So, was it Gore Vidal who coined the bon mot: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail”? Yesterday there was a discussion of that burning question on this thread, and I became curious.
It just didn’t quite sound like Vidal, although it sort of did. He was known for aphorisms (and a great deal more, much of it attention-getting and offensive)—but that one? Perhaps, but I wondered.
One of the great things about the internet is that you can find just about anything there. One of the lousy things about the internet is that a lot of that information is wrong, and you can spin around in circles trying to sort the wheat from the chaff. But I think I struck paydirt with this article, and the answer to the question is (drum roll, please) “no, probably not.”
It turns out there are many different variations on the theme, sometimes credited to La Rochefoucauld, Somerset Maugham, Genghis Khan—and yes, Gore Vidal. The correct answer is that the 17th wit La Rochefoucauld came up with something in the ballpark but not really quite the same, and Maugham is most likely the originator of the actual phrase. As for Vidal, here’s how that rumor started:
In 1973 the novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed used the saying in the New York Times while speaking about Gore Vidal, but he did not attribute the quote to Vidal; instead, he assigned it to La Rochefoucauld:
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. And in a sense La Rochefoucauld beat us both, when he said “it is not enough to succeed; a friend must also fail.”
As for La Rochefoucauld, here are the translations of his original aphorisms, which I think surpass their descendents in both wit and style:
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.
More subtle and more elegant.