Category Archives: Gore Vidal

Write Something, Even If It’s Just a Suicide Note

Gore Vidal? Lucinda Ebersole? Rand B. Lee? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Aspiring authors are typically told to set aside enough time to make writing into a daily habit. The provocative author Gore Vidal apparently employed an extreme version of this injunction:

Write something, even if it’s just a suicide note.

Did Vidal coin this astringently comical remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in “The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations” in 1986: 1

Write something, even if it’s just a suicide note. Anon.

The creator was unidentified and no citation was provided. An identical entry appeared in the 1987 successor volume “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations” from the same editor Robert I. Fitzhenry. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order including evidence that Gore Vidal did use the expression. Continue reading


  1. 1986, The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations, Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Writers and Writing, Quote Page 388, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Toronto. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Writers and Writing, Quote Page 388, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)

There Is Surely Nothing Quite So Useless as Doing with Great Efficiency What Should Not Be Done At All

Peter Drucker? Gore Vidal? Professor Giddings? Jesse H. Shera? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I belong to an organization which is expending an inordinate effort perfecting the execution of a task that is peripheral to its mission. A famous management guru spoke about the pointlessness of efficiently performing a function that should not be done at all. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1963 Peter Drucker published an article titled “Managing for Business Effectiveness” in the “Harvard Business Review”, and he discussed the troublesome error of misallocation. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But every analysis of actual allocation of resources and efforts in business that I have ever seen or made showed clearly that the bulk of time, work, attention, and money first goes to “problems” rather than to opportunities, and, secondly, to areas where even extraordinarily successful performance will have minimal impact on results.

What is the major problem? It is fundamentally the confusion between effectiveness and efficiency that stands between doing the right things and doing things right. There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1963 May, Harvard Business Review, Managing for Business Effectiveness by Peter F. Drucker, Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, Massachusetts. (Online archive at; accessed February 6, 2017) link

The Four Most Beautiful Words in the English Language:

itoldyouso07Gore Vidal? Stormont Mancroft? Gareth Williams? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation has been attributed to the writer and political commentator Gore Vidal:

The four most beautiful words in the English language are ‘I told you so’.

Was this statement crafted by Vidal?

Quote Investigator: Gore Vidal did employ versions of this saying on multiple occasions. But the earliest strongly matching instance located by QI was spoken in the British House of Lords in 1953 by Lord Mancroft (Stormont Mancroft). Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

I should like to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, for having given us the opportunity of discussing this matter this afternoon and also for the moderate and reasonable way in which he has put his point of view forward. Indeed, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, also, on having successfully resisted the temptation to utter those happiest words in the English language, “I told you so.”

Mancroft used the adjective “happiest” instead of “most beautiful”, and he did not count the words, but the notion he expressed was very similar.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1953 February 18, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, House of Lords, Leasehold Reform, Speaking: Lord Mancroft (Mr. Stormont Mancroft), Lords Sitting, volume 180, cc512-59. (Accessed on December 9, 2015) link

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.

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  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)

It Is Not Enough to Succeed; One’s Best Friend Must Fail

Gore Vidal? La Rochefoucauld? Somerset Maugham? Wilfrid Sheed? Iris Murdoch? David Merrick? Genghis Khan? Larry Ellison? Anonymous?

vidalsomerset04Dear Quote Investigator: Competition and jealousy are reflected in a family of closely related cynical sayings:

  • It is not enough to succeed; one’s best friend must fail.
  • It is not enough to succeed; one’s friends must fail.
  • It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.
  • It’s not enough that I should succeed, others should fail.
  • It is not sufficient that I succeed – all others must fail.

I have heard different versions of these quotations credited to the epigrammatist La Rochefoucauld, the writer Gore Vidal, and the warlord Genghis Khan. Could you examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: François Duc de la Rochefoucauld was born in 1613, and he did craft adages that are sometimes confused with the phrases you have given. Here are English translations of two of his statements that were originally made in French [YQRO] [OXRO]:

In the misfortune of our best friends, we always find something which is not displeasing to us.

We are all strong enough to bear the misfortunes of others.

These are really different maxims, and QI believes that the sayings under investigation should not be ascribed to La Rochefoucauld. A separate post will be created to discuss Rochefoucauld’s words.

