It Is Not Enough to Succeed; One’s Best Friend Must Fail

Gore Vidal? La Rochefoucauld? Somerset Maugham? Wilfrid Sheed? Iris Murdoch? David Merrick? Genghis Khan? Larry Ellison? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Competition and jealousy are reflected in a family of closely related cynical sayings:

  • It is not enough to succeed; one’s best friend must fail.
  • It is not enough to succeed; one’s friends must fail.
  • It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.
  • It’s not enough that I should succeed, others should fail.
  • It is not sufficient that I succeed – all others must fail.

I have heard different versions of these quotations credited to the epigrammatist La Rochefoucauld, the writer Gore Vidal, and the warlord Genghis Khan. Could you examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: François Duc de la Rochefoucauld was born in 1613, and he did craft adages that are sometimes confused with the phrases you have given. Here are English translations of two of his statements that were originally made in French [YQRO] [OXRO]:

In the misfortune of our best friends, we always find something which is not displeasing to us.

We are all strong enough to bear the misfortunes of others.

These are really different maxims, and QI believes that the sayings under investigation should not be ascribed to La Rochefoucauld. A separate post will be created to discuss Rochefoucauld’s words.

The earliest instance known to QI of a quotation that fits in this family of sayings was published in 1959. The words were attributed to the best-selling author Somerset Maugham by the avid quotation collector Bennett Cerf. The quote was published in Cerf’s syndicated newspaper column called “Try and Stop Me”, and he credited Maugham second-hand through an unnamed “visitor” [SMFF]:

Octogenarian Somerset Maugham told a visitor to his French Riviera estate recently, “Now that I’ve grown old, I realize that for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One’s best friend must also have failed.”

In 1961 “Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study” by Richard A. Cordell was published, and it included a discussion of the quotation immediately above. The biographer contended that Maugham’s comment was inspired by his exposure to the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld in his youth. The excerpt below referred to Maugham’s sojourn in Heidelberg, Germany that began when he was eighteen. The excerpt also referred his 85th birthday which occurred in 1959 [SMRC]:

His companions introduced him to the pleasures of art, poetry, theatre, and friendly disputation. He discovered the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, and their echoes were heard for sixty years in his plays and stories. On Maugham’s eighty-fifth birthday a journalist reported him as uttering a pure La Rochefoucauld: “Now that I have grown old, I realize that for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One’s best friend must also have failed.” Fortunately one is not obliged to accept as authentic every statement made by a columnist, and this ill-humored remark is quoted out of context.

Some readers may have misinterpreted the phrase “uttering a pure La Rochefoucauld” and concluded that the quotation was composed directly by La Rochefoucauld. But Cordell actual meant that the quote was stylistically and thematically congruent to the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. This similarity has caused confusion between the words of Maugham and La Rochefoucauld for decades as shown in the citations below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1964 the best-selling author Merle Miller published a book about his unhappy experiences attempting to launch a television series. He included a quote that matched Maugham’s statement but he credited La Rochefoucauld [DDLR]:

Remember the advice of the wisest of men, Rochefoucauld, ‘It is not enough to have achieved personal success. One’s best friend must also have failed.’

In 1967 the musical composer and controversial diarist Ned Rorem included a version of the quote in his New York diary. He credited Maugham with a shortened version.  The word “personal” was deleted, and “one’s best friend” became simply “friends” [NRSM]:

I said to Joe LeSueur: “I’ve decided to become charitable.” His answer: “Really? How do you intend to go about it?” And he quotes Maugham: “It’s not enough that I succeed, my friends must fail.” Then adds: “It’s not enough that I fail, my friends must fail.”

In 1971 Bennett Cerf revisited the saying and printed a modified version in his syndicated newspaper column. The quote was still attributed to Maugham, but it was pithier [SMBC]:

“When you pass middle age, it is not enough that you succeed. Your friends must also fail.” Somerset Maugham.

In 1972 the prominent movie director Francis Ford Coppola used a version of the saying and attributed it to “La Rochefoucault”, a misspelling of La Rochefoucauld [FCLR]:

The problem here is that unique Hollywood principle: “I want my film to be good and his to be lousy,” which is based on the old adage of La Rochefoucault, “It is not enough that I succeed; my best friend must also fail.” It’s different in Europe.

