Posted Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, at 12:15 PM
Will Rogers, a comedian, actor, and writer who was one of the best-loved celebrities of the 1920s and 1930s, delivered this scathing after-dinner speech to a group of bankers in the early 1920s.
Calling his audience “disgustingly rich,” Rogers compared bankers to bootleggers and accused them of stealing houses from widows. "You have a wonderful organization," he said. "I understand you have 10,000 here, and with what you have in various federal prisons, your membership is around 30,000." The roast approaches “Stephen Colbert-at-the-White-House-Correspondents’-Association-Dinner” levels of uncomfortable honesty.
When he gave this speech, Rogers was acting on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies, as well as in silent films. In an attempt to pay off some lingering debts, he took various engagements as an after-dinner speaker. His audiences often included bankers, manufacturers, and other businessmen, who invited him back despite his cutting commentary.
Perhaps his audiences accepted his tart remarks more easily because he often poked fun at himself, too. He wrote in 1923: “Banking and after-dinner speaking are two of the most non-essential industries we have in this country. I am ready to reform if they are.”
Rogers’ true fame came later in the 1920s, through his widely syndicated newspaper column, his radio broadcasting career, and his acting. Despite the mention of "Shylocks" in this speech—an epithet that would now be seen as anti-Semitic—Rogers was generally socially liberal.
The comedian was killed in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935, at the height of his influence.
A transcript appears after the audio player. Thanks to The Public Domain Review for the tip.
Loan sharks and interest hounds: I have addressed every form of organized graft in the United States, excepting Congress. So it's naturally a pleasure to me to appear before the biggest. You are without a doubt the most disgustingly rich audience I've ever talked to, with the possible exception of the Bootleggers' Union Local No. 1, combined with the enforcement officers.
Now I understand you hold this convention every year to announce what the annual gyp will be. I have often wondered where the depositors hold their convention. I had an account in a bank once and the banker asked me to withdraw it. Said I used up more red ink than the account was worth.
I see where your wives come with you. You notice I say "come" not "was brought." I see where your convention was opened with a prayer. You had to send outside your ranks to get somebody who knew how to pray. You should have had one creditor there. He'd have shown you how to pray. I noticed in the prayer the clergymen announced to the almighty that the bankers were here. Well, it wasn't exactly an announcement. It was more in the nature of a warning. He didn't tell the devil, he figured he knew where you all were all the time anyhow.
I see by your speeches that you are very optimistic of the business conditions of the coming year. Boy, I don't blame you. If I had your dough, I'd be optimistic too.
Will you please tell me what you all do with the vice-presidents the bank has? I guess that's to get anybody more discouraged before you can see the main guy. The United States is the biggest business institution in the world. They only got one vice-president. Nobody's ever found anything for him to do!
I've met most of you as I come out of the stage door of the Follies every night. I want to tell you, any of you that are capitalized at under a million dollars needn't hang around there! Our girls may not know their Latin and Greek, but they certainly know their Dun and Bradstreet.
You have a wonderful organization. I understand you have 10,000 here, and with what you have in various federal prisons, your membership is around 30,000.
So goodbye, paupers! You are the finest bunch of Shylocks that ever foreclosed a mortgage on a widow's home.
A note on dates: It appears that this recording wasn’t made at the banquet itself, but was recorded in a studio after the fact. Harper’s has suggested that Rogers’ original audience might have been the convention of the American Bankers Association in 1922. The Library of Congress’ National Jukebox holds a version of the record dated May 31, 1923, while the Internet Archive dates the record to 1924.