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17: February 8, 2009

“I Did Not Get My Spaghetti-O’s” and Other Famous Last Words




In the early spring of my fourteenth year of life, Dwight D. Eisenhower lay dying of heart failure in Walter Reed Army Hospital. This I knew because of the three networks’ annoying habit of butting into Gomer Pyle or The Dean Martin Show to give unsolicited updates on the ex-president’s deteriorating condition.

Finally came the welcome day that a somber, trench-coated, horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing, big-ass-microphone clutching correspondent (I’m guessing John Chancellor) appeared on our black-and-white screen to inform us that Eisenhower had passed away. He then read aloud the great man’s dying words:

“I've always loved my wife, my children, and my grandchildren, and I've always loved my country.”

Like most members of Mad magazine's avid, oily-skinned readership I had developed a remarkably smarmy and inquiring mind for someone of my callow youth. Now hold on here a minute, I thought but dared not say in the presence of my Eisenhower-worshipping parents, How do we know that those were really his LAST words? While I couldn’t speak from any personal experience of dying of congestive heart failure, I assumed it to be a process involving a great deal of medication and the attendant cutting in and out of consciousness. And a few years earlier I myself had blurted out the darnedest nonsense—thoughtfully played back to me later on by siblings and cousins—while emerging from anesthesia after an appendectomy. How, then, could we be so sure that Eisenhower’s truly final words weren’t something along the lines of I’m gonna ride the buzz saw over to the wishing well now.

Even for the mastermind of D-Day this dying-words business would constitute an amazing feat of self-awareness and timing. Okay, I’m pretty lucid right now, we are forced to imagine him thinking as he lay there in bed, Or at least I think I am. Anyway, from the way Mamie’s staring at me, it’s clearly about time for me to muster out. Okay then: Let me go over it one more time and then I’ll say it…

So he utters the incredibly moving and noble sentiment quoted above, and then…

Shit…still alive… Hadn’t planned on this. Better pretend I’m asleep so everybody’ll leave me alone… C’mon, Ike! Die! Die, dammit! Or at least keep your mouth shut so that you don’t queer the whole deal. And get Kay Summersby out of your head, for God’s sake…

I mean no disrespect toward Dwight Eisenhower here. If, in fact, that’s the way it played out, I would regard him as the victim of our intrusive celebrity culture, which as far back as 1969 expected our great public persons to somehow remain both great and public even in extremis.

Really, isn’t it silly to expect “great” people to have nobler sentiments on their flickering, fading minds than the rest of us would? I think it safe to assume that the truly LAST words of nearly all great personages fall into the same three broad categories that comprise the dying words of everyone else: (1) Arrrrggghhhh! (Death attended by unmitigated pain), (2) Aw, shiiiiiiiiiiit! (Parachute failures, elevator door malfunctions, etc.), and (3) I remember the day Churchill’s purple apple-cores pirouetted around the bullpen. ‘Twas brillig… (Death eased into via sufficient medication).

It was with great delight that I discovered this wonderful website devoted to famous last words. For me, a site like this might actually be more fun than Japanese pornography. But that's just me.

The site appears to be tolerably well-researched—which is to say, more thoroughly researched than anything that I ever write while falling a tad short of total credibility. Give it credit for what it omits, such as the apocryphal, too-good-to-be-true story of Oscar Wilde’s demise. (Awakening to find his deathbed located in a tackily appointed chamber, he is supposed to have commanded, “Either those drapes go, or I do.”)

If you’re going to get fussy (as I obviously do) about the meaning of “last words,” then you have to allow for some stretching on this site. The estimable General John Sedgwick is here, of course, with his delightful “They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance”; but in the explanatory paragraph that follows, the author of the site acknowledges that the Union commander’s true last words were a gracious if condescending answer to a subordinate who had expressed a loftier opinion of the acumen of Confederate sharpshooters: Sedgwick granted the worrywart permission to take cover an instant before the ball hit him just below the eye.

Just to give you an idea of how rich this website is, the Sedgwick entry is followed immediately by Sitting Bull (“I am not going.”) and the much more amenable King Sobhuza II of Swaziland (“I am going.”)

In fact, the “Q through S” page, representing only a tenth of the total content, encompasses George Sanders’s suicide note with its famous opening: “Dear World. I am leaving you because I am bored”; Sir Walter Raleigh’s macho “Strike, man, strike!” to a reluctant executioner; the surprising revelation that Socrates went out with the pedestrian but highly moral “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius. Will you remember to pay the debt?”; and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “I have a terrific headache.” As the Sanders quote illustrates, the author doesn’t limit himself to spoken last words but includes notes and diary entries as well, which I suppose is all right but for the fact that most of those who write their last words aren’t as neat or succinct as Sanders. The embittered secessionist Edmund Ruffin and immigrant anarchist Nicola Sacco quickly wear out their welcomes, for example. Then there’s the playwright William Saroyan, who split the difference between note-writing and whispering by literally phoning in his last words (“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”) to presumably nonplussed Associated Press reporters.

