Death Was a Good Career Move

Speaker: Gore Vidal? Peter Bogdanovich? Sue Mengers? Jason Epstein? Anonymous?

Subject: Truman Capote? Elvis Presley? Michael Jackson? Gore Vidal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Pop star Michael Jackson died in 2009 when he was only fifty years old. One memorably caustic remark I heard at that time was:

His death was a good career move.

Apparently, the author Gore Vidal said this many years earlier about another individual. Did Vidal originate this mocking comment, and who was he talking about?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence QI has located for this type of remark was printed in Esquire magazine in 1978 in an article by the film director Peter Bogdanovich. The barb was aimed at Elvis Presley after his death in 1977, but the identity of the person using the quip was not given. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A Hollywood cynic was heard to call Presley’s death a smart career move

The word choice in 1978 was slightly different with “smart career move” employed instead of the common modern phrase “good career move”.

In May 1981 Time magazine mentioned the remark within a thumbnail review of the movie “This Is Elvis”: 2

Today Elvis remains a thriving industry, like Disney; this film is both a comment on that industry and (through the authorization of Presley’s mentor, Colonel Tom Parker) a part of it. The remark of the Hollywood cynic, upon hearing of Elvis’ death — “Good career move” — was prophecy after all.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In November 1981 Time magazine mentioned the comment again while reviewing an unsympathetic biography of Presley: 3

When he died of “heart failure” in 1977 at age 42, keeping his insomniac vigil in the reading chair of his opulent bathroom, one Hollywood kibitzer acidly remarked, “Good career move.”

In 1985 the harsh remark continued to circulate. For example a columnist in an Ohio newspaper wrote the following: 4

When Elvis Presley died eight years ago, cynics in the entertainment racket called it “a good career move.”

There was solid evidence that Vidal Gore used a similar phrase about the death of Truman Capote in 1984, but this was after the remark had already been used regarding Elvis. Capote and Gore were adversaries in a long-running feud and legal battle. In 1989 American Photographer magazine described Gore’s reaction to the expiration of his literary nemesis: 5

When Truman Capote died a few years ago, fellow writer Gore Vidal waggishly suggested that he’d made a good career move. The remark, while unkind, was not indefensible.

In 1990 the remark about Elvis was attributed to the powerful Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers by a columnist in a Buffalo, New York newspaper: 6

The definitive comment on the death of Elvis Presley came from Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Legend has it that when she heard about it in 1977, she pondered it briefly, nodded in sage approval and said, “Good career move.”

In 1997 a compilation called “Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career” was released by the journalist George Plimpton. Vidal recounted a telephone call with a powerful editor/publisher during which he made the acerbic comment: 7

Jason Epstein at Random House told me the news about Truman’s death over the phone. I was here in Ravello. I said, “Good career move.” I said nothing to the press. But Jason chattered. I was much quoted. I did send a message to Johnny Carson: “You know, John, I know how upset you must be by Joanne’s publicity coup in having Capote die in her house. Out of friendship to you, I promise I’ll die in yours.”

In 1999 an authorized biography of Vidal was published, and it included an extract from an undated letter sent by Vidal to the expatriate author Paul Bowles. The letter showed that Vidal was aware of the earlier remark targeting Presley. The “T” in the following referred to Truman Capote: 8

“As someone said when word broke that Elvis Presley was dead,” he wrote to Paul Bowles, Capote’s death was “a good career move. T will now be the most famous American writer of the last half of the 20th century. No one will ever read a book of his again but no one who can read will be able to avoid the thousands of books his life will inspire. Since he has told the most extraordinary lies about every famous person of our time, the hacks will have a field-day recording the sorts of lies they usually make up.”

In conclusion, this gibe was in print by 1978, and the earliest currently known instances referred to the superstar Elvis Presley. The initial citations did not identify the creator of the remark; instead, the phrases “Hollywood cynic” and “Hollywood kibitzer” were employed. Talent agent Sue Mengers was linked to the Elvis version of the quotation by 1990. Interestingly, the earliest citation in 1978 was from Peter Bogdanovich who was a client of Sue Mengers.

Gore Vidal did backhand Capote with the “good career move” parting shot, but he was aware of the previous application of the phrase to Presley.

Image Notes: Elvis Presley portrait cropped from photo of Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon in 1970. Photo taken by Ollie Atkins and placed in the collection of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Gore Vidal circa 1948 from the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress. Portrait of Truman Capote from the World Telegram & Sun photo collection of the Library of Congress. Images have been cropped and resized. Images were accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Update History: On September 17, 2015 three citations were added with dates of: November 1981, 1985, and 1990. In addition, the article was partially re-written, and the bibliographic notes were switched to a numeric scheme.

(Special thanks to Jeff Simon for noting that the remark had been attributed to Sue Mengers.)

Notes:

  1. 1978 March 1, Esquire, Volume 89, The Murder of Sal Mineo by Peter Bogdanovich, Start Page 116, Quote Page 118, Column 3, Esquire, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1981 May 25, Time, “Cinema: Rushes: May 25, 1981”, This Is Elvis, Time, Inc. New York. (Online Time archive time.com)
  3. 1981 November 2, Time, Books: In Search of Pelvis Redux by J. D. Reed, Time, Inc. New York. (Online Time archive time.com)
  4. 1985 May 3, The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria Chronicle Telegram), Hitch’s ‘Good eve-ening’ will be heard on NBC again by Gary Deeb (News America), Quote Page B3, Column 1, Elyria, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1989 November, American Photographer, Volume 23, Number 5, The Mascot and the Master by Owen Edwards, Quote Page 32, Diamandis Communications Inc., New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1990 February 11, The Buffalo News, Section: TV Topics, February Sweeps Bring Out Some Weirdly Good Shows by Jeff Simon, Quote Page TV2, Buffalo, New York. (NewsBank Access World News)
  7. 1997, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career by George Plimpton, Chapter: 1984, Quote Page 430, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1999, Gore Vidal: A Biography by Fred Kaplan, Quote Page 707, Footnote Page 824, Doubleday, New York. (Verified on paper)