Oscar Wilde? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I saw an article on the web about brilliant repartee that listed the “Top 10 Best Comebacks”. One of the response lines was from the famous wit Oscar Wilde who addressed an audience from the stage after the performance of a play he had written. The acclamation for his work was great, but it was not universal. One unhappy and agitated person threw a bouquet with a rotten cabbage at the playwright. Wilde reportedly picked up the bouquet and without hesitation delivered the following riposte:
Thank you my friend. Every time I smell it, I shall be reminded of you.
I have been unable to find solid support for this entertaining story. Could you explore this anecdote?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that this tale is inaccurate; however, it was created by modifying and embellishing an incident that did occur on the opening night of Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest”. One version of the fictionalized story was depicted in the 1960 film “The Trials of Oscar Wilde”. This movie popularized the tale of a caustic encounter, and the screenwriters may have even concocted the clever riposte.
The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an undated letter sent by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas who was the son of Lord Queensberry. The person attempting to insult and humiliate Wilde was Lord Queensberry, and in Wilde’s letter he was referred to as “the Scarlet Marquis”: 1
Yes! the Scarlet Marquis made a plot to address the audience on the first night of my play !! Algy Burke revealed it and he was not allowed to enter. He left a grotesque bouquet of vegetables for me! This of course makes his conduct idiotic—robs it of dignity.
In this version of the tale the bouquet was not given directly to Wilde, and he did not speak to Lord Queensberry.
Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the next published evidence known to QI appeared in the 1914 book “Oscar Wilde and Myself” by Lord Alfred Douglas: 2
Failing to make disruption between myself and Wilde, Lord Queensberry adopted a different line of tactics; and, I believe, with the sincere view of saving me from what he knew was an undesirable entanglement, he went ahead to disgrace Wilde publicly. At a theatre where one of Wilde’s plays was running he caused a bouquet of carrots to be handed up to Wilde over the footlights, and he left his card on him at his club with certain odious remarks written on the back of it.
In this version the bouquet was composed of carrots, and it was not thrown. No jocular retort from Wilde was reported by Douglas.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1916 a friend and supporter of Wilde named Frank Harris discussed the incident in “Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions”. Harris relayed a description from Wilde: 3
At the first production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” Lord Queensberry appeared at the theatre carrying a large bouquet of turnips and carrots. What the meaning was of those vegetables only the man himself and his like could divine. I asked Oscar about the matter. He seemed annoyed but on the whole triumphant.
“Queensberry,” he said, “had engaged a stall at the St. James’s Theatre, no doubt to kick up a row; but as soon as I heard of it I got Alick (George Alexander) to send him back his money. On the night of the first performance Queensberry appeared carrying a large bundle of carrots. He was refused admittance at the box-office, and when he tried to enter the gallery the police would not let him in. He must be mad, Frank, don’t you think? I am glad he was foiled.”
In this instance the bouquet was composed of turnips and carrots, and apparently it was stopped at the door of the theater. Note that Frank Harris did not present any clever remarks spoken during the incident.
In 1948 the biography “The Life of Lord Alfred Douglas: Spoilt Child of Genius” was published, and it included a discussion of the episode. The author stated that Lord Queensberry was prepared to hurl a “bouquet of carrots and cabbages” onto the stage, but his plan was halted: 4
He booked seats in advance, but the very fact was his undoing. The management was ready for him, and he was refused admission.
In 1960 the film “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” starring Peter Finch as Wilde was released, and it included a sharp exchange at the premiere of one of Wilde’s plays. After the performance had ended Lord Queensberry approached Wilde who was surrounded by well-wishers. He handed a bouquet of vegetables to Wilde with the goal of insulting him: 5
Lionel Jeffries as Marquis of Queensberry: Mr. Wilde, may I present you with this, sir.
Pater Finch as Oscar Wilde: How charming. Every time I smell them I shall think of you, Lord Queensberry.
A direct confrontation between two antagonists is dramatically rich; therefore, a screenplay writer has an incentive to construct such a scene even if it requires artistic license.
In 1979 the quotation collection “The Last Word” by Gyles Brandreth printed an instance of the story. Wilde was receiving praise and flowers in the foyer of a theater after a successful first night performance: 6
Far from wishing to congratulate him, one of his bitterest rivals pushed forward and presented him with a rotten cabbage. “Thank you, my dear fellow,” said Wilde, “every time I smell it I shall be reminded of you.”
In July 1979 a newspaper article distributed by the L.A. Times and Washington Post news service discussed walking tours for visitors in London. One tour leader recounted an instance of the anecdote with the following punch line: 7
The guide tells how Wilde accepted the cabbage and said to him sweetly: “I shall always think of you when I smell this.”
In 1988 Richard Ellmann’s comprehensive biography “Oscar Wilde” indicated that Queensberry was unable to enter the theater to confront Wilde: 8
Queensberry had been denied entrance to the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, and forced to content himself with leaving a bouquet of vegetables at the stage door instead of making the public denunciation which he had planned.
In 2009 the website TopTenz.net posted a collection of the “Top 10 Best Comebacks” that included an instance of the tale. Wilde went on stage after a show and received adulation: 9
Many people applauded and threw a copious amount of beautiful flora, but one unsatisfied person threw a rotten cabbage at the playwright. Wilde picked it up and replied with a straight face:
“Thank you my friend. Every time I smell it, I shall be reminded of you.”
In conclusion, QI believes that Lord Queensberry was not able to directly throw or give a bouquet of vegetables to Oscar Wilde. QI also believes that the witty rejoinder that has been attributed to Wilde was fabricated at a later date. The earliest evidence of this amusing put-down located by QI was in the 1960 movie “The Trials of Oscar Wilde”.
- 1920, The Oscar Wilde Collection of John B. Stetson, Jr., (To be sold April 23), Twenty-Five Letters to Lord Alfred Douglas from Oscar Wilde, (First offered at auction as one lot), Letter number 304, No date, (Excerpt is from the description of letter), Quote Page 56, The Anderson Galleries, [Mitchell Kennerley, President], New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1914, Oscar Wilde and Myself by Lord Alfred Douglas, Quote Page 76 and 81, Duffield & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1916, Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, Volume 1, Quote Page 190 and 191, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1948, The Life of Lord Alfred Douglas: Spoilt Child of Genius by William Freeman, Quote Page 109 and 110, Herbert Joseph Limited, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- YouTube video, Title: “The Trials Of Oscar Wilde (1960) Peter Finch & Yvonne Mitchell”, Uploaded by: (This account was suspended), Video status: Removed, (Quotation starts at 53 minutes 9 seconds of 129 minutes 50 seconds) (Accessed on youtube.com on February 11, 2012) ↩
- 1979, The Last Word by Gyles Brandreth, Quote Page 90, Sterling Publishing Co., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1979 July 8, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Try London Walking Tour by Marilyn Goldstein, (L.A. Times/Washington Post News Service), Quote Page 7-F, Column 4, Sarasota, Florida. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1988, Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann, Quote Page 437, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- Website: TopTenz.net, Article title: Top 10 Best Comebacks, Subsection: Smell You Later! The Wildest and Best Comeback by Oscar Wilde, Posted by: Shell Harris, Date on website: May 5, 2009, Website description: “Life, On a Short List”. (Accessed toptenz.net on August 23, 2013) link ↩