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.”