Below are some of my faves from the other nine pages on the site:

Category A: The Macho Men

“Waiting, are they?” Waiting, are they? Well—let ‘em wait.”—Ethan Allen, responding to a consoling doctor who said, “I fear the angels are waiting for you.”

“Make my skin into drumheads for the Bohemian cause.”—Jan Zizka, Bohemian patriot (duh).

“You sons of bitches. Give my love to Mother.”—Francis “Two Gun” Crowley

“Show my head to the people. It is worth seeing.”—Georges Jacques Danton, French revolutionary.

“How about this for a headline? French Fries.”—Condemned prisoner James French.

"The prettier. Now fight for it."—Henry Arthur Jones, playwright, asked whether he would prefer his nurse or his niece to stay at his bedside.


Category B: The Malcontents

"God damn the whole fuckin' world and everyone in it but you, Carlotta.”—W. C. Fields. (Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as the apocryphal “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” but has a certain romantic charm to it.)

"All right, then, I'll say it, Dante makes me sick."—Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, Spanish playwright.

"Bugger Bognor."—George V, responding to a doctor who assured him that he would recover in time to vacation at the seaside resort Bognor Regis. Alternative reports have the king telling off the physician with the less alliterative “God damn you.” (Meanwhile, The Times reported his last words as "How is the Empire?")


Category C: No Need to be Rude about It

"Pardonnez-moi, monsieur."—Marie Antoinette, after stepping on her executioner’s foot.

"Je vais ou je vas mourir, l'un et l'autre se dit ou se disent." ("I am about to—or I am going to—die; either expression is correct.")—Dominique Bouhours, French Jesuit grammarian.

"I see that you have made three spelling mistakes."-- Thomas de Mahay, Marquis de Favras, critiquing his death sentence.

"Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub."—Conrad Hilton, asked for parting words of wisdom.


Category D: Priorities in Order

“Codeine…bourbon…” –Tallulah Bankhead

“Do you know where I can get any shit?” – Lenny Bruce.

“Yes, I have heard of it. I am very glad.”—Edward VII, responding to word that his horse Witch of the Air had won the 4:15 race at Kempton Park. (Note: Edward’s case provides a good example of Eisenhower Syndrome, as his recorded last words were the much more elevated “No, I shall go on. I shall work to the end.”)

"I have had no real gratification or enjoyment of any sort more than my neighbor on the next block who is worth only half a million."—William H. Vanderbilt

“Wait a second.”–Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson Pompadour, Marquise d’Etoiles, addressing God, who waited while she put on rouge.

"I did not get my Spaghetti-Os. I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this."—Condemned murderer Thomas J. Grasso.


Category E: Hyper-realistic Babbling

"Hey, Jimmie! The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. Shut up, you got a big mouth! Please come help me up, Henny. Max come over here... French Canadian bean soup...I want to pay, let them leave me alone."—Dutch Schultz, slowly dying from three machine gun rounds to the stomach.


Category F: Best Story about a Guy I’d Never Heard Of, But Am Really Glad That I Did

"Now I'm oiled. Keep me from the rats."—Pietro Arentino

The following account taken from “Last Words”)
Pietro Aretino was an Italian satirist and is often considered the father of pornographic writing. He was known as the "Scourge of Princes" for his bitingly witty attacks on the aristocracy. When his good friend, the painter Titian, came to him with a problem, Aretino was quick to offer assistance. The Duke of Urbino had commissioned Titian to paint a nude portrait of his old and ugly wife. As Titian feared the consequences, Aretino hired a beautifully proportioned prostitute to pose for the body and urged Titian to paint a flattering portrait of the duchess for the head. The duchess was extremely pleased with the result, which Titian had named The Venus of Urbino. When the pair of friends presented the painting to the duke, he turned to Aretino and sighed, "If I could have had that girl's body, even with my wife's head, I would have been a happier man." Aretino found the remark so exceedingly funny that he collapsed in a fit of laughter that provoked a stroke. Aretino was unconscious by the time a priest was brought to administer the last rites. No sooner had the priest finished than Aretino opened his eyes, spoke his final two sentences, and expired.


Category G: The Last Word in Last Words

"Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough!"—Karl Marx, founder of ludicrously bad and untenable political theory.

I feel obliged to reiterate one more time that all of the quotes above come from the Last Words website, the operator of which evidently prefers to remain anonymous. On the front page he reports an unpleasant incident in which all of his content was appropriated without attribution, which seems to have left him understandably touchy re not being acknowledged. So, here's to you, old boy.