Oscar Wilde? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I saw an article on the web about brilliant repartee that listed the “Top 10 Best Comebacks”. One of the response lines was from the famous wit Oscar Wilde who addressed an audience from the stage after the performance of a play he had written. The acclamation for his work was great, but it was not universal. One unhappy and agitated person threw a bouquet with a rotten cabbage at the playwright. Wilde reportedly picked up the bouquet and without hesitation delivered the following riposte:
Thank you my friend. Every time I smell it, I shall be reminded of you.
I have been unable to find solid support for this entertaining story. Could you explore this anecdote?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that this tale is inaccurate; however, it was created by modifying and embellishing an incident that did occur on the opening night of Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest”. One version of the fictionalized story was depicted in the 1960 film “The Trials of Oscar Wilde”. This movie popularized the tale of a caustic encounter, and the screenwriters may have even concocted the clever riposte.
The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an undated letter sent by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas who was the son of Lord Queensberry. The person attempting to insult and humiliate Wilde was Lord Queensberry, and in Wilde’s letter he was referred to as “the Scarlet Marquis”: 1
Yes! the Scarlet Marquis made a plot to address the audience on the first night of my play !! Algy Burke revealed it and he was not allowed to enter. He left a grotesque bouquet of vegetables for me! This of course makes his conduct idiotic—robs it of dignity.
In this version of the tale the bouquet was not given directly to Wilde, and he did not speak to Lord Queensberry.
Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the next published evidence known to QI appeared in the 1914 book “Oscar Wilde and Myself” by Lord Alfred Douglas: 2
Failing to make disruption between myself and Wilde, Lord Queensberry adopted a different line of tactics; and, I believe, with the sincere view of saving me from what he knew was an undesirable entanglement, he went ahead to disgrace Wilde publicly. At a theatre where one of Wilde’s plays was running he caused a bouquet of carrots to be handed up to Wilde over the footlights, and he left his card on him at his club with certain odious remarks written on the back of it.
In this version the bouquet was composed of carrots, and it was not thrown. No jocular retort from Wilde was reported by Douglas.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1920, The Oscar Wilde Collection of John B. Stetson, Jr., (To be sold April 23), Twenty-Five Letters to Lord Alfred Douglas from Oscar Wilde, (First offered at auction as one lot), Letter number 304, No date, (Excerpt is from the description of letter), Quote Page 56, The Anderson Galleries, [Mitchell Kennerley, President], New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1914, Oscar Wilde and Myself by Lord Alfred Douglas, Quote Page 76 and 81, Duffield & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