I Am Dying, As I Have Lived, Beyond My Means

Oscar Wilde? Robert Ross? Frank Harris? Hesketh Pearson? Josiah Flynt? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend, Oscar Wilde was resting with his eyes closed on his deathbed when two physicians began discussing the necessity of a very expensive operation to extend his life. Wilde opened his eyes and said:

I suppose that I shall have to die beyond my means.

Another version of the tale states that the ailing and impoverished wit was enjoying a convivial meal with friends in Paris when he asked for a bottle of champagne. When it was brought he declared:

I am dying, as I have lived, beyond my means.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. The strongest evidence known to QI appeared in a letter dated December 14, 1900 that was sent from Robert Ross to More Adey. Ross was a close friend of Wilde’s who saw him frequently during his final days in Paris. Adey was an English art critic and editor. The ellipses in the following passage were present in the published text. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

On October 25th, my brother Aleck came to see him, when Oscar was in particularly good form. His sister-in-law, Mrs. Willie, and her husband, Texeira, were then passing through Paris on their honeymoon, and came at the same time. On this occasion he said he was “dying above his means” . . . . he would never outlive the century . . . . the English people would not stand him—he was responsible for the failure of the Exhibition, the English having gone away when they saw him there so well-dressed and happy . . .

Wilde’s quip used the word “above” instead of “beyond” in this version of the tale. The “Exhibition” was a reference to the Paris Exhibition of 1900 which was held between April and November.

Common advice states that one should make a budget and not overspend, i.e., one should not live beyond one’s means. Wilde’s humorous wordplay was based on twisting this guidance.

Ross’s letter was published in the 1916 book “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions” by Frank Harris. The missive also appeared in “The Letters of Oscar Wilde” edited by Rupert Hart-Davis which was published in 1962. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The earliest published evidence known to QI appeared on December 15, 1900 in the “Gloucestershire Echo” newspaper of England. Wilde’s name was omitted, but his identity was clear: 3

The man of brilliant wit who died the other day in Paris was not forsaken by this ruling readiness, still strong in death. He was told that he must have an operation. He could not afford the fee, he said at first. The point was pressed by the surgeon. “Very well,” said the patient, with a flash from the ashes of his old spirit, “I must die beyond my means.” And he did.

The same story appeared in other newspapers. For example, on December 16, 1900 “The Chicago Sunday Tribune” printed a version of the article with some changes in phrasing. Wilde received credit for the quip: 4

Oscar Wilde’s last bon mot was characteristic of his genius for inversion. This ruling readiness was still strong up to the time of his death. When told that he must have an operation he said at first that he could not afford the fee. The point was pressed by the surgeon. “Well,” said the patient with a flash of his old spirit, “I must die beyond my means.”

The 1903 novel “The Rise of Ruderick Clowd” by Josiah Flynt included an instance of the quip: 5

“A little while before she died she seemed to get her senses back for a minute, and she looked around and saw the nice things I’d brought to tempt her to eat. ‘I’m dying beyond our means, Ruderick,’ she sort o’ moaned like, and that’s all she said.”

In 1904 the prominent British poet and critic Arthur Symons published “Studies in Prose and Verse” which included a chapter about Oscar Wilde. Symons credited Wilde with an instance of the quip: 6

“I am dying beyond my means” was the last word of his which was repeated to me.

In 1905 “The Portsmouth Evening News” and “The New York Times” 7 both printed a version of the anecdote: 8

As he lay at the point of death in a squalid lodging-house bed-room a doctor called consultation with his colleague already in attendance whispered to the latter some rather dubious remark about fees of which, to judge by the circumstances, there seemed little likelihood. Oscar Wilde, whom the doctors thought past hearing, made an effort to speak. “Gentlemen,” he gasped, “I am afraid I am dying beyond my means.” It was his last jest.

