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. TC mark

Thumbnail image – Still Life with Skull


More From Thought Catalog

  • Cristina Chavarro

    You missed my favorite one. “Love one another” – George Harrison 

  • Beea_73

    ” Every fool thing you do in this life, you pay for it”- Edit Piaf
    THis is for all those overly liberal though catalog readers who think it s ok to break someone s heart just for the experience of it.

  • Aphelus

    Famous one from Germany – J.W.v. Goethe: “More light…”

    I SOOOOOOOOOOOOOagree with you on Henry James!!

    • Oliver Miller

       I saw the Goethe one; it’s solid.  I don’t think I ever read any Goethe.  Anyway, there’ll be more of these.  Many more.

  • Katy

    Dylan Thomas (poet): “I’ve had 18 straight whiskeys, I believe that’s the record.” 

    • Oliver Miller

      He died of insulin shock, not drinking, but everyone thought he was dying from drinking too much because he was such an alcoholic, so they didn’t give him his goddamn insulin.  Unless I got that story wrong too.

  • Nicole Shimabukuro

    i was thinking of writing an article with the same title and try submiting it to TC, of course you wrote it better than i would.

  • Lastminutepanic

    Oh man! So many good ones to pick from. One of my favourites is probably General John Sedgwick who was killed in the U.S. Civil War:
    “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist….”

    • Oliver Miller

      “Cold Harbor.  1863.  I am dead.”  We’ll get around to that one, probably.

  • Lastminutepanic

    And Karl Marx, who when someone began to pray for him shouted ”
    Go on, get out – last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.” Quality. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sam-Denlinger/1225470022 Sam Denlinger

    I’m sure I’m being annoying, but 1)the original French quote referred to brioche rather than cake, so it didn’t have to do with cleaning. We just simplified it for non-French-pastry-eating American folks. ALSO, of course, she didn’t really say it or anything like it and the (probably false) story that initially quoted an unnamed “princess” as having said it was first published when Marie Antoinette was nine and not even French yet. Ya heard? 2) Dr. Guillotin was not executed by guillotine (or by anything else), though another fellow named Guillotin was, which is annoying. He also didn’t invent it, just pushed for it as a more humane method of execution. I’ll stop now.

    • Oliver Miller

      (1) You are right about her probably not saying the “cake” quote at all, and cake can also refer to brioche, but a history professor told me the “cake” as oven cleaner thing, so I’m sticking with that one.  

      (2) And you are right, dammit, about the Dr. Guillotin thing. We will let this comment stand as a record of my wrongness, and I’ll fix the article.

      (3) It’s never annoying when people correct my factual errors, in fact I like it, though hopefully it’s rare because hopefully I don’t do that too-ooo much.  It *is* annoying when people leave comments like “you got paid for this????” or “#firstworldproblems,” but those people’s lives are punishment enough, I’m sure.

      • PO

        Does brioche also stand for oven cleaner? Im pretty sure she didnt say it in english…

      • Oliver Miller

        Okay, FINE, you’re RIGHT. It’s “brioche” in the made-up quote, which she didn’t say and no one ever said.  So we are now debating a completely invented quote, but actually, I respect that.  But if Rousseau can make up shit, then so can I, so I’m only partially correcting it in the article, and see this for more Rousseau and the whole “cake” debate:   en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Let_them_eat_cake  

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002001876147 Rain Forrest

        ‘if Rousseau can make up shit, then so can I’. my new catchphrase. 

  • LNS

    (Marie Antoinette never made the infamous cake statement. It was a rumor made up by the French people who deemed her insolent and negligent, and fairly so: she was indeed a mega-bitch. But a misunderstood mega-bitch. You know, the common tale.)

    • Oliver Miller

      I knew that, I swear, and then forgot it.  Cf.: me and Sam below.  You and Sam should hang.

  • poop

    “Here hold my beer”
    my dad
    befor skewered with a shower pole

    • Veronica

      This is almost worthy of that haiku guy.

  • Jkhmn80

    My uncle was a prolific curser and his final word was “goddammit!”. True story.

  • Mamajamerson

    You make a valid point. As much as I love a good pun, they’re pretty lame as last words go. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    henry and william james both UGH

    • Oliver Miller

      Who hates WILLIAM James?  Obscure.

  • http://mason-jar-memories.blogspot.com/ Grace Elizabeth

    You all need to read “Looking For Alaska” by John Green, like immediately :)

    • beatrice

      oh god no, not john green

      • http://mason-jar-memories.blogspot.com/ Grace Elizabeth

        If you’re not being facetious, you lead a sad sad life.

      • beatrice

        no i’m not being facetious. 

      • Oliver Miller

        Fight!  Rumble!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1552230509 Blake Austin

    Ooh. You gotta do Henrik Ibsen sometime. A nurse mentions that Ibsen’s looking healthier than usual, and he replies, “On the contrary.” 

  • hannah

    Puns are so totally not the lowest form of humor. People should appreciate word games more. Jesus H. Christ.

  • Veronica

    “I might be wrong about this[…] See the comment section” is an absolutely winning line. Excellent job.

  • Anonymous

    Actually Valentino’s last word was ‘Madre’ (Mother in Italian…he’d been hallucinating for days).  See Affairs Valentino by Evelyn Zumaya…

    Douglas Fairbanks were funny though…today is his bday so how apt!

  • http://chamblee54.wordpress.com/ Chamblee54

    The mother of Tallulah Bankhead died in childbirth. The baby involved was Tallulah’s younger sister, Eugenia. The last words: Take care of baby Eugenia. Tallulah can take care of herself. 

  • Kelly

    My absolute favorite is Joan Crawford! (Apparently) when her maid was praying for her at her bedside she said, “Dammit, don’t you dare ask God to help me!” Classic. 

    • http://thefirstchurchofmutterhals.blogspot.com/ mutterhals


  • Guest

    wow you really fucked up this article, please dont fuck up anymore,

    • Oliver Miller

      You have four typos in a sentence that is twelve words long.

  • cyan

    haha this is …. morbidly hilarious. or, you can think of damn good last words and punctuate your every sentence with that until you die. 

  • captaincocaptain

    Personal favorites, for your collection:
    Dammit… Don’t you dare ask God to help me.
    -Joan Crawford, to her housekeeper, who had begun to pray or something.Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making
    enemies.  -Voltaire, to a priest who was asking him if he wanted to condemn Satan or something.

  • Victor Sawyer

    In the very near future there will be famous last tweets.  Twitter’s true purpose has been revealed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502088088 Peter Moore

    Marx’s last words were pretty awesome. When he was dying, someone asked him what his last words were and he said “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”

    What a G. 

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