Quote: It is not enough to succeed; others must fail (antedating Iris Murdoch 1973; variant attrib Somerset Maugham 1959)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Feb 6 14:37:29 UTC 2010

It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.

Gore Vidal was willing to embrace this saying in the 1970s, and most
quotation books that contain it are content to assign it to him.
Famous Lines: a Columbia Dictionary of Familiar Quotations (1997), The
Yale Book of Quotations (2006), and The Oxford Dictionary of Modern
Quotations (2008) all cite Gore Vidal and provide references dated
1978 or 1976. Writing in the Freakonomics blog at the New York Times
on December 17, 2009, Fred Shapiro indicated that the Newport Daily
News of Rhode Island on November 3, 1978 quotes Gore Vidal delivering
the phrase.

However, before 1976 a matching quote appears in a novel of Iris
Murdoch. The character in the story who employs the saying points to
an earlier date of origination.

Citation: 1973, The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch, Page 98, Chatto and
Windus, London. (Google Books snippet view. Verified on paper.)

It was also important that I felt myself so immeasurably superior to
Francis. Some clever writer (probably a Frenchman) has said: it is not
enough to succeed; others must fail. So I felt gracious that evening
towards Francis because he was what he was and I was what I was.


The credit given to "a Frenchman" by Murdoch is probably an oblique
reference to Francois de La Rochefoucauld who is very often associated
with the saying. La Rochefoucauld was born in 1613 and is a famous
constructor of maxims, but I have not found any compelling evidence
that he crafted this particular one. Yet, his name is invoked so often
that I decided to write a separate post about his relationship to the

I hypothesize that the Murdoch-Vidal quotation is derived from a 1959
proto-quotation that appears below. The proto-quotation evolved into a
family of quotes whose salient variable feature is the description of
the person or persons that "must fail". Sometimes an individual
identified as a "best friend" or "friend" must fail, and sometimes an
undifferentiated group designated as "others" must fail.

The body of this posting will trace the quote from 1953 to 1973 by
presenting a series of citations that depict its evolution. This is a
rather lengthy post, but I hope that the sequence of cites shows the
transformation of the prolix initial quote into the taut final quote.

The first appearance that I could locate of a member of the family is
in a syndicated newspaper column by Bennett Cerf called "Try and Stop
Me". Cerf attributes the quote to Somerset Maugham, but he does so
indirectly through an unnamed "visitor". Cerf apparently was not
satisfied with this version of the quote because he presents another
streamlined version in 1971 that is shown further below.

Citation: 1959 July 08, The Daily Messenger, Try and Stop Me by
Bennett Cerf, Page 12, Col. 7, Canandaigua, New York.

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."

(Access to NewspaperArchive requires a subscription. So the link below
leads to an accessible version of the syndicated column that appears
in the Lewiston Evening Journal dated 1959 July 20.)


Richard A. Cordell, the author of a biographical and critical study of
Somerset Maugham, reacted to the attributed quotation in the 1961
edition of his work. The excerpt below refers to Maugham's sojourn in
Heidelberg, Germany that began when he was eighteen.

Citation: 1961, Somerset Maugham: a Writer for All Seasons by Richard
A. Cordell, Page 29, Indiana University Press, Bloomington. (Google
snippet view. Text extracted from the online 1961 edition. Verified on
paper in the 1969 edition only.)

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


Cordell strongly cements the connection of the quotation to La
Rochefoucauld, and I suspect that this influences later attributions.
But what does Cordell mean by the phrase "a pure La Rochefoucauld"? Is
he saying that Maugham was directly quoting La Rochefoucauld?
Alternatively, is he merely contending that the quote closely conforms
to the opinions expressed by La Rochefoucauld in his maxims? I do not

But as stated above, I was unable to find the quote in La
Rochefoucauld's maxims. Maxim 99 is sometimes presented as a match,
but it is a poor match as I argue in a separate post. Note, Maugham
was born 1874 January 25 and therefore his 85th birthday occurred 1959
January 25.

