08 Jun Don’t let the bastards get you down
In support of encouraging others
The way I always heard the story, Katherine Hepburn was having a tough time at one point in her career.
She’d been savaged by the critics and left for dead. In a review of the 1933 Broadway play “The Lake,” still known to this day as a spectacular failure, Dorothy Parker of the New Yorker famously described her range as,
“She ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.”
When she made the jump from stage to screen in 1937’s “Stage Door,” she was cheered. After the next year’s “Bringing Up Baby,” she was branded box office poison, a label that would stick to her and depress her prospects for several years.
One day, on the verge of giving it all up. Staring into the unblinking eyes of a career in free fall, she walked into her dressing room on the studio lot to find a bouquet of flowers and a one-line letter that read:
“Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Signed by John Wayne.
At least that’s the way I heard it.
Years later, Barbara Walters, working through a difficult time as a pioneering young female journalist in an unfalteringly male-controlled industry, said in an interview she returned to her office one day to find a telegram from John Wayne with the same one-line message…
Don’t let the bastards get you down.
And it made her feel sure the cavalry was on the way to help.
I like to think both stories are true. I like to think John Wayne often sent that same note to people he thought needed a lift.
Learning from history
The actual history of the phrase is more complicated.
“Illegitimi non carborundum” is a mock-Latin phrase that loosely translates to “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
It’s a phrase that is believed to have originated with the British Intelligence Service very early in WWII. It was adopted as a personal motto during WWII by US Army General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell. It’s been famously used by Barry Goldwater, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, and most recently made semi-notorious in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
But, John-freekin’ Wayne
But for some reason, it’s the idea that John Wayne said it that resonates.
Marion Robert Morrison – John Wayne – The Duke – struggled to gain respect early in his career. Sure, he broke through in Hollywood’s Golden Year, 1939. A starring turn in John Ford’s Western masterpiece, “Stagecoach.” But through the 30s, he was known only as a good-looking, but not so talented, B-movie western actor.
I like to think once he became a star of mythical proportions, he still handed off his best advice when he thought it was most needed to people he knew needed it most.
It makes me feel good to believe that people “up there” are rooting for people “down here.”
And it’s the reason I use it whenever I have a friend or colleague or family member who seems to be struggling with something.
Why we need to think this way
In an overwhelmingly sad and serious development, the CDC reported recently that suicide rates in America spiked by 25% across the country between 1999 and 2016. The report actually cited 25 states that had a spike of more than 30%.
I won’t pretend to believe that an encouraging note from John Wayne to keep your chin up or maintain a stiff upper lip is any replacement for real medical or psychological intervention when it comes to clinical depression. But I like to think that we all have a responsibility to look out for each other a little bit.
Ask each other how things are going.
Connect. Be interested. Encourage each other.
And maybe that little touchpoint. That human contact. That reminder that we’re not in it all alone all the time, can make a difference.
You’re not going it alone
I’ll sometimes see a mother or father trying to deal with a child melting down in a public place. Working hard to try and calm him. Distract her. Get her to shut the heck up for a moment. All with an overwhelmed “don’t embarrass me in the supermarket” look in their desperate “don’t judge me, I’m a parent” eyes.
“I feel like that sometimes, too,” I’ll say to these people with a smile and an understanding tone. Most pause for a moment not getting it at first, then they relax into a laugh as they realize what I mean.
I can almost picture them picturing me rolling on the floor crying about not getting a cookie. And they remember we all have to deal with some things like this sometimes. It’s not just them.
It’s a little encouragement. A little distraction. A little understanding.
And we all need a little bit of that sometimes to remember we’re all in it together.
So go out there and do the best you can do.
And when things get tough. Because they will sometimes.
And you feel like you’re in over your head. Because you’ll feel like that sometimes.
Always remember we’re rooting for you.
So, don’t let the bastards get you down.