This book by Paul Berra is subtitled “An Anthology of Famous Last Words.” It’s a British book, so American readers might quibble with some definitions of “famous,” but I found all the quotes interesting, enlightening, or entertaining, even when I had no idea who the speaker was. (Fortunately, Berra includes a brief discussion of each person and their circumstances, so you won’t feel completely ignorant.)
I loved Barra’s opening paragraph in the Introduction:
In the midst of life, we are in death. Or, to paraphrase Jesus on the poor, the dead are always with us. They people our thoughts and memorials; they accumulate like dust behind locked doors and perch soberly atop bookshelves and mantelpieces.
For the record, that Jesus guy he mentions isn’t one of the people I’d never heard of. Also, I love the use of “people our thoughts,” which reminds me of Neil Tobin’s analysis of an artifact at the Winchester Mystery House.
Also in the Introduction, Berra refers to Robert Shea, and a personal patron saint of mine, Robert Anton Wilson, as “beat generation” writers. I suppose that is chronologically true, but it’s not a description that I’ve encountered before. I will ponder it carefully.
The book has about 200 examples of last words, and as there were many that I enjoyed, these are but a few examples:
- “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted”, said by Lou Costello before dropping dead, and “I just wish I had time for one more bowl of chili,” said by Kit Carson. Succumