Oscar Wilde? Ann Landers? Gershon Legman? Anonymous? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: In 1882 the coruscating wit Oscar Wilde came to the United States to see the country and to conduct a series of lectures. When he visited the Niagara Falls, a classic honeymoon destination, he was unimpressed. Here are two variants of a saying that has been attributed to him:
Niagara Falls is the first great disappointment in American married life.
Niagara Falls is the second great disappointment of the American bride.
I am having trouble finding a contemporaneous citation for either of these remarks. Are these really the words of Oscar Wilde?
Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde saw the Niagara Falls in February 1882 and made a collection of serious and comical pronouncements about the hydrological wonder. The earliest evidence of a strongly matching statement located by QI appeared in an August 1883 interview printed in “The New York World” and reprinted in other newspapers. Wilde had returned to the U.S. to superintend the production of his play “Vera” in New York, and he spoke to a journalist from the periodical. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
When the reporter hinted that American patriotism had been grievously wounded by Mr. Wilde’s criticism upon Niagara, the poet laughed and said modestly:
“Niagara will survive any criticism of mine. I must say this, however, that it is the first disappointment in the married life of many Americans who spend their honeymoon there.”
Wilde employed this quip about the waterfall in lectures that he later delivered in England and Ireland though the precise wording varied.
QI has found no substantive evidence that Wilde employed the variant joke with the phrase “second great disappointment”. It was in circulation by 1927, but this was many years after the death of Wilde in 1900. The variant was initially anonymous and then it was reassigned to Wilde probably because of confusion between the two similar jokes. Detailed information is given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In February 1882 “The New York Herald” printed a set of remarks made by Oscar Wilde about the Niagara Falls that had been sent via telegraph from Ontario. Wilde’s overall critical analysis was mixed, but he was captivated when he experienced the torrent at close range: 2
After dinner he conversed regarding his morning’s adventure, to use his own words. He said:—”When I first saw Niagara Falls I was disappointed in the outline. The design, it seemed to me, was wanting in grandeur and variety of line, but the colors were beautiful. The dull, gray waters, flecked with green, are lit with silver, and are full of changing loveliness, for loveliest colors are colors in motion.
It was not until I stood underneath the Falls at Table Rock that I realized the majestic splendor and strength of the physical forces of nature here. The sight was far beyond what I had ever seen in Europe. It seemed a sort of embodiment of pantheism. I thought of what Leonardo da Vinci said once—that the two most wonderful things in the world were a woman’s smile and the motion of mighty waters.”
In October 1882 Wilde met with the glamorous actress Lily Langtry, and a newspaper account printed in “The New York Herald” included some sardonic comments about the Falls ascribed to Wilde: 3
“They told me,” said the London aesthete, “that so many millions of gallons of water tumbled over the falls in a minute. I could see no beauty in that. There was bulk there, but no beauty, except the beauty inherent in bulk itself. Niagara Falls seemed to me to be simply a vast, unnecessary amount of water going the wrong way and then falling over unnecessary rocks.”
In August 1883 “The New York World” printed a statement from Wilde labeling the Falls “the first disappointment in the married life of many Americans” as noted previously in this article.
In December 1883 a newspaper account reprinted from the “Dublin Irish Times” described a lecture delivered by Wilde at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. An instance of the saying under investigation was included in Wilde’s remarks: 4
Of course, when one went to America he was brought to see Niagara. Every young American went and spent part of his honeymoon at Niagara, and he thought the great waterfall must prove the first disappointment in American married life. [Laughter]
In 1906 a posthumous book titled “Impressions of America by Oscar Wilde was published, and it included a lecture that was given by Wilde in England in September 1883. The wording of the statement was more elaborate in this instance. The term “American bride” provided a female focus that was not articulated in the other instances known to QI that were published in 1883: 5
I was disappointed with Niagara — most people must be disappointed with Niagara. Every American bride is taken there, and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life. One sees it under bad conditions, very far away, the point of view not showing the splendour of the water.