The earliest instance known to QI of a quotation that fits in this family of sayings was published in 1959. The words were attributed to the best-selling author Somerset Maugham by the avid quotation collector Bennett Cerf. The quote was published in Cerf’s syndicated newspaper column called “Try and Stop Me”, and he credited Maugham second-hand through an unnamed “visitor”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI [SMFF]:

Octogenarian Somerset Maugham told a visitor to his French Riviera estate recently, “Now that I’ve grown old, I realize that for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One’s best friend must also have failed.”

In 1961 “Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study” by Richard A. Cordell was published, and it included a discussion of the quotation immediately above. The biographer contended that Maugham’s comment was inspired by his exposure to the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld in his youth. The excerpt below referred to Maugham’s sojourn in Heidelberg, Germany that began when he was eighteen. The excerpt also referred his 85th birthday which occurred in 1959 [SMRC]:

His companions introduced him to the pleasures of art, poetry, theatre, and friendly disputation. He discovered the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, and their echoes were heard for sixty years in his plays and stories. On Maugham’s eighty-fifth birthday a journalist reported him as uttering a pure La Rochefoucauld: “Now that I have grown old, I realize that for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One’s best friend must also have failed.” Fortunately one is not obliged to accept as authentic every statement made by a columnist, and this ill-humored remark is quoted out of context.

Some readers may have misinterpreted the phrase “uttering a pure La Rochefoucauld” and concluded that the quotation was composed directly by La Rochefoucauld. But Cordell actual meant that the quote was stylistically and thematically congruent with the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. This similarity has caused confusion between the words of Maugham and La Rochefoucauld for decades as shown in the citations below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Death Was a Good Career Move

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

vidal09Subject: 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.

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  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

Meretricious and a Happy New Year

Gore Vidal? Franklin P. Adams? George S. Kaufman? Mary Horan? Chico Marx? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The holiday season is here, and I have a question about a pun. A critic once told Gore Vidal that one of his novels was meretricious and Gore pointedly replied:

Really? Well, meretricious and a happy New Year to you too!

This anecdote is set in the 1970s and when I read about it recently I was reminded of stories about the Algonquin Round Table. The group members used to play a game in which a word was selected and a participant was challenged to create a clever sentence using it. I think meretricious was one of the words chosen, and the result was the quip used by Gore Vidal many years later. Could you check into this?

Quote Investigator: The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, a top-notch reference that is enjoyable to browse, lists this anecdote of verbal jousting under the name of Gore Vidal. But the entry also mentions some instances of the pun as early as 1933 credited to The Marx Brothers and Franklin P. Adams [ODHM].

The earliest instance located by QI was published in December 1929 by the famous columnist Walter Winchell who referred to the sentence construction activity as a “parlor diversion.” Winchell presented two examples of puns which he attributed to the actress Mary Horan. The third example used meretricious, but the joke was not credited to a specific person.

The second earliest citation was published in December 1930. Once again Walter Winchell described the sentence construction activity as a “parlor pastime.” The example using meretricious was deemed “one of the cleverest”. Winchell mentioned several members of the Round Table: Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, and Dorothy Parker, but he did not provide a name for the originator of the wordplay for meretricious in 1929 or 1930.

Twelve years later in 1942 Winchell credited the pun to the playwright and Round Table member George S. Kaufman. In 1945 a biographer of Alexander Woollcott assigned the joke to Franklin P. Adams. In modern times the wordplay is often attributed to Gore, Adams, and The Marx Brothers .

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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Never Miss a Chance to Have Sex or Appear On Television

Gore Vidal? Lewis H. Lapham? Fictional? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When I watch reality television shows today I can only conclude that some people will do anything to be on television. This fits the advice the famous author Gore Vidal apparently gave:

Never turn down an opportunity to have sex or to be on television

Clearly this is a guiding principle to a large cohort, but I think it is an eccentric recommendation. Could you determine if Vidal did say this? I do recall seeing him on television multiple times, so maybe he was following his own counsel.

Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that Vidal did say a version of this quotation in the 1970s. He was interviewed on the Charlie Rose television show in 2009 and was asked about this saying. He replied that the adage was his, and he originally said it to Diane Sawyer the network correspondent who is now a prominent anchor.

QI has not yet located a transcript of the colloquy between Vidal and Sawyer. The earliest instance of the quote QI has found appears in the magazine Harper’s in a column written by the editor Lewis H. Lapham in October of 1978 where the words are credited to Gore Vidal.

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