In 1973 the novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed used the saying in the New York Times while speaking about Gore Vidal, but he did not attribute the quote to Vidal; instead, he assigned it to La Rochefoucauld [WSLR]

Envy? Oh yes. Wanton. “Every time a friend succeeds I die a little.” Only a writer could have said that. In fact, I thought I’d said it myself, only to learn that Gore Vidal had beaten me to it by years-the upstart. And in a sense La Rochefoucauld beat us both, when he said “it is not enough to succeed; a friend must also fail.”

In 1973 the British-Irish author Iris Murdoch used a version of the expression in her novel “The Black Prince”. This is earliest known instance with the subphrase “others must fail”. The character in the book who employed the saying connected it to “a Frenchman” [IMBP]:

It was also important that I felt myself so immeasurably superior to Francis. Some clever writer (probably a Frenchman) has said: it is not enough to succeed; others must fail. So I felt gracious that evening towards Francis because he was what he was and I was what I was.

Top quotation expert Nigel Rees stated that the following version of the saying was attributed to Gore Vidal after a requiem mass held in London on December 7, 1976. Reverend Gerard Irvine said that the phrase was “the cynical maxim of a clever friend”. Note that the wording is identical to the instance in Iris Murdoch’s novel [NRGV]:

It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.

The Yale Book of Quotations states that the same quotation was attributed to Gore Vidal in a Rhode Island newspaper on November 3, 1978 [YQGV].

In October 1979 a newspaper columnist credited top Broadway producer David Merrick with a distinct instance of the saying [DMPC]:

“It’s not enough that I should succeed, others should fail.”—David Merrick

In 1988 the powerful software mogul Larry Ellison (Lawrence J. Ellison) of Oracle Corporation employed a variant of the saying. But he suggested that he was restating the philosophy of a famous warlord [GKLE]:

Mr. Ellison, whose 29 percent stake in the company is worth about $268 million, uses another historical reference to describe Oracle’s competitive stance. “Our idea of the most aggressive sales vice president is Genghis Khan,” he said. Paraphrasing the Mongol leader’s philosophy, he added: “It is not sufficient that I succeed – all others must fail.”

In conclusion, based on current evidence this family of sayings began in 1959 with the statement credited to Somerset Maugham. The quotation may have been influenced by La Rochefoucauld, but it was distinct. Multiple versions were created during decades of evolution. Iris Murdoch was the first to employ a version with the subphrase “others must fail”, and she did so before Gore Vidal.

[YQRO] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: François, Sixth Duc de la Rochefoucauld, Page 443, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[OXRO] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Section: Duc de la Rochefoucauld, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed August 5, 2012)

[SMFF] 1959 July 08, The Daily Messenger, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 12, Col. 7, Canandaigua, New York. (NewspaperArchive)

[SMRC] 1961, Somerset Maugham: a Writer for All Seasons by Richard A. Cordell, Page 29, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. (Verified on paper)

[DDLR] 1964, Only You, Dick Daring!: or How to Write One Television Script and Make $50,000,000 by Merle Miller, Quote Page 45, W. Sloane Associates, New York. (Verified on paper; Thanks to the librarians at University of Central Florida)

[NRSM] 1967, The New York Diary of Ned Rorem by Ned Rorem, Quote Page 204, George Braziller, New York. (Verified on paper)

[SMBC] 1971 July 23, Reading Eagle, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 10, Col. 5, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive)

[FCLR] 1972, Movie People: At Work in the Business of Film, Edited by Fred Baker, Chapter by Francis Ford Coppola, Quote Page 68, Douglas Book Corp., New York. (Verified on paper)

[WSLR] 1973 February 4, New York Times, Book Review Section, The Good Word: Writer as Wretch and Rat by Wilfrid Sheed, Page BR2 [PROQ Page 324], New York. (ProQuest)

[IMBP] 1973, The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch, Quote Page 98, Chatto and Windus, London. (Verified on paper)

[NRGV] 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations by Nigel Rees, Section Gore Vidal, Page 477, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper)

[YQGV] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Gore Vidal, Page 790, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[DMPC] 1979 October 24, Rockford Register Star, Words which should live in history by Pat Cunningham, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)

[GKLE] 1988 February 28, New York Times, Moving Up Fast in the Software Sweepstakes by Lawrence M. Fisher, Page 13 [PROQ Page 142], New York. (ProQuest)