This Wallpaper Is Killing Me; One of Us Must Go

Oscar Wilde? Claire de Pratz? Léon Guillot de Saix? Lady Gregory? William Butler Yeats? Hesketh Pearson? Philippe Jullian? Violet Wyndham? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Near the end of Oscar Wilde’s life he was debt-ridden and ill. His shabby accommodations in Paris did not meet his aesthetic standards. According to legend he said something similar to the following while on his deathbed. Here are three versions:

(1) Either this wallpaper goes or I do.
(2) This wallpaper is killing me. Decidedly one of us will have to go.
(3) My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us must go.

In this anecdote accurate? Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Journalist and novelist Claire de Pratz became friends with Oscar Wilde during his final period in Paris. Wilde died in 1900. Writer Léon Guillot de Saix interviewed Pratz and others for an article titled “Souvenirs Inédits Sur Oscar Wilde” (“Unpublished Memories About Oscar Wilde”) which he published in the weekly periodical “L’Européen” of Paris in 1929. Pratz told Saix about the hotel room that Wilde stayed in during his last days. The original French text is followed by one possible English translation. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

Il vivait dans une misérable chambre meublée, à l’hôtel d’Alsace, rue des Beaux-Arts. Et lui qui avait été l’esthète de la gentry londonienne, souffrait horriblement de cette misère symbolisée pour lui dans l’épouvantable papier « modern-style » à fleurs chocolat sur fond bleu.

« — Voyez-vous, ma chère enfant, me disait-il, il y a un duel à mort entre moi et mon papier de tenture. L’un de nous deux doit y rester. Ce sera lui ou ce sera moi. »

He lived in a miserable furnished room at the Hotel d’Alsace on rue des Beaux-Arts. And he who had been the aesthete of the London gentry, suffered horribly from this misery symbolized for him by the appalling “modern-style” wallpaper with chocolate flowers on a blue background.

“ — You see, my dear child, he said to me, there is a duel to the death between me and my wallpaper. One or the other of us has to go. It will be my wallpaper or me. ”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Another fascinating piece of indirect evidence for the wallpaper tale appeared in the personal journal of the influential Irish literary figure Lady Gregory. An entry dated 1928 referred to a letter she had received two decades earlier in 1908 from the well-known Irish poet William Butler Yeats: 2

Came upon a letter from Paris, December 1908, from W. B. Yeats. Says he had met at Maud Gonne’s place last night a friend of Oscar Wilde who told him a strange heroic story about Wilde. He died in great agony, thrusting his hand into his mouth to stop his cries. He was in great poverty, often without money for food, and declared that it was his wallpaper that was killing him. “One of us had to go,” he said.

In 1911 writer Anna de Brémont published a memoir about “Oscar Wilde and His Mother”. She did not mention the wallpaper tale, but she did discuss Wilde’s taste and its effect on home décor in the U.S.: 3

. . . the impression which Oscar Wilde made on the taste of the American in the matter of home decoration, was a lasting one.

To-day, the horse-hair covered furniture, the ugly wall-paper and coarse stone-ware china, the decorative fly-papers, the glaringly defective house architecture with its ungainly lines and grotesque angles, has disappeared. The useful is combined with the beautiful. Every home is a picture in itself.

This is what Oscar Wilde did for the great mass of the people—the artisans, the mechanics and even the labourers. His propaganda of art was not lost, for his very eccentricities, his abuse and ridicule by the Press, spread the gospel among the people.

In 1950 the “Liverpool Echo” of England published the following short item within a section titled “Echoes and Gossip of the Day”: 4

Wilde’s Last Words
“This wallpaper is killing me; one of us must go.”—Oscar Wilde, when on his deathbed 50 years ago to-day.

In 1954 “The Sphere” newspaper of London printed a slightly different version of the remark: 5

Among famous last words, not officially credited but widely circulated, were the words of Oscar Wilde—“My wallpaper is killing me—one of us must go.” Wallpaper does indeed vary in appeal from the sublime to the unspeakable.

In 1962 biographer Hesketh Pearson published “Lives of the Wits”, and the chapter about Oscar Wilde contained the following: 6

At times he thrust his hand into his mouth to prevent himself from crying aloud in agony, and once he took it out to speak bitterly of his bedroom wallpaper. ‘It is killing me’, he moaned, adding with a sigh of resignation as if he had already succumbed ‘one of us had to go.’

In 1963 “The Birmingham Post” of England printed the following version of the anecdote: 7

Oscar Wilde is reputed to have gazed at the wallpaper in his room in his last hours, and to have observed wryly. “One of us will have to go.”

In 1968 Philippe Jullian published a biography of Oscar Wilde in French. Violet Wyndham performed the translation for an English edition which appeared in 1969. The work included a description of Wilde’s room. Here is an excerpt in French 8 and English: 9

Il évite de se regarder dans l’armoire à glace ou de regarder l’heure à la pendule que surmonte un lion en zinc, mais il ne peut éviter le papier: une horreur avec de grosses fleurs magenta: « Décidément l’un de nous devra partir. »

Over the mantelpiece hung a tawdry mirror, into which he would never look, nor would he seek the time from the massive clock of metal and marble supported by a crouching lion which stood upon it. The wallpaper was a horror of large magenta flowers: ‘Decidedly one of us will have to go,’ he said once, as he looked at it.

In 1975 H. Montgomery Hyde’s biography of Wilde contained a similar passage: 10

On the mantelpiece stood a clock of metal and marble ornamented by the figure of a crouching lion, and the wallpaper had a motif of large magenta flowers. “Decidedly one of us will have to go,” he said on one occasion.

In 1976 the UPI news service reported a comment made by Irving Mansfield who was the widower of bestselling author Jacqueline Susann: 11

Mansfield said he stayed in Paris, by coincidence, in the room in which Oscar Wilde died. Wilde, he said, opened his eyes on his deathbed and remarked: “Either this wallpaper goes or I will.”

In 1981 a book reviewer in the “Washington Post” presented this parenthetical remark: 12

For wit in this category, no American approached Oscar Wilde’s dying utterance, in a room in Paris, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.”

In 1982 “The New York Times” printed a version of the deathbed tale: 13

According to the story, which may be apocryphal, Wilde looked up and said, “Either the wallpaper goes or I go.”

In 1988 Richard Ellmann’s acclaimed biography of Oscar Wilde presented this version: 14

With some difficulty he made his way to a café, where he drank absinthe, then walked laboriously back. Wilde said to Claire de Pratz, ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.’ Ross said, ‘You’ll kill yourself, Oscar. You know the doctor said absinthe was poison for you.’ ‘And what have I to live for?’ Wilde asked.

In conclusion, there is substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde made a comment of this type although there was a delay before it was reported publicly. The phrasing varies, and Wilde may have employed two versions of the quip. The earliest published reference to the remark known to QI appeared in “L’Européen” weekly in 1929. Claire de Pratz stated that she heard an instance directly from Oscar Wilde. Another crucial citation appeared in “Lady Gregory’s Journals” published in 1947. She mentioned a 1908 letter from William Butler Yeats who relayed a version of the anecdote obtained from an unnamed friend of Oscar Wilde.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to reactivate research on this topic. Many thanks to previous researchers including Richard Ellmann, Fred R. Shapiro, Ralph Keyes, and Nigel Rees. Shapiro in “The Yale Book of Quotations” pointed to the important passage in “Lady Gregory’s Journals”. Special thanks to Eleanor Fitzsimons, the author of “Wilde’s Women”. In 2015 Fitzsimons published an article on her blog about this topic, and she pointed to the crucial 1929 article in “L’Européen” weekly.)

Notes:

  1. 1929 May 8, L’Européen: Hebdomadaire économique, artistique et littéraire, (Economic, artistic and literary weekly), Souvenirs Inédits Sur Oscar Wilde recueillis par Guillot de Saix (Unpublished Memories About Oscar Wilde collected by Guillot de Saix), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Paris, France. (Gallica BNF Bibliothèque nationale de France) link
  2. 1947, Lady Gregory’s Journals: 1916-1930, Edited by Lennox Robinson, Section 6: Odds and Ends, Year: 1928, Quote Page 330, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1911, Oscar Wilde and His Mother: A Memoir by Anna, Comtesse de Brémont, Chapter 2, Quote Page 35 and 36, Everett & Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1950 November 30, Liverpool Echo, Echoes and Gossip of the Day: Wilde’s Last Words, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Lancashire, Liverpool, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  5. 1954 October 30, The Sphere, The World of Books by Vernon Fane, Glorifying Skorzeny, Quote Page 216 (38), Column 3, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  6. 1962, Lives of the Wits by Hesketh Pearson, Chapter 10: Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 246 and 247, William Heinemann, London. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1963 September 7, The Birmingham Post, Edition: Midland South, No Help To Labour, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  8. 1968, Oscar Wilde by Philippe Jullian, Chapter 26: Une Manière de Suicide, Quote Page 377, Librairie Académique Perrin, Paris, France. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1969 Translation Copyright (1968 Copyright), Oscar Wilde by Philippe Jullian, Translated from French by Violet Wyndham, Chapter 26: A Kind of Suicide, Quote Page 396, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1975, Oscar Wilde: A Biography by H. Montgomery Hyde, Chapter 9: The Exile, Quote Page 356, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1976 July 18, The Fresno Bee, New Susann Novel Sets Off Guessing Game by Robert Musel (UPI News Service), Quote Page C3, Column 3, Fresno, California. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1981 September 27, Washington Post, Literary Lore, Legends and Lists (continuation title: Literary Anecdotes) by Robert W. Smith, Start Page 3, Quote Page 13, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  13. 1982 October 14, New York Times, 2 Studies Dispute Napoleon Murder by John Noble Wilford, Quote Page A19, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  14. 1988, Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann, Chapter 22: The Leftover Years, Quote Page 581, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)