Monday, January 23, 2012


Thirty four years ago today, on 23 January, 1978, Terry Kath, the original guitarist and lead singer of the rock band Chicago, died after a party in Los Angeles. Famously, his last words were: ‘Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.’ 

But of course, it was. He had been fooling around all evening with a .38 revolver but the 9mm pistol with an empty clip and a live round in the chamber was his undoing.

That final utterance is probably only rivaled by Civil War General John Sedgwick, who was warned not to show himself above the Union parapet during the Battle of the Wilderness. "Nonsense, they couldn't hit an elephant at this dist ...

Famous last words can be painfully ironic; at other times they are heart-breakingly poignant, and sometimes even funny. Some of the most famous ones are just not true. 

For instance, Humphrey Bogart’s last words were supposed to have been: "I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis." But in a TV interview Lauren Bacall, his wife, contradicted the claim. She said that she left the house briefly to do some grocery shopping, and the bedridden Bogart’s last words to her were: "Hurry back." 

It sounds more realistic to me. And infinitely more poignant. Although Tallulah Bankhead’s last words really were: ‘Codeine ... bourbon.’

But many supposed last words sound just too ... well, contrived. Bill Bryson asserts in his book, Mother Tongue, that when Dominique Bouhours, the French priest and grammarian died in 1702 his last utterance was: ‘I am about to -- or I am going to -- die: Either  expression is used.’

Well, it’s a good story. Did he have that planned? Some people die with plenty of time to rehearse their exit lines. Like the convicts on Death Row, for example:

James French, the last person executed by electric chair in Oklahoma in 1966, shouted to the journalists assembled to witness the event: ‘Hey, fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? ‘French Fries’!

There was a precedent for such gallows humour. James W Rodgers, sentenced to death by firing squad in Utah in 1960, was asked if he had a last request. He is supposed to have said: "Why yes, a bulletproof vest!"

Bank robber and convicted murder Frank ‘Two Gun’ Crowley was a touch more prosaic before his execution in 1931. "You sons of bitches! Give my love to Mother."

Another way to write your own epitaph is to put it in your will, like Rabelais, the Renaissance writer and doctor who died in 1553. “I have nothing. I owe a great deal. The rest I leave to the poor.’

But most last words are not quite the final words. Horatio Lord Nelson, for example, did say ‘Kiss me, Hardy,’ while he was dying but said a lot of other things too. His last moments were well recorded and his actual final words were: ‘Thank God I have done my duty.'

Oscar Wilde’s remark: 'The wallpaper is killing me - one of us has to go,’ is true, but they certainly weren’t his last words, which were probably mumbled to a priest while heavily sedated with morphine - not the best conditions for the wit for which Wilde is so famous.

There seems to be some pressure for the rich and famous to say something memorable on the way out. There was a legend that Pancho Villa the Mexican revolutionary said: ‘Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something.’ In actual fact he was gunned down in a hail of bullets and died instantly.

Often what is remembered by those gathered are not the last words, but the words worth remembering. Lady Astor, for instance, woke briefly during her final illness in 1964 to find her family gathered round her bedside and murmured: “Am I dying or is it my birthday?”

And Ramon Maria Narvaez, when asked by a priest on his deathbed if he forgave his enemies, replied: "I do not have to forgive my enemies, I have had them all shot." 

Some leave us with last words that are neither witty or peculiar, but are nonetheless deeply moving. Napoleon’s last word was ‘Josephine.’ Charlotte Brontë died at just 38, along with her unborn child, possibly from dehydration caused by hyperemesis. She whispered to her husband of nine months, Reverend Arthur Nicholls: “Oh, I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy ...”

Just as poignant were the last words of James W Polk, President of the US from 1845-1849. The presidency took a terrible strain on his health - there was no Camp David in those days - and he died soon after leaving office. His last words to his wife: “I love you Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”

I’ll leave the last word on last words though to Queen Elizabeth the First. ‘All my possessions for a moment of time.’

Poignant indeed. Think about that one: for at this very moment you and I are richer and more powerful than the Queen of England - we have those moments of time, however many they are.

... I wonder what we will do with them?