The Last Word: Famous Last Words
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: “This isn’t Hamlet, you know. It’s not meant to go in my bloody ear.” Those were the last words of Laurence Olivier, spoken to a hapless nurse when she spilled water on him in the hospital. “Am I dying, or is it my birthday?” Lady Astor said that at the end. We can’t be sure of any of these reports, of course, but they make for delightful reading in a new little book called, “Famous Last Words,” compiled by Ray Robinson, published by Workman Press.
The book is delightful reading and curious reading in that people say quite different things when they come to the finish, the absolute finish. Madam Pompador implored, “wait a second.” Death never does. Some of the more familiar last words we’ve heard all our lives. Goethe’s “More light.” W.C. Field’s preference for Philadelphia. Recently, Bob Hope’s grandson related that, near the end, the great comedian was asked where he would like to be buried. He answered, “Surprise me.” One would like to be that consistent with one’s final remarks, to make them a summation of the life that came before, like the fictional Citizen Kane’s last word…
ROGER ROSENBLATT: …The supposed clue to his entire existence. Lou Costello, given a treat on his deathbed, said simply, “that was the best ice cream soda I ever tasted.”( Train whistle ) One hopes it was.
Pavlova said, “get my swan costume ready.” One hopes they did. ( Baby crying ) Nobody understands your outcry coming into the world. But we hang on to what we say going out. The word “closure,” which is used stupidly for most experience, has meaning here. Most people die without saying anything. The rest is silence, for Hamlet if not for Olivier.
One expects the truth from last words, but I don’t know why. The gangster, Arnold Rothstein, who did the Black Sox baseball fix in 1919, was gunned down by other gangsters. Refusing to finger his killers, he told the cops, “My mother did it.”
Epitaphs, living wills, tapes of the deceased played after they are deceased, all are versions of last words. But the words one actually speaks have the quality of urgency, of drama. One gives them a special value– a sudden ejaculation of cosmic comprehension. It rarely happens. ( Drum roll )
When the great and irascible jazz drummer Buddy Rich was dying in a hospital, the nurse asked him if, for once, he had no complaints. Rich said, “I still hate country and western.” That’s the way to go, I think: To go out with the same lusty outcry that you came in with — bookends to the interesting experience that occupied your 50, 60, 100 years. “Drink to me,” said Picasso.
If you can’t think of anything to say, count on your friends to make something up — something brilliant and witty. When he was gunned down, Pancho Villa implored, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”
That’s the ticket. We want to leave them with a word that will give us a little immortality when all our other words have disappeared. I’ve always admired the last words of the hypochondriac written on his tombstone, “I told you I was sick.”
I was Roger Rosenblatt.