Famous Last Words
I love last words, or at least am fascinated by last words. Here is part one of a potentially infinite series in which I write about people’s dying utterances, so to speak.
“Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” — Oscar Wilde. Okay. A couple of things here. First of all, what he actually said was, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” Which is pretty damn funny, and also poignant, since Oscar Wilde — formerly world-renowned poet and playwright — was lying, broke and abandoned by nearly all of his friends, on his deathbed in a cheap hotel in France. But he still got in one last zinger! And “Either this wallpaper goes or I do” is a pretty damn funny thing to say, considering he was dying and in a lot of pain and all. Unfortunately, he said this weeks before he died. Oscar Wilde’s actual last words, as far as we can tell, were part of a mumbled Catholic prayer. Oh well.
This does, however, illustrate two of the problems with last words. The first problem: people tend to make them up and/or exaggerate them, based on what they think famous people’s last words should have been. And the second problem: dying at exactly the right moment is hard! If Oscar Wilde had croaked right after he had said the wallpaper thing, that would have been just perfect. But life — and death, gosh, heavy — is often more tricky than that. Oh well again.
“That guy’s gotta stop… He’ll see us.” — James Dean. Here we have the same problem all over again. James Dean died in a car crash while illegally racing his 1955 Porsche Super Speedster on a California highway. The guy riding with him in the car survived. But Dean’s passenger has said that he has no memories of the moments before the crash, meaning that these last words are made up too.
I guess these (invented) last words are supposed to be… dramatic irony? Like, that guy is totally gonna see us but oh noes he won’t Mr. James Dean. Honk. Crash. Splat. Zoom. Irony, ha. It seems to me that if you’re just going to make up the words anyway, then you may as well take them further: “It’s so heavy right now, man, but right now I’m feeling like I’ll never make a single driving error, ever, and like no one will ever die in a car crash ever again. It’s the weirdest damn thing. Also I just thought of this great idea for a movie. It’s called… ‘Avatar.’ So we should see a few bucks off of that. ANY-hoo, isn’t life joyous? Say, who could go for some nice delicious ice cream right now?” Honk, crash, splat, zoom. But maybe that would lack… believability? I guess.
“So here it is at last, the expected thing.” — Henry James. Well, we’ve finally got some actual last words, so that’s nice. But man, I can’t stand Henry James: he’s one of my least favorite writers, his sentences and the paragraphs just drag on and on and on and his characters are just rich people who are obsessed with the class system, which is the most boring thing to write about, and god, some of his sentences are so long, so long and droning, almost as long as this sentence is becoming, because that’s how much I can’t stand Henry James.
And these last words sound so pre-rehearsed, like he was up all night getting them just right. “So here it is at last, the… really big thing. Naw. The… stupid thing? The… groady thing. Yeah: better.”
I feel like you shouldn’t put too much effort into your last words, is my advice to you. As we’ve discussed, it’s hard to be sure exactly when you’ll die. What if you come up with something really great, like, “Tell the world that I loved freedom,” or “I regret that I have only one life to give for whatever the trendy cause is right now,” but then you don’t die at that precise second?
Then you’d just have to lie there for a while, being awkwardly silent until you did die, so as not to spoil anything, and everyone else in the room would have to stay quiet too. Awk…ward. Don’t overthink things, is all I’m saying. Keep it real; just go with the flow and say something natural, like, “Pizza would be great right now.” Or whatever.
“Jesus!” — Joan of Arc. We covered this one already, but Joan of Arc probably wasn’t being all religious by saying “Jesus!” She was probably shouting it because she was being goddamn burned alive. She had already tried to do some actual last words with, “Ah, Rouen; thou, my final dwelling place.” But that got messed up. But then, if people are killing you in an agonizingly painful way, you’re not really responsible for screwing up and having “F-ck!” or “Jesus!” as your last words. And hey — way to burn an 18-year-old devoutly religious girl to death like that, people. People: they really are the assf-ckingly worst creatures on the planet. There’s just no other way to put it.
“Pardon me, sir, I did not do it on purpose.” — Marie Antoinette. …And speaking of young women being executed. As Marie Antionette was being led to the guillotine to be beheaded, she accidentally stepped on the foot of her executioner. And then said: “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès.”
It’s nice that she was all polite like that. It almost makes up for the whole “let them eat cake” thing, which was rude. By the way, no one understands the “let them eat cake” thing. She wasn’t bizarrely saying that poor people should eat cake. I guess that’s famous now because that makes her sound (1) Out of touch with reality, or (2) Bitchy, in that she knew poor people didn’t have yummy delicious cake to eat, but she didn’t give a sh-t.
But that’s not right. What “cake” meant, at the time, was the stuff you used to clean out the inside of your oven. People had stone ovens for bread-baking. To clean an oven, you made a mixture of flour and water, rubbed it inside the oven, and then peeled it off once it had hardened. So she was saying that people should eat disgusting gunk from the inside of their stoves, which makes her (3) Really, really bitchy.*
So now you know that. And now maybe you feel better about her being beheaded by the guillotine like that. By the way, fun fact: the inventor of the guillotine was also executed via… the guillotine.** The French were cr-aaaaazy for beheading people. Gosh, and to think that you learned this all at Thought Catalog, of all the places.
(*I might be wrong about this; I don’t want to get into it. See the comment section.)
(**I was completely wrong about this. This is not true at all. And to think that you were misinformed at Thought Catalog, of all the places!)
“Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.” –George Appel. George Appel was executed by electric chair in 1928; these were his last words. Here’s another one: “Gents, this is an educational project. You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on Wood.” Said by Fredrick Charles Wood before he was electrocuted in 1951. …And another one: “Hey, fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? ‘French Fries!’” James French, 1966.
…I dunno. A pun is the lowest form of humor. And really, you’re going to your grave and all you’ve got on your mind is that you’ve got a funny last name? Give me a little more here, is all I’m saying. Even being a pompous ass like Henry James. Even that would be better.
“Leave me alone — I’m fine.” “Go away. I’m all right.” “I’ve never felt better.” “I live!” “I need no doctor.” “I feel fine.” — Barry White, H.G. Wells, Douglas Fairbanks, Caligula, Andrew Jackson, Rudolph Valentino. On the other hand, even making a stupid pun is worse than being wrong like this. Last words should strive not to be embarrassing. The moral here, of sorts? Always expect the worst.
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”