Whenever a Friend Succeeds, a Little Something in Me Dies

Gore Vidal? Wilfrid Sheed? Anonymous?

Dear 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.

Continue reading Whenever a Friend Succeeds, a Little Something in Me Dies

Notes:

  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?

Dear 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.

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