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The Expression 'Live Fast, Die Young and Leave a Good-looking Corpse'

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A young man in a fast car

A radical solution for avoiding a mid-life crisis is to avoid mid-life. One interpretation of this solution was first suggested to the cinema-going public in 1949 when the phrase 'Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse' was spoken by actor John Derek in the film Knock on Any Door, which also starred Humphrey Bogart and was directed by Nicholas Ray1. Ray went on to direct James Dean, who, curiously, is widely admired for having accidentally adopted John Derek's advice.

The Scheme

The solution has three parts. First, it is suggested, you must 'Live fast'. 'Living fast' is not specifically defined, but it generally involves having a very good time. On achieving this first step, you consequently increase the chances of achieving the second step, which is to 'die young'. Having died young, the chances of achieving the third step are based on two main factors. The perceived beauty of the participant and the manner of the death. A very good looking person who drinks 10 bottles of champagne and then falls several hundred feet from an air-borne balloon will achieve the first two aims, but is unlikely to achieve the third.


The purported advantages of the scheme are that those engaging in it get to go to lots of parties and, at the same time, will avoid having to think about what to do with the extra years we get allocated after the age of thirty. These advantages, of course, largely depend on succeeding with all three steps.

While living fast increases the chances of dying young, it does not actually guarantee that such an event will occur. Some practitioners find that having hit the ground running with masses of parties, alcohol and high speed car chases, they simply fail to achieve step two. In many cases, these unfortunate people grow old in a confused and bewildered state, as it wasn't really supposed to happen, and now they have the added problem of looking a bit foolish. Those who actually achieve step two are generally considered to be a little bit more cool than those that don't.

If step two is achieved, the utility of step three to the practitioner is somewhat questionable. Human beings consider many things to be 'good looking', but few would add corpses to their list. While one might gain pleasure from having their flowers or pets admired as beautiful, the chances of gaining such pleasure with one's own corpse are severely limited. It is perhaps for these reasons, that, in the spread of the phrase through the collective consciousness of late-20th Century humanity, step three has been quietly laid to one side, and the phrase is more widely known in its short form: 'Live fast, die young'.


Unsurprisingly, the scheme has not widely caught on. The main reason is that it faces stiff competition from an alternative theory of living, namely: 'Live slow, die as old as possible'. This is universally popular. The vast majority of humanity chooses to go to parties at moderately spaced intervals, and to fill the intervening time with activities such as going to the office and lounging around watching television. While this entails the consequence of having to think about what to do with the extra years before dying, most people arrive at the swift solution that they should carry on pretty much as they did before. The benefits of living in this manner are that it allows you to get a few more holidays in, rent more videos and eat more dinners than you otherwise might have done.


Of those that actually practised the advice, James Dean is perhaps the most famous. He also achieves something that demonstrates a curious anomaly which seems to affect most practitioners of the scheme: The more glamorous and fast the life, the more absurd the death. James Dean lived just off Times Square, hung out with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, had wild times with Marlon Brando and invented a whole new way of smoking. Then he made a road safety commercial and was killed when he drove his Porsche at high speed into a Ford Sedan. The Sedan was being driven by a man called Mr Turnupseed. Dean died at 24. Mr Turnupseed survived the crash and lived to be 632.

Another example: Jim Morrison was frontman to a massively successful rock band (The Doors), toured all over, had lots of wild parties, and lots of wild groupies, did crazy things on and off stage, drank every drink under the sun and wandered around deserts - before getting heroin confused with cocaine and then deciding to have a bath.

But perhaps the greatest exponent of the practice was someone who managed to achieve the advice approximately 2300 years before it was actually given. In this sense, as well as others, Alexander the Great was well ahead of his time. He hung out with Aristotle, put down a Thracian rebellion, and built a massive empire all the way from Macedonia to India. He almost certainly had a few laughs along the way, but this was before he wandered into a swamp and was bitten by a mosquito. He died of malaria at 32.


The expression 'Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse' advocates something hardly anyone does and makes little practical sense. Yet part of it has become one of the most widely-known phrases in the western world. 'A stitch in time saves nine' it is not. It should also be noted that John Derek himself spectacularly failed to live up to his own advice. He married actress Bo Derek and lived for 62 years.

1Screenplay by John Monks Jr, based on a novel by Willard Murray.2 Mr Turnupseed was called Donald Turnupseed (aka Turnipseed), and guess what, there's a song about him. It is an obscure B-side called 'Turnupseed' by the 1980s alternative band Furniture - most famous for 'Brilliant Mind', which itself featured in the John Hughes film Some Kind of Wonderful.

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