Oscar Wilde? Michael Cunningham? Robert Klitzman? Robert Michels? Frank Underwood? Kevin Spacey? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: While reading about the precipitous downfall of an influential literary tastemaker and powerbroker at “The Paris Review” I encountered once again a remark attributed to Oscar Wilde. Here are three versions:
- Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.
- Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.
- Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.
The Wilde ascription is often labeled apocryphal. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde wrote or said this remark. It is not listed in the valuable compendium “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” assembled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1
The earliest close match located by QI appeared in the “Provincetown Arts” journal of 1995. Author Michael Cunningham employed the saying during an interview conducted by fellow author Paul Lisicky. Cunningham is now best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Hours”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
If you’re writing about what people do to and with one another, it’s sort of crazy to leave sex out. I think Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in human life is really about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” And I think he’s got something there.
Cunningham disclaimed coinage and provided an attribution that was both tentative and implausible. Hence, the saying remains anonymous.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, Quote (Quotation is absent), HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1995, Provincetown Arts, Volume 11, Conversations: A Talk with Michael Cunningham by Paul Lisicky, Start Page 36, Quote Page 39, Column 3, Published Annually in July by Provincetown Arts Inc., Provincetown, Massachusetts. link (Internet Archive at archive.org accessed June 5, 2018) ↩