5 Artistic Rivalries That Got Ugly

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by Elizabeth Lunday

1. Voltaire exposes Rousseau as a Deadbeat Dad (5 times over?!)

They say you're not paranoid if someone's really out to get you. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was paranoid, but Voltaire was really out to get him, too. The two philosopher/writers started sniping at each other in the 1750s. At the time, Voltaire was an established leader of French philosophical circles and Rousseau (yet to write The Social Contract and Émile) was just a newbie. But the balance of power began to shift when Voltaire moved to Rousseau's native city of Geneva in 1754. Although Rousseau had left Geneva in 1728, he remained devoted to the city's strict Calvinist standards, which included a ban on public plays. So when he heard Voltaire was not only putting on private dramas but also urging city authorities to admit plays into the city, Rousseau wrote an outraged letter condemning theatricals. In return, an annoyed Voltaire wrote to his philosopher friends saying that Rousseau had only criticized the theater because Rousseau had written a bad play.

Rousseau went off the deep end. He dipped his pen in vitriol and scratched out a letter to Voltaire that began, bluntly enough, "I do not like you, sir." He went on to outline all the (perceived) slights he'd received from Voltaire and concluded, "In a word, I hate you." Voltaire thought Rousseau had lost his mind and publicly advised his fellow philosopher a course of soothing baths and restorative broths. Henceforth, Voltaire would miss no opportunity to slam his enemy. He mocked the plots of Rousseau's novels, insinuated Rousseau had inflated his resume, and bashed Rousseau's book Julie as "silly, middle-class, dirty-minded, and boring." Finally, in 1764, Voltaire wielded the most powerful weapon he possessed—a secret about Rousseau he'd picked up in Geneva. Using a pseudonym, Voltaire wrote an open letter accusing Rousseau of abandoning his five children at the door of an orphanage. The accusation was shocking—and true.

Rousseau, in a politician-worthy statement of denial, could only claim, "I have never exposed, or caused to be exposed, any infant at the door of an orphanage." He was telling the truth, but only because the children had been taken inside the orphanage. Further scrambling to justify his actions, Rousseau responded with his book Confessions, now recognized as one of the first true autobiographies. An ugly quarrel, it seems, marked the invention of a new literary form.

2. 100 Years of Attitude: Mario Vargas Llosa punches Gabriel García Márquez in the face

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Colombian Nobel-prize winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez and Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa together helped to revolutionize Spanish-language literature with their forays into magical realism. The two met in 1967 and immediately became inseparable. In 1971, Vargas Llosa wrote a book-length study of García Márquez' work. García Márquez became the godfather of Vargas Llosa's son.

Then, at a 1976 film premiere in Mexico City, García Márquez spotted his pal Vargas Llosa sitting a few rows back and went to greet him.

"Mario!" he exclaimed with open arms, just before Vargas Llosa punched him in the face.

The two authors have neither spoken to, nor seen, each other since. For years, that is all anyone has known about it. What hasn't been known, however, is why. The men have only said the quarrel was "personal." Much of the speculation has focused on politics. (At one time, both were supporters of Fidel Castro, but Vargas Llosa grew disillusioned with the dictator.) Others have suggested Vargas Llosa was jealous of his friend's world fame. But the cold war hit the papers again this January after a Spanish newspaper announced that the 40th-anniversary edition of García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude would include an introduction by Vargas Llosa. Headlines announced that the feud was over—except that it wasn't. García Márquez' literary agent explained that Vargas Llosa had only allowed an out-of-print 1971 essay about García Márquez to be included in the volume. Hardly a reconciliation, but it meant the feud was news once again. And that's when the story behind the Mexico City fight started to come out. Turns out, the quarrel wasn't about literary fame or political leanings. As we all should have guessed, it was about a woman.

The trouble started, sources say, when Vargas Llosa fell madly in love with a Swedish stewardess. He ran off to Stockholm with her, leaving behind his wife, Patricia (who was, incidentally, also his first cousin). Devastated, Patricia went to her husband's best friend for advice. The first thing García Márquez reportedly did was suggest she divorce her husband. Then he "consoled" her. (It has been suggested this "consolation" involved more than a pat on the back.)

Eventually, Vargas Llosa returned home from Sweden and reconciled with his wife. Apparently, Patricia told all. The authors' next encounter was at the theater. After landing his punch, Vargas Llosa supposedly shouted, "How dare you come and greet me after what you did to Patricia in Barcelona!" And while neither author has confirmed this version of the events, the brouhaha has Latin American literary types buzzing yet again.

3. Lillian Hellman vs. Mary McCarthy

One January night in 1980, playwright Lillian Hellman (The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes) sat up in bed while watching The Dick Cavett Show. Novelist and critic Mary McCarthy was on the program discussing books when Cavett asked her which writers she considered overrated. "Lillian Hellman," McCarthy promptly replied. "Everything "¦ every word she writes is a lie, including "˜and' and "˜the.'"

