Historic Scandals That Paid Off

When it comes to art—be it a painting, dance, film, or writing—history shows us there's no such thing as bad publicity.

The French have a term for it: succès de scandale, which translates to “success from scandal.” We Americans also have a phrase for it. It’s called no publicity is bad publicity.

Scandals have launched plenty of 21st-century Hollywood careers (a certain Kardashian faux pas circa 2003 comes to mind), with some questioning the longevity of a career based on notoriety. But this isn’t merely a recent phenomenon, nor just popular prime time fodder. It’s been happening for eons.

So let’s look back at some of the most notorious succès de scandale throughout history, some dating back to more than 100 years ago. The following works of literature and art were considered scandalous no doubt, but it’s interesting to see just how history, the public, and the media have treated these notorious transgressors. Read on for the good, the bad, and the scandalous.


Luncheon on the Grass

Photo: Luncheon on the Grass Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 1863 …

Painter Edouard Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” caused a bit of a stir. Sure, there’s the obvious complaint: Two men and naked woman picnicking. But his painting is scandalous in technique as well: It’s a formal departure from the accepted techniques of the times, his stark contrasts between light and dark elements, for example. Today, however, it is considered by the Musée d’Orsay to be “the departure point for Modern Art.”


Vaslow Nijinsky

Photo: Vaslow Nijinsky Courtesy of Getty Images

In 1912 …

When 22-year-old Vaslav Nijinksy, the premier ballet dancer of his day, choreographed Afternoon of a Faun, he gave himself the lead role. The 11-minute dance — which includes a faun, his nymphs, and a highly charged erotic subtext — was condemned by critics. Still it resulted in sold-out performances thereafter. As succès de scandale would have it, History Today declared it the birth of modern dance.


Vaslav Nijinsky

Photo: Vaslav Nijinsky Courtesy of Getty Images

In 1913 …

The Rite of Spring, a ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky, incited a near riot. The audience’s roar of objection was reportedly so loud that the dancers had to be cued by someone shouting at them from backstage. Was it the disjointed, hyper-modern music? Or was it the bizarre choreography by that aforementioned rascal Nijinsky? Unclear. But today it’s heralded as “one of the great aesthetic monuments of Western art.”


dusty answer

Photo: Dusty Answer Courtesy of Open Road Media

In 1927 …

Bloomsbury set writer Rosamond Lehmann’s first novel, Dusty Answer, had critics doing the finger shake. They took exception to its candor regarding the passion of youthful love: “The first reviews of Dusty Answer were rather censorious. They said it was full of sex and that there was an intimation of lesbianism,” Lehmann told The Paris Review. But today it’s a classic in British literature, telling the story of friendship, discovery, and forbidden love.



Photo: The Lovers Courtesy of MoMA

In 1958 …

The Lovers, an early Louis Malle film starring Jeanne Moreau as a sexually liberated woman, scandalized France because of its carnal nature — along with its satirization of the high bourgeoisie — according to critic Ginette Vincendeau. Ultimately, however, the film played a major role in French New Wave cinema.


Mae West

Photo: Mae West Courtesy of Getty Images

In 1926 …

Mae West took the stage for a racy play about a Montreal prostitute. Not messing around with its title, Sex was popular with audiences but ignited a police raid and obscenity charges in February 1927. The ensuing conviction and publicity increased West’s fame, of course. According to, “by 1935, Mae West was the second-highest paid person in the United States behind publisher William Randolph Hearst.”

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