If You Can't Get a Woman Get a Clean Old Man
April 10, 2009 11:12 AM   Subscribe

I’m curious about the origin and usage of the term, “Clean old man.” I’ve run across it reading on a few occasions.

In Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, set during the 1920s, a drunken newsman comes across an old man loitering in a public park restroom and taunts him, singing, “If you can't get a woman, get a clean old man.”

In Jim Thompson’s The Grifters, set during the 1950s, the protagonist makes up a joking story about a pretend book he’s read:

"The setting is the men's washroom in a bus station, and the characters are a clean old man and a fat young boy who live in one of the coin toilets. They ask little of the world. Only the privacy incident to doing what comes naturally. But do they get it? Heck, no! Every time they begin to function--you should excuse the language--some diarrheal dope rushes up and drops a dime in the slot. And in his coarse surrender to need, their own desire is lost. In the end, fruition frustrated, they gather up the apple cores from the urinals and go off into the woods to bake a pie.”

John Katz’s Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality makes brief mention of Gavin Arthur, in the 1920s, recalling the clean old man song having been sung by his shipmates at some earlier point when he’d been a sailor.

The Thompson example, in particular, struck me as odd because he seems to assume that his audience will be familiar with the expression.

Does anyone know if it’s an antiquated, generic term for homosexual? A specific term for older men who engage in cottaging? Are you familiar with any other literary examples.
posted by Phlogiston to Writing & Language (9 answers total)
Have you ever seen A Hard Day's Night? IIRC, Paul McCartney's grandfather was referred to as a clean old man
posted by buggzzee23 at 11:17 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I believe in Hemingway's "A clean well-lighted place" they refer to the old man at the cafe being clean, but there's no indication he's gay and I think they just mean literal physical cleanliness.

So that probably doesn't help that much.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:20 AM on April 10, 2009

The Hard Day's Night bit was a reference to actor Wilfrid Brambell's (who played Paul's grandfather) most famous role - that of the cranky father on Steptoe and Son. His son frequently referred to him as a "dirty old man" during the run of that TV series.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:28 AM on April 10, 2009

I don't have any hard evidence, but I think it might just be in opposition to the "dirty old man" thing, which is probably even older.

I think I remember hearing this on the DVD extras for A Hard Day's Night: the actor who plays Paul's grandfather was famous for playing another character who was always referred to as a "dirty old man".

According to Wikipedia,
"The frequent reference to McCartney's's grandfather as a "clean old man" contrasts with the Steptoe and Son stock description of Wilfrid Brambell's character, Albert Steptoe, as a "dirty old man".

As for homosexuality, maybe you're thinking of Seinfeld's "thin, single and neat"?
posted by exceptinsects at 11:28 AM on April 10, 2009

It seems obvious that this is a corollary of the phrase 'dirty old man', which is in fairly common use in the UK. I don't know whether it was popularised by 'Steptoe and son' or just promulgated by them.
posted by biffa at 12:04 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a reference to the "if you can't get a woman, get a clean old man" song in Ulysses, so it's obviously pre-1918.

The first reference to "dirty old man" meaning "an inappropriately lecherous and slovenly man above middle age" is significantly later.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:19 PM on April 10, 2009

From Gilbert & Sullivan's "Iolanthe", 1882:
STREPHON: Besides, who knows what will happen in two years? Why, you might fall in love with the Lord Chancellor himself by that time!
PHYLLIS: Yes. He’s a clean old gentleman.
It doesn't seem like a nodding reference to homosexuality here, but damned if I know what it does mean.
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:01 PM on April 10, 2009

Well, it shows up in some incarnations of "Do Your Balls Hang Low," where it's pretty blatantly sexual.

Thing is, it's clearly about sex even if you don't take the phrase "clean old man" to be some kind of slang or code for "gay man," but just take it literally. It may be that outside the context of that particular lyric, it never had any special meaning.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:28 PM on April 10, 2009

It's pretty prevalent in date-delimited searches on Google Books, with no apparent hint of homosexuality until the 20th century.

This is Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, A Novel (1895), by Walter Besant:
The artist in pedigrees, an old man now, presented the appearance and simulated the manners of a duke or an earl at least. He was a handsome man still, who knew the value of good appearance and good dress: he is what is called a 'clean' old man. Many old men who take a tub every day cannot achieve the appearance conveyed by this adjective.

In Trollope's autobiography (1883), he writes of a tailor and money-lender who "was a little, clean old man, who always wore a high, starched, white cravat".

In The Romance of Jenny Harlowe (1889), William Clark Russell writes of a boatswain who was "a small bowed figure in pilot cloth and a sleeved waistcoat, a very neat and clean old man".

I'm sure this connotation of "neat" and perhaps even "dapper" easily transforms into the aforementioned Seinfeld trope as social strictures against even mentioning homosexuality fall.

Personally, I don't find it that remarkable an idiom -- it's probably just strange to us because of the prevalence of dirty old man and its more specific meaning.
posted by dhartung at 10:53 PM on April 10, 2009

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