As it happens, the original quotation is actually: “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” And Barnum is not the only person who is credited with assuring us that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, George M. Cohan, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, and President Harry S. Truman are among those to whom that quote has been attributed at one time or another. Maybe they all said it, but which one was first?
In Safire’s Political Dictionary, the late New York Times columnist William Safire gave credit for the saying to “Big Tim” Sullivan. Sullivan was a controversial political figure prominent in New York’s Tammany Hall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He served briefly in Congress and was responsible for early gun control legislation known as the “Sullivan Act.”
But Michael Turney, professor emeritus of communication at Northern Kentucky University, has deduced that Barnum must be the one who originated the saying. “Chronologically, he came first,” says Turney, “and, to me, he seems to have been the most outspoken and the most self-deprecatingly cynical… It simply sounds like something he would have said.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows plenty of names that are difficult to spell. He is especially troubled by “Taliaferro,” which for some arcane reason is pronounced “Tolliver.”
I met a young lady named Taliaferro,
At a matinee showing of “Oliaferro!”
Her looks made me quiaferro
From my lips to my liaferro,
In fact I was quiaferroing alliaferro!