Hellman may have been 74 years old, nearly blind, and unable to walk, but she could still use the telephone. She called her attorney and ordered him to sue McCarthy— along with Cavett, the show's producer, and the station—for $2.25 million in libel. The result was a public slug-fest, with all of America's writers taking sides. Norman Mailer tried to act as a peacemaker via an article in The New York Times, but it only proved to annoy both sides. Hellman even offered to drop the suit if McCarthy publicly apologized, to which McCarthy responded, "But that would be lying."

To the surprise of everyone, including Hellman's attorneys, the New York Supreme Court refused McCarthy's request to dismiss the case on May 10, 1984. Sadly, Hellman didn't have long to enjoy her victory; she died less than two months later. McCarthy, who'd been facing financial ruin, was less than satisfied, complaining, "I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court." Since then, the case has been remembered in legal circles as raising important free speech issues. As Harper's magazine quipped, "If you can't call Lillian Hellman a liar on national TV, what's the First Amendment all about?"

4. Dueling Pianos: Johann Mattheson almost kills George Frideric Handel

Johann Mattheson met fellow composer George Frideric Handel in 1703, when the 21-year-old Handel moved to Hamburg to take the position of violinist and harpsichordist for the opera-house orchestra. This made Handel something of a young celebrity, but Mattheson was something of a celebrity himself, being a former child prodigy and a popular local composer. The two hung out quite a bit, and Mattheson even gave Handel advice on writing his first opera.

But the friendship hit a roadblock in December 1704, when Mattheson premiered his third opera, Cleopatra. Mattheson not only wrote and conducted the piece but also sang the part of Antonius. (Busy guy, Johann.) During the first three-quarters of the performance, Mattheson was on stage. But half an hour before the end, Antonius commits suicide, which left Mattheson at loose ends. Deciding to take over at the harpsichord, he headed for the orchestra pit and whispered to Handel, then tickling the ivories, to scoot over. A very much miffed Handel refused to give way.

History doesn't note the effect of the musicians' brawl on the performance, but it does record that Mattheson challenged Handel to a duel. According to Mattheson, the two retired to the street, took up swords, and started slashing. Also according to Mattheson, his sword broke when it struck one of Handel's large metal coat buttons, which is the only reason George's life was spared. Either way, Handel went on to bigger and better things (Messiah, for one), while Mattheson remained in Hamburg churning out oratorios. Watching Handel's rise from afar, he once complained that Handel had stolen the melody from one of his operas. (Probably a true charge, actually, as Handel was notorious for "borrowing" melodies.) Finally, toward the end of his life, Mattheson filled his autobiography with stories of his world-famous buddy, taking as much credit as possible for himself.

5. Domed for Failure: Lorenzo Ghiberti vs. Filippo Brunelleschi

The trouble between famed sculptors Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti started in 1401, and, according to some art historians, the Italian Renaissance started then, too. It was the year the two up-and-coming artists were among those asked to enter a competition to design a pair of bronze doors for the baptistery at the Florence Cathedral. Ghiberti ended up getting the job, but the details are debatable. He claimed the committee voted unanimously in his favor, but there's evidence that when officials asked the two artists to work together on the project, Brunelleschi scoffed at the offer and stormed off to Rome to study Classical architecture.
Who would have known, then, that Ghiberti and Brunelleschi would find themselves in competition again in 1418—this time to design a dome for the same cathedral. When the artists displayed their models, it was no contest. Brunelleschi's dome was not only architecturally elegant, it was structurally superior. Ghiberti, however, was the town's golden boy, so while Brunelleschi was given the main responsibility for the project, Ghiberti was awarded the same salary just for assisting.

That's how matters stood at the dome until 1423, just as a major piece of structural support was to begin construction. Armed with a cunning plan, Brunelleschi began complaining of a pain in his side and staggered home to bed. Naturally, the workmen turned to Ghiberti. While the bewildered artist tried to figure out Brunelleschi's model, the supposedly ill artist sat at home issuing reports of his imminent death. Then, miracle of miracles, Brunelleschi made a complete recovery. Rising from his bed a healed man, he inspected Ghiberti's work and announced it a shoddy piece of construction that would cause the entire structure to collapse. He ordered Ghiberti's work demolished and executed his own plans, which elegantly solved the structural problem.

Soon thereafter, Ghiberti was fired from the cathedral project. He never again attempted architecture, concentrating instead on refining his sculptures. Meanwhile, Brunelleschi saw the cathedral completed in 1436. It was the first dome ever built without a supporting frame, the largest dome in existence at the time, and remains the largest masonry dome in the world.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.