In the chronologically next citation the quote is trimmed by removing
the first sentence and Maugham's name is replaced by La
Rochefoucauld's. Merle Miller was a television writer for a short

Citation: 1964, Only You, Dick Daring!: or How to Write One Television
Script and Make $50,000,000 by Merle Miller, Page 45, W. Sloane
Associates, New York. (Google snippet view only. WorldCat agrees with

Remember the advice of the wisest of men, Rochefoucauld, 'It is not
enough to have achieved personal success. One's best friend must also
have failed.'


In the following 1967 cite the quote is once again attributed to
Maugham, but it is shortened.  The word "personal" is deleted, and
"one's best friend" becomes the more amorphous "friends". Ned Rorem is
a composer.

Citation: 1967, The New York Diary of Ned Rorem by Ned Rorem, Page
204, George Braziller, New York. (Google Books snippet view. Verified
on paper.)

I said to Joe LeSueur: "I've decided to become charitable." His
answer: "Really? How do you intend to go about it?" And he quotes
Maugham: "It's not enough that I succeed, my friends must fail." Then
adds: "It's not enough that I fail, my friends must fail."


Bennett Cerf's 1971 version of the quote is still attributed to
Maugham, but it differs from the one he gave in 1959 because it is

Citation: 1971 July 23, Reading Eagle, Try and Stop Me by Bennett
Cerf, Page 10, Col. 5, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive
full view. Rightmost column near the bottom of the page.)

"When you pass middle age, it is not enough that you succeed. Your
friends must also fail." Somerset Maugham.


The next citation chops off the prefatory phrase given by Cerf, and
labels the quote an "old saw". The article author is identified as
"The Voice of Broadway" and that moniker is evidence that the phrase
continues to circulate in the milieu of artists and entertainers.

Citation: 1971 August 05, Sarasota Journal, It's A Luxury Liner And
You're Going by Jack O'Brian, Page 11B, Col. 2, Sarasota,
Florida.(Google News Archive full view.)

But the sailing parties remain delightful punctuation to anyone's
vacation; like the old saw that it's not enough in your life that you
succeed - your friends must also fail. A luxury liner leavetaking
contains one not too nasty triumph: You are sailing and your friends
must debark, enviously.


Famous director Francis Ford Coppola used the quote in 1972 and
attributed it to "La Rochefoucault". This seems to be a misspelling of
La Rochefoucauld. Many citations nowadays come from Hollywood.

Citation: Movie People, at Work in the Business of Film edited by Fred
Baker, Chapter by Francis Ford Coppola, Page 68, Douglas Book Corp.,
New York. (Google Books snippet view. Verified on paper.)

The problem here is that unique Hollywood principle: "I want my film
to be good and his to be lousy," which is based on the old adage of La
Rochefoucault (sic), "It is not enough that I succeed; my best friend
must also fail." It's different in Europe.


The novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed used the quote in 1973 while
speaking about Gore Vidal, but he did not attribute the quote to
Vidal; instead, he assigned it to La Rochefoucauld.

Citation: 1973 February 4, New York Times, Book Review Section, Writer
as Wretch and Rat by Wilfrid Sheed. (Google News Archive snippet view.
Verified on microfilm.)

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."


Now we have reached 1973, the date of the Iris Murdoch's novel. To
reach Murdoch-Vidal's version of the quotation from Sheed's version,
the term "a friend" is replaced by "others" and "also" is deleted. Of
course, Murdoch may never have heard Sheed's version. When I discuss
specific modifications of one quote to yield another quote I am only
presenting a plausibility argument about the way in which the quote
family may have evolved. Many pathways are possible, but I think the
evidence supports a general arc of evolution from 1959 to 1973.

A stated above I will post about La Rochefoucauld and his maxim 99
separately. The separate post will also discuss some partial matches
before 1959.

If you have read this far, thanks for your interest!

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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