Magazine | October 3, 2011, Issue

Terminal Eloquence

This column was supposed to be about presidential personality problems. I should have started writing it sooner to give myself plenty of time but I was irresistibly distracted by a little book somebody sent me called Famous Last Words. This subject has been on my mind lately thanks to the rash of statements designed to shove the aging back into the womb. First there was “40 is the new 30,” then came “50 is the new 40,” next we had “60 is the new 50,” and now they’re saying “70 is the new 60.”

In this as in every area of philosophical introspection, American optimism is the new bull. I have reason to believe that 75 is the new 90, so I put my column aside and embarked on an intensive course in the history of last words.

First the bad news: You need people around you to the very end to keep your last words from being innocuous, like the “Good morning” Calvin Coolidge said to a house painter before dying of a heart attack some time later while alone.

By contrast, your exit may be too crowded. Many last words are in dispute due to the bedside presence of people not known for listening well: Doctors, who never listen to anybody, especially their patients; nervous kinfolk, who listen for rather than to so they can decide what will need to be softened or deleted; and, for the dying V.I.P., one or more self-appointed spokesmen. This is how we ended up with two very different versions of the death of King George V in 1936. In one he says “How fares the dear old British Empire?” and in the other he snarls “Goddamn you!” to the doctor giving him an injection. The best way to make sure your last words are undisputed is to commit suicide in public like Hart Crane, who climbed on the rail of his cruise ship, shouted “Goodbye, everybody!” and jumped into the sea. Another way is to have both a death wish and your own TV show, like croc-hunter Steve Irwin, who announced “They rarely swim backwards,” whereupon the sting ray he was following suddenly swam backwards and pierced him through the heart.

The most famous undisputed last words were spoken by someone who died not just suddenly but instantly, and in the presence of an adoring crowd. Isadora Duncan jumped nimbly into the topless Bugatti, flung her long scarf behind her, and cried out to her fans, “Farewell, my friends! I go to glory!” As the powerful racing car shot forward, the scarf wrapped around the rear wheel and snapped her neck like a breadstick. This is what romantics call “What a way to go!” and everyone else calls “What a way to go.”

#page#Having a clergyman present at the end is no doubt spiritually beneficial but it can have a chastening effect on last words. The speaker either uses his remaining strength on some very long prayers, or else takes on the even more exhausting burden of woulda-coulda-shoulda regret. Henry VIII left a cryptic example of this. His deathbed was ringed by Anglican bishops he himself had created, but supposedly his last words were “All is lost! Monks, monks, monks.” Was he having second thoughts, or were the bishops?

Other theologically controversial figures make a point of beating off woulda-coulda-shoulda with a club. The most defensive last words? Charles Darwin: “I am not in the least afraid to die.”

Some last words seem flat-out unbelievable. The winner in this category is Dominique Bouhours, a French grammarian, who, it is claimed, said: “Je vais ou je vas mourir, l’un et l’autre se dit ou se disent,” which translates: “I am about to or I am going to die. Either expression is correct.” Before we dismiss this out of hand, remember that it was a French chef who committed suicide because the shrimp were not delivered in time for his bisque. That’s why I said “seem.” The French, after all, are French.

I do contest Heinrich Heine’s “God will pardon me, that’s his line of work.” It sounds too jauntily American for a German poet, unless the translator is to blame. The first law of last words is that they must sound like you. Tallulah Bankhead’s “Codeine, bourbon” was pitch-perfect, as was Pavlova’s “Get my swan costume ready.” But it is Oscar Wilde, whose inability to sound like anyone except himself unfortunately extended to the witness stand, who takes first place in the last-words contest. Lying ill in a cheap French hotel in the company of his few remaining friends, he gestured weakly and said, “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.” According to the people with him, he was trying out last words, and had even ordered a bottle of expensive champagne so he could test “I am dying beyond my means.” It was close, but he went with the wallpaper.

I sensed that the time had come to put my own last words in order. I knew what I wanted to say: “The English language was the love of my life; the rest were just fun and games.” The question was whether modern medicine would let me say it. If last words are to be audible and coherent they need to be delivered before you have any tubes up your nose or down your throat. Otherwise the nurse gets the last word when she says, “Don’t try to talk, honey.”

I wondered if they could put it on the plastic bracelet where they put your D.O.B., your blood type, and your allergies. Maybe if I shortened it, cut the second part, and just kept “The English language was the love of my life” it would fit. Or maybe if I lied and told them I have no allergies it would leave more room for –

What was that rattling noise? It sounded as if a truck carrying railroad ties was driving past my building. In fact, it sounded like a railroad . . . like that scene in A Letter to Three Wives where Linda Darnell lives on the other side of the tracks in the most literal sense, so that when the train goes through, her whole house shakes and –

A book fell off the shelf and hit me on the head. It was an earthquake. We were having an earthquake and I was going to die in it.

“Oh, s**t!”

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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