To appreciate it really one has to see it from underneath the fall, and to do that it is necessary to be dressed in a yellow oil-skin, which is as ugly as a mackintosh— and I hope none of you ever wears one. It is a consolation to know, however, that such an artist as Madame Bernhardt has not only worn that yellow, ugly dress, but has been photographed in it.
In 1927 a limited edition book titled “Anecdota Americana” was released that included material that was vulgar and coarse for the time period. This volume contained the earliest instance known to QI with the phrase “second great disappointment”. The words were printed as a stand-alone quip without ascription, and the word “disappointment” was misspelled as “dissappointment”: 6
NIAGARA FALLS! The bride’s second great dissappointment!
In 1946 Hesketh Pearson released a biography titled “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit” and an instance of the expression was included: 7
He was even unimpressed by the miracles of Nature in the New World, being “disappointed in the outline” of Niagara Falls, which he described as “simply a vast unnecessary amount of water going the wrong way and then falling over unnecessary rocks.” “But at least you’ll admit they are wonderful waterfalls?” asked someone. “The wonder would be if the water did not fall,” he replied. “Every American bride is taken there,” he afterwards declared, “and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life.”
In 1949 the “Reno Evening Gazette” of Reno, Nevada printed an unattributed instance with “second great disappointment”: 8
It has been said that Niagara Falls was the bride’s second great disappointment.
In 1968 the researcher Gershon Legman published “Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor”, and he indicated that the joke with the phrase “second big disappointment” was in circulation in the New York area in 1938: 9
Niagara Falls: The bride’s second big disappointment. (N.Y. 1938)
In 1969 “The Washington Post” reported on a “Book and Author” luncheon at which the famous advice columnist Ann Landers spoke: 10
“Niagara Falls is the second greatest disappointment to every American bride” is what Ann Landers has learned from reading 1000 letters a day for her advice column.
In 1977 the influential compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter assigned the saying with “second biggest disappointment” to Oscar Wilde: 11
Niagara Falls is only the second biggest disappointment of the standard honeymoon. —Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
In conclusion, Oscar Wilde did craft a line about underwhelmed visitors to Niagara Falls. QI believes that the two 1883 citations and the 1906 citation are all reasonable choices. The variant joke with the phrase “second greatest disappointment” was not constructed by Wilde though QI thinks it was probably derived from his remark.
Image Notes: Couple seated on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls circa 1858. Credit: Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Elizabeth McCracken, Benjamin Dreyer, and Hope Dellon whose inquiry and commentary led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to McCracken for pointing to the 1969 Gershon Legman citation.)
- 1883 August 13, The Daily Patriot, Oscar Wilde Returns: In Commonplace Clothing and Shorn of His Glorious Locks, (Acknowledgement: “From Yesterday’s New York World”), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1882 February 10, New York Herald, Oscar Wilde on Niagara, (Story sent by telegraph from Prospect House, Niagara Falls, Ontario on February 9, 1882), Quote Page 7, Column 5, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1882 October 30, New York Herald, Mrs. Langtry on the Hudson: What She Thinks of that Noble Stream and What Oscar Wilde Thinks of Niagara Falls, Quote Page 5, Column 3, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1883 December 26, The Daily Picayune (Times-Picayune), Oscar Wilde on America (From Dublin Irish Times), Quote Page 8, Column 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1906, Impressions of America by Oscar Wilde, Edited by Stuart Mason, Introduction by Stuart Mason, (Lecture given by Oscar Wilde during a tour that began in England; first visit was to Wandsworth Town Hall on September 24, 1883), Quote Page 16, 17, 25, and 26, Keystone Press, Sunderland, England. (Internet Archive) link link ↩
- 1927, Anecdota Americana, Anecdotes collected and taken down by Mr. William Passemon, (Limited edition of 850 copies; number 432), Item Number: 305, Quote Page 120, Published by Humphrey Adams, Boston. (Jack Horntip Collection Online) ↩
- 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 59, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1949 January 28, Reno Evening Gazette, My Night, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2006, “Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor” by Gershon Legman, Sub-Section: The Honeymoon, Quote Page 490, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York. (Reprint of 1968 Grove Press edition) (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1969 February 12, The Washington Post, An Old Story, Quote Page D7, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Marriage, Quote Page 322, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