Whenever a Friend Succeeds, a Little Something in Me Dies

Gore Vidal? Wilfrid Sheed? Anonymous?

ladder08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a mordant expression that reflects the corrosive nature of jealousy. Here are four versions:

1) Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.
2) Every time a friend succeeds I die a little.
3) When a friend succeeds, a small part of me dies.
4) Every time a friend succeeds, something in me dies.

This self-revelatory statement is usually attributed to the writer Gore Vidal. Could you please explore this remark?

Quote Investigator: In February 1973 the essayist Wilfrid Sheed penned an article in “The New York Times” titled “Writer as Wretch and Rat” about the vanity, rivalry, and bitterness experienced by some wordsmiths. The earliest strong match for the saying known to QI appeared in this article, but Sheed disclaimed authorship and ascribed the words to Gore Vidal. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

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.

In September 1973 a long profile article about Gore Vidal by journalist Susan Barnes was published in “The Sunday Times Magazine” of “The Sunday Times” newspaper in London. Barnes spoke to friends of Vidal such as the prominent actress Claire Bloom. The following passage began with Bloom’s words followed by an instance of the saying spoken directly by Vidal who stated that he had written it somewhere previously: 2

“I’ve never seen the cynical side of him that comes out in public. I’ve never heard him say anything personally hurtful about any of his friends. Gore makes a great division here. I love gossip about my friends. He loves gossip about public people.”

Vidal says this is an exaggeration. “It was I who wrote: whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

QI has also examined a thematically related family of expressions, one of which has often been attributed to Gore Vidal: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” The exploration revealed that Somerset Maugham was the most likely originator of that family of sayings. QI believes the saying that is being explored in this article is distinct.

In 1974 the first issue of “Biography News” from the Gale Research Company of Detroit, Michigan was published. The periodical was designed to provide “extremely current biographical information” extracted from ephemeral journalism. The profile article of Vidal by Barnes was reprinted in the “Miami Herald” in November 1973; next, sections of this replicated story were published in “Biography News” in 1974. The words spoken by Vidal were further disseminated in these two periodicals. 3

In 1975 a writer in the pages of “Ms.” magazine presented an instance of the quotation based on recollection: 4

Gore Vidal once wrote somewhere (I am quoting from memory), “Every time a friend succeeds I die a little.” There is, of course, a certain tension between people who have made it and those who have not, but the traditional emphasis on the envy of success seems to me to be misplaced.

In 1984 a theater critic in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” newspaper of Ohio employed the expression and credited Vidal: 5

“Everytime a friend succeeds I die a little,” said Gore Vidal, who may be more open about it than most artists but — at least in the world of New York theater — clearly is not alone in his jealousy.

In 1992 a book reviewer in the “The Times” newspaper of London ascribed to Vidal a version of the saying with a slightly different phrasing: 6

His is the aphorism: “Every time a friend succeeds, something in me dies.”

In 2007 “The Paris Review” published an interview with Vidal’s long-time rival Norman Mailer who mentioned the statement: 7

Gore Vidal—who has never been at a loss to see the negative side of human nature—pointed out that, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” That’s an exaggeration of this notion of competition. But in time we may try to get to the point where, although something of you does die, some other part of you is encouraged. You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.

In conclusion, QI believes this remark should be ascribed to Gore Vidal. The most accurate version was probably the one he spoke to Susan Barnes that was published in September 1973. This instance was not the earliest one, but its provenance was the most direct and certain.

Image Notes: Ladder artwork image by Hans at Pixabay. Gore Vidal in 1948 by Carl Van Vechten from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons. Both images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to K whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Dan J. Bye of Sheffield Hallam University for accessing the key September 1973 citation.)

Update History: On October 4, 2014 the 1975 citation was updated to indicate that it had been verified on paper.

Notes:

  1. 1973 February 4, New York Times, Section: Book Review, Writer as Wretch and Rat by Wilfrid Sheed, Quote Page 2, Column 1, (ProQuest Page 324), New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1973 September 16, The Sunday Times, Section: The Sunday Times Magazine, Behind the Face of the Gifted Bitch by Susan Barnes, (“A profile of Gore Vidal, whose latest novel, Burr, will be published early next year”), Start Page 44[S], (Quote appears in the first column on page 3 of 5 within the article), London. England. (Gale Digital Archive of The Sunday Times)
  3. 1974 January, Biography News, Volume 1, Number 1, (Reprint of article from Miami Herald dated November 25, 1973, “The Irreverent Gospel of Gore Vidal” by Susan Barnes), Page 107, Volume 1, Number 1, Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1975 January, Ms., “Can Friendship Survive Success?” by Thomas Powers, Start Page 16, Quote Page 16, Column 2, Published by Ms. Magazine Corp., New York, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1984 December 23, Cleveland Plain Dealer, All New York’s a stage for Fran Soeder now by Joanna Connors (Entertainment Editor), Section P – Panorama, Quote Page 1-P, Column 3, Location: Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1992 October 1, The Times (The Times of London), Section: Life & Times, Three jeers for the Christians by Simon Jenkins, Quote Page 1[S], Column 4, London, England. (The Times digital archive)
  7. 2007 Summer, The Paris Review, Number 181, Interview: Norman Mailer, The Art of Fiction No. 193, Interviewed by Andrew O’Hagan, Paris Review, Inc., Flushing, New York. (Online archive of The Paris Review at theparisreview.org; accessed September 11, 2014) link