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Words of wisdom (and malarkey) from the famous

Esquire has published the 'best' tidbits culled from its 'What I've Learned' feature. Some are sage, some are silly.

January 11, 2008|Peter Carlson | Washington Post

Facts, facts, facts! We're drowning in a sea of facts and every day a flood of new facts pours in. What America needs is fewer facts and more wisdom. Fortunately, the January issue of Esquire is chock-full of wisdom. In fact, it's jampacked with the wisest wisdom from some of the wisest human beings of our time, such as Jerry Lewis, Rodney Dangerfield and Donald Trump.

"Everybody is 9 years old," said Lewis.

"People seldom live up to their baby pictures," said Dangerfield.

"Fighting for the last penny is a very good philosophy to have," said Trump.

The occasion for this outpouring of wisdom is the 10th anniversary of Esquire's popular "What I've Learned." Like so many good things, this feature began by accident. In 1998, Esquire sent Mike Sager to interview actor Rod Steiger and Steiger showed up with notes about what he'd learned in life.

When Sager wrote the piece, he dispensed with all the usual folderol of celebrity interviews and simply quoted Steiger's words of wisdom, which included "False hope is unnecessary pain" and "Thought is like a snowball: The longer you live, the more it melts."

Esquire's editors ran Steiger's quotes under the heading "What I've Learned" and a new monthly feature was born -- a sort of Q & A interview with all the Q's removed, leaving only a collection of aphorisms, such as this one from Ted Williams: "Ya gotta be ready for the fastball."

Now, 10 years later, Esquire has published the best of "What I've Learned" and billed it as a "trove of wisdom." And that's true: There's more wisdom crammed into these 25 pages than you'll find in the collected works of Khalil Gibran -- and almost as much malarkey.

Some of these words of wisdom sound like something you'd find in a fortune cookie:

"The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up," said Muhammad Ali.

"Acceptance is the key to everything," said Michael J. Fox.

But there's some wisdom here that you'll probably never find in a fortune cookie: "Asians are nice people, but they burn a lot of shirts," said Don Rickles.

Most of the wise folks quoted here are showbiz celebrities, so it's not surprising that much of the wisdom relates to the holy trinity of celebrity life -- ego, money and sex.

"Ego is necessary," said Lewis.

"No matter how much money you have, you can lose it," said Fox.

"The number one rule of the road is never go to bed with anyone crazier than yourself," said Kris Kristofferson. "You will break this rule and you will be sorry."

But even celebrities sometimes speculate on more ethereal matters. "Being a Baptist won't keep you from sinning," said Jimmy Dean, "but it'll sure as hell keep you from enjoying it."

Some of Esquire's wisdom is pretty generic, like Ali's assertion that "the sun is always shining someplace." But some of it could only come from the person quoted. For instance, nobody but Mia Farrow has lived through a situation that would teach this rather esoteric lesson: "You don't want your son's father married to your son's sister, you know? That's bad for family values."

"Never pull a hair from Faye Dunaway's head," said Roman Polanski. "Pull it from someone else's head." I'll try to remember that the next time I get close to Faye, but right now I'm wondering exactly how Polanski learned that particular bit of wisdom.

It's great that these quotes are short and pithy but sometimes you want to hear more, maybe ask a follow-up question:

"Get your priorities right," said Richard Branson. OK, Richard, but what exactly are the right priorities?

"When you're mad at someone, it's probably best not to break his arm with a baseball bat," said Evel Knievel. That's fine, but do you mean we should turn the other cheek or we should use a crowbar?

Esquire gave actress Carrie Fisher the chance to revise her "What I've Learned" list from 2002. Among the things she said back then was: "All the good people are nuts," but now she crossed that out, which I interpret to mean that at least one good person has achieved mental health since 2002.

Perhaps Esquire's most profound bit of wisdom about the nature of life comes from comedian Garry Shandling: "Impermanence, impermanence, impermanence."

But my favorite comes from Kirk Douglas: "Maybe when you die, you come before a big, bearded man on a big throne and you say, 'Is this heaven?' and he says, 'Heaven? You just came from there.' "

But I'll admit I'm confused: Is that wisdom or just more malarkey? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. That's what I've learned reading "What I've Learned."

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