Famous Last Words

George Washington on his deathbed, by John Meister



Years ago, I snagged a job as an associate editor of Saint Louis University’s alumni magazine because my predecessor had suffered a fatal aneurysm crossing Grand Avenue. A thin, sharp-witted Brit, her last words were, “Something untoward has happened in my head.”

When I was told, I was speechless, humbled from the start. How do you take the job of someone who can die with that much aplomb? Luckily, I was in my early twenties and my own death was remote. But now that it is nearer than my birth, I find myself fascinated by people’s last words. They endure, and they mark the last time that person mattered, in the material sense. All that follows is others’ blurry memories, first, and then only interpretation, the bending of the past to the present’s will.

My favorite last words are Voltaire’s. When the priest hovering over him urged him to renounce Satan, he retorted, “Now is not the time for making new enemies.”

Tied for second place are those who knew how to celebrate. Margaret Sanger’s last words were: “A party! Let’s have a party.” And Josephine Baker, La Baker, exited a bash thrown in her honor saying—I imagine the words tossed back over one shoulder—“Oh, you young people act like old men. You are no fun.” Upon which remark she, like old men, dropped dead.

The greatest gift to the rest of us, I realize as I hunt down various messages, is not sentiment but wit. Louise-Marie-Therese de Saint Maurice, the Comtesse de Vercellis, broke wind and nodded with satisfaction: “Good. A woman who can fart is not dead.” Jack Soo, famous for making horrid coffee on Barney Miller, was being wheeled into the operating room in a doomed attempt to rid him of esophageal cancer. He looked up at his friend and costar, Hal Linden, and shrugged: “It must have been the coffee.”

But wait—do we count those as last words? He died at the hospital but not, as far as I can tell, during surgery. Many “last words” have no doubt been shuffled into different order, or cleaned up, by loved ones who cannot bear to hand posterity a curse or a humdrum request for prune juice. Even so, the last words we attach to people bookend their lives.

The worst are the ambiguous ones, like President John Tyler, who reportedly said, “Perhaps it is best.” Self-hatred? The abandonment of a plot? More reassuring are those who stay true to type. Alfred Hitchcock reminding himself, “One never knows the ending.” Dominique Bouhors, a grammarian of the language the French protect with moats and lances, murmuring, “I am about to or I am going to, either expression is correct.” Nostradamus predicting (a gimme) “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here.” Marie Antoinette, schooled in politesse, accidently stepped on her executioner’s foot and saying, as her final words, “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur.” A surgeon, Joseph Henry Green, taking his own pulse and saying, “Stopped.”

Admirably succinct. As was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who exclaimed only, “Beautiful!” Martin Luther relaxed into amiability and said only “Yes.” Truman Capote—and this revelation breaks my heart—kept repeating “Mama.” Teenage beauty queen Lillie Mae Faulk, the original Black Swan, divorced early, changed her name to Nina, and left little Truman with relatives while she crafted a more glamorous life. When he was twenty-nine, she killed herself. He had never gotten loved enough.

More cheerfully, Bo Diddley ended his life saying “Wow.” Steve Jobs outdid him: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” Was the tech guru having a near-death experience, a beatific vision? Or was he just in too much pain to elaborate? That is the problem with last words. No chance for clarification.

It would be lovely to have George Washington’s serenity: “T’is well.” I like to think he was confirming Julian of Norwich’s soothing “All shall be well. All manner of thing shall be well.” But would a deist worry about a mystic’s street cred? Maybe Washington was simply fulfilling his role as a statesman, keeping the peace lest the rabble be alarmed. “This is the last of earth,” John Quincy Adams said calmly, dying of a stroke in the Speaker’s Room at the Capitol. “I am content.” And so should we be. Except that these days, the Capitol gets ransacked by We the People, and we cannot be confident of what the consummate statesman, Abraham Lincoln, wished for us: “May always the right prevail.”

Was he prescient, dreading our eventual downfall? There is that ambiguity again. At death, it is easier to read sarcasm than earnestness. We grin instantly at the deathbed words of Lady Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, who woke to see her whole family peering at her. “Am I dying,” she asked, “or is this my birthday?”

Her asperity reminds me of my grandmother, who wanted her own dramatic deathbed scene. When her first great-grandbaby was brought to her hospital room, too much fuss was made over Baby. My grandmother, who had kept silent, relishing the gathering, glared at me as I jounced the baby and said sharply, “Honey, give them back their baby so they can go home.” Clearing, as it were, the stage.

My grandmother had never managed the grand life she craved. Neither did Eugene O’Neill, if you believe his parting shot: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and God damn it, died in a hotel room.”

Some people fight harder than others. W.C. Fields, asked why he was reading the Bible, snapped, “I’m looking for loopholes.” George Patton grumbled, “This is a hell of a way to die.” Which is nowhere near as much fun as Groucho Marx’s final protest: “This is no way to live!”

Oscar Wilde, dissembling with a wink, announced, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” He knew exactly what he was saying (always). But metaphor had more style.

Sweet Noel Coward practiced sincere denial: “Goodnight my darlings, I’ll see you tomorrow.” This appeals to me. To slip away without fuss, pretending I would wake the next morning to orange juice and eggs? Delightful. Why not make life last as long as possible? And if denial fails, I would at least like to offer fond reassurance, as Roald Dahl did to his daughter: “You know, I’m not frightened. It’s just that I will miss you all so much.”

The sweetness of that affection, the resignation at the end of a long creative life—how infinitely preferable to the blunt horror of Diana Princess of Wales, who blurted, “My God, what’s happened?” Violent and accidental deaths leave no time for poetic sentiment. And shield me also from the blunt practicality of Lewis Carroll, who airily directed someone to “take away those pillows. I shall need them no more.”

At least he knew. I would rather know than wonder. Emily Dickinson, with her evocative brevity, always made us wonder, and sometimes I want to slap something honest and messy out of her. “I must go in,” she said at the end, still perfectly composed, “for the fog is rising.” Leaving us to wonder if she saw the afterworld, sensed an inner confusion, or was simply monitoring the weather.

When a priest murmured over Charlie Chaplin, “May the Lord have mercy on your soul,” Chaplin fired back a quick-drawn theology: “Why not? After all, it belongs to Him.” Even smartass Machiavelli made us rethink Christian dogma, announcing, “I desire to go to Hell and not Heaven. In the former place I shall enjoy the company of popes, kings, and princes, while in the latter are only beggars, monks, and apostles.”

He had a point. And at least he was still looking for a party. The last words that sadden me are those disgusted with life. “I hope the exit is joyful and hope never to return,” Frida Kahlo wrote in her diary a few days before she died. Convicted murderer Thomas Grasso whined about his last meal: “I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s; I got spaghetti.” And Beethoven—not only deaf but broke, depressed by a breakup, enmeshed in legal battles, and in ill health—said dryly, “Friends, applaud. The comedy is over.”

Leaving would be a lot easier if I could wave a loose-wristed hand and say, like Winston Churchill, “I’m bored with it all.” Physicist Richard Feynman never lost his curiosity about life, but he did find its end tedious, announcing, “This dying is boring.”

The one I worry about is Leonardo da Vinci, who muttered, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” If true, we are all screwed. Which is another reason I would like my last words to be fun. Asked on his deathbed where he wanted to be buried, Bob Hope said, “Surprise me!” While I am never going to attain Voltaire’s wit, I might manage Hope’s tease.

If not, I will beg for good drugs and hope to utter something odd and inane, like filmmaker Derek Jarman, whose last words were, “I want the world to be filled with white fluffy duckies.”

Because, really, would that be so awful?


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.