the conversation hushed in the crowded room. The waiters stopped serving and stood, silently listening. Yet, on this TV show, he seems almost a buffoon, as if he is deliberately mocking himself, drawing a caricature of the old Levant.
    • Boris Karloff, as quoted in "The TV Scene: Loved or Loathed by Mail" by Cecil Smith, in The Los Angeles Times (March 18, 1958), p. A6
  • I can see him to this day. He was witty and funny, always playing himself in the movies. He smoked so many cigarettes, there was a nicotine streak on his upper lip and on his fingers between the index finger and the second one. He was a wonderful guy—but he played the piano like a sledgehammer.
  • It is not always possible to predict the response of a doting Jewish mother. Witness the occasion on which the late piano virtuoso Oscar Levant telephoned his mother with some important news. He had proposed to his beloved and been accepted. Replied Mother Levant: “Good, Oscar, I’m happy to hear it. But did you practice today?”
  • About his neuroses and hypochondria, the 1920s and 1930s wit Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, once said of him: "There isn't anything the matter with Levant that a few miracles wouldn't cure."
    • Teichman, Howard, Smark Aleck, the Wit World and Life of Alexander Woollcott (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976), p. 170

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