In 1906 journalist Robert Harborough Sherard published “The Life of Oscar Wilde”, and he included a version of the tale: 9

Only one of the great masters of surgery could be trusted, so the physicians said, with such an operation. A huge fee was mentioned as the amount that would probably be demanded by such a master. “Ah, well, then,” said Oscar, “I suppose that I shall have to die beyond my means.”

In 1916 editor and novelist Frank Harris published “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions”. The appendix included a copy of the letter from Robert Ross dated December 14, 1900 that mentioned the quip. 10 The book also contained a passage indicating that Wilde ordered champagne before he delivered the bon mot: 11

On one of the last drives with this friend he asked for champagne and when it was brought declared that he was dying as he had lived, “beyond his means”—his happy humour lighting up even his last hours.

In 1946 biographer Hesketh Pearson published “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit”, and he included a version of the anecdote: 12

His sister-in-law, who had married Texeira de Mattos, came one day with her husband, and champagne appeared with the lunch. “I am dying, as I have lived, beyond my means,” remarked Oscar, who again declared that he would not outlive the century, that he was responsible for the failure of the Exhibition . . .

The English literary critic Cyril Connolly died in 1974. His friend Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid helped him with his medical bills. In 1980 a variant joke was ascribed to d’Avigdor-Goldsmid: 13

. . . Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid did help Connolly financially from time to time and paid for his treatment during his last prolonged illness, observing ‘Cyril is dying beyond my means.’

In conclusion, QI believes that Oscar Wilde did employ this joke based on the December 14, 1900 letter from Robert Ross and other citations. The 1916 and 1946 citations suggest that Wilde was dining with friends and family, and he ordered champagne before delivering the line. This scenario is plausible, but QI is uncertain.

A series of citations beginning on December 15, 1900 indicate that Wilde used the line when he heard mention of large medical fees. It is certainly possible that Wilde used the joke more than once. Hence, this second scenario may also be true.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of champagne and champagne glasses from Dariusz Sankowski at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Many thanks to previous researchers including Richard Ellmann, Fred R. Shapiro, Ralph Keyes, and Nigel Rees.)

Notes:

  1. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, Volume 2 of 2, Section: Appendix, Letter from Robert Ross to More Adey, Date: December 14, 1900, Quote Page 596, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1962, The Letters of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, Epilogue, Letter from Robert Ross to More Adey, Date: December 14, 1900, (Text from Frank Harris, vol.2, pp. 595-603), Quote Page 847 and 848, Published by Rupert Hart-Davis, London. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1900 December 15, Gloucestershire Echo, News Siftings, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Gloucestershire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  4. 1900 December 16, The Chicago Sunday Tribune, Wilde a Joker to the Last (Special Cable to The Chicago Tribune), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  5. 1903, The Rise of Ruderick Clowd by Josiah Flynt, Chapter 3: How He Became a Business Man, Quote Page 99 and 100, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1904, Studies in Prose and Verse by Arthur Symons, Chapter: An Artist in Attitudes – Oscar Wilde, Date: 1901, Quote Page 125, J. M. Dent & Company, London. (Internet archive; verified with scans)
  7. 1905 July 15, New York Times, Wilde’s Last Epigram, Quote Page BR469, Column 2 and 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 1905 March 2, The Portsmouth Evening News, Oscar Wilde’s Death-Bed Jest, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  9. 1906, The Life of Oscar Wilde by Robert Harborough Sherard, Chapter 28, Quote Page 421, T. Werner Laurie, London. (Internet Archive; verified with scans)
  10. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, Volume 2 of 2, Section: Appendix, Letter from Robert Ross to More Adey, Date: December 14, 1900, Quote Page 596, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter 26, Quote Page 536 and 537, Brentano’s New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Chapter 18: The End, Quote Page 331, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1980, The Letters of Evelyn Waugh by Evelyn Waugh, Edited by Mark Amory, Chapter 6: Decline and Fall (1956-1966), Footnote 2, Quote Page 566, Ticknor & Fields, New Haven and New York. (Verified with scans)