Gore Vidal? Lewis H. Lapham? Fictional? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: When I watch reality television shows today I can only conclude that some people will do anything to be on television. This fits the advice the famous author Gore Vidal apparently gave:
Never turn down an opportunity to have sex or to be on television
Clearly this is a guiding principle to a large cohort, but I think it is an eccentric recommendation. Could you determine if Vidal did say this? I do recall seeing him on television multiple times, so maybe he was following his own counsel.
Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that Vidal did say a version of this quotation in the 1970s. He was interviewed on the Charlie Rose television show in 2009 and was asked about this saying. He replied that the adage was his, and he originally said it to Diane Sawyer the network correspondent who is now a prominent anchor.
QI has not yet located a transcript of the colloquy between Vidal and Sawyer. The earliest instance of the quote QI has found appears in the magazine Harper’s in a column written by the editor Lewis H. Lapham in October of 1978 where the words are credited to Gore Vidal.
Here are selected citations in chronological order. Lewis H. Lapham wrote a regular column called “The Easy Chair” while editing Harper’s magazine. In 1978 he wrote a short sequence of articles that depicted Washington society as similar to a royal court. The October dispatch was titled “The American Courtier” and included the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The man who wishes to make good his ambition must play the courtier throughout his career. He does well to heed the instruction of Gore Vidal, who, speaking with the advantage of a man born to the rituals at Court, put the matter into an easily remembered maxim: “Never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”
The words above also appear in Lapham’s 1980 book “Fortune’s Child” in slightly altered form. 2
In 1982 Henry Allen wrote critically about a group of prominent authors in the Washington Post: 3
We already have generic writers, such as Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal or Truman Capote, who write what’s generally (or generically) known as “another book.” (In Mailer’s case it’s “another book about Marilyn Monroe.”) Writing is a mere sideline, for them, their major art and craft being television appearances. As Vidal once said, in a nice generic turn of phrase: “Never turn down a chance to have sex or be on television.”
In 1983 “Dream Jobs: A Guide To Tomorrow’s Top Careers” by Robert W. Bly and Gary Blake included an instance ascribed to Gore: 4
Gore Vidal, the novelist, once said that “People should never turn down sex or the opportunity to appear on television.”
Also in 1983 “Was It Good for You, Too?: Quotations on Love and Sex” compiled by Bob Chieger included the following version: 5
Never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.
Lewis Lapham used the quotation again in 1985 in a satirical piece in the Baltimore Sun. In Lapham’s article he pretends to channel the opinions of a publisher named Gelb who “delights in his mastery of the higher cynicism”: 6
Vidal put it succinctly when he informed an aspiring novelist that to be a writer in the era of People magazine meant never missing a chance to have sex or appear on television.
In 1985 Michael Kinsley, the journalist, editor, and pundit, makes a prescient statement about future mechanisms for obtaining fame: 7
“Never turn down a chance to have sex or go on television,” Gore Vidal is supposed to have said. At the rate things are going, people will soon be advertising their availability to do both at the same time.
The entertaining 2008 reference work “Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” includes this statement with a supporting citation that points to Bob Chieger’s book. 8
In 2009 Gore Vidal appears on the interview show hosted by Charlie Rose and acknowledges that the maxim is his. He also provides a clue about where to locate the first appearance of his provocative advice: 9
CHARLIE ROSE: Did you once say, and I’m just pulling this out of the sky somewhere, that two things that you should always do if you’re asked, go on television and have sex?
GORE VIDAL: I said that to Diane Sawyer.
CHARLIE ROSE: Right.
GORE VIDAL: The camera man opposite us ran into a wall when he heard that. There was a crash.
In conclusion, there is good evidence that Gore Vidal employed this adage during the 1970s, and he has directly taken credit for the coinage. The phrasing is highly variable. Also, it is not clear how closely Vidal has followed his own advice.
(Thanks to Garry Apgar who notified QI of the “Dream Jobs” citation and pointed to some other citations in the 2010s.)
Update History: On September 14, 2018 the 1983 “Dream Jobs” citation was added. The bibliographic note style was changed to numeric. The conclusion was updated.
- 1978 October, Harper’s magazine “The Easy Chair: The American Courtier” by Lewis H. Lapham Page 17, Harper’s Magazine Foundation, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1980, Fortune’s Child by Lewis H. Lapham, The American Courtier, Page 315, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link ↩
- 1982 April 3, Washington Post, “Battle of the Brands: The Generic Assault” by Henry Allen, Page C1, Washington D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1983, Dream Jobs: A Guide To Tomorrow’s Top Careers by Robert W. Bly and Gary Blake, Quote Page 122, A Wiley Press Book: John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1983, Was It Good for You, Too?: Quotations on Love and Sex, Chapter 31: Tube, Compiled by Bob Chieger, Quote Page 238, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1985 July 27, The Baltimore Sun, N’s Case by Lewis H. Lapham, Quote Page 7A, Column 4, Baltimore, Maryland. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1988 September 15, Washington Post, “I Hear America Chatting – Is There Anything People Won’t Do to Get On a Talk Show?” by Michael Kinsley, Page A25, Washington D.C. (Newsbank) ↩
- 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin, Fourth Edition, Quote Page 319, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2009 December 31, Charlie Rose Television Show, Interview With Gore Vidal, Transcription Voxant, Inc. (NewsBank) ↩