The statisticians will no doubt record the 1980s as the most expansive decade for gross national product of the Seven Deadly Sins. The improved techniques of mass distribution that have been so fruitful for this line’s overall performance cannot, however, obscure some softness in the market for a few of its issues.

Lust and Anger slipped behind Sloth and may indeed have been inhibited by consumer preferences for Sloth. Covetousness and Gluttony each rode a rising curve whose crest looks safely far off in the distance. But, of all the offerings in Satan’s portfolio, Envy registered the sort of quiet and steady advance that signals real potential to the shrewd investor. Buy Envy now: it could well be the Deadly Sin growth stock of the 1990s.

Gratitude for faithful service to our less appetizing impulses has always been owed Envy, but it has until now been shamefully cheated of that due.

Emerson once divided America into the Party of Hope and the Party of Memory, meaning, we suppose, the liberals, who are generally without hope, and the conservatives, who are singularly without memory. But Emerson overlooked the Party of Envy, a lapse for which he may be excused because, while never insignificant, its mischiefs have until now been limited to the intramural malignities of the intellectual and artistic class. The poisons of Envy corrode the veins of every passed-over associate professor when he crosses the path of an anointed full professor, every failed novelist when he turns to the best-seller list, every waiter in a West Side restaurant when he thinks of an actor who has a part, and every critic whom few admire when he comes to deal with an author too many revere.

I remember discussing the late Robert Oppenheimer with another nuclear physicist whose sizable attainments were known only to science. His envy of Oppenheimer’s wider prestige was so irrepressible that, at one point, when I said that it strained even my understanding for the London tailors to have certified Oppenheimer as one of the ten best-dressed men alive, this colleague and equal fairly writhed in the dingiest of suits and exploded, “That is ridiculous; he is very sloppy.”

The cankerings of this spirit may explain why so many physicists who had reason enough to be proud of their own parts to need none of the sour consolations of being jealous of Oppenheimer’s, disgraced themselves by enjoying, and in some instances contributing to, the defamations that seared a man perhaps too devotedly patriotic with the scar that proclaimed him unfit for his country’s trust.

Envy’s part in Oppenheimer’s humiliation was a conspicuous proof of the power of its spites. Still, for most of our lifetime, its bad works had been confined to fratricidal compasses; most of us did not know enough about persons better off than ourselves to be burdened with the intimate association that fertilizes Envy with the venom its full baleful bloom requires.

But then came television to destroy that saving grace by converting the rich, the famous, and the too often repellent into domestic creatures native to our living rooms. They entered as strangers, and they stayed to become our in-laws. Donald Trump is the wife’s brother who is doing altogether better than the husband, Leona Helmsley is the sister-in-law who has flagrantly ascended beyond the rest of us and cannot even be tolerated on the odd chance that we are eligible for her will.

The consequence is that Envy has become a plague. Its new stature in the hierarchy of the Deadly Sins is especially distressing because it is perhaps the most degraded of them all and the only one that cannot afford even a transient satisfaction. We sometimes hear of righteous, healing Anger, but who could be so deluded as to apply the complement of those adjectives to Envy? Baggage handlers on the shuttle are presumably acquiring the license to the vehement hatred of Donald Trump that chambermaids at the Helmsley Palace earned to the full measure of their bitter thoughts about Leona Helmsley. Theirs is the honest property of hard-bought Anger.

But hatred of Trump in his triumph and of Mrs. Helmsley before her fall could otherwise have no fuel for its heat except the lust to be like them and to be cheated of the chance.

The course of justice in the Eighties is especially to be deplored for the assiduity of its caterings to the Party of Envy’s multiplying constituency. Rudolph Giuliani could not have been his decade’s most notable public prosecutor if he had not made himself the anointed tribune of the vindictively jealous. We can thank him for the pillory endured by Bess Myerson, who was acquitted even of the nullity he had chosen to identify as a crime. We can thank him, too, for the chance we have so avidly seized to slaver over the prospect that a woman ruined by her pretensions and ravaged by the advance of the years will mark her seventy-second birthday in a federal prison.


Leona Helmsley had too long a run with at least four of the Deadly Sins, while those who hate her sufficiently to exult in her harassments will just have to make do with Envy. It had not before occurred to me that there could be so many souls punier even than hers.

Copyright © 1989 by Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

February 15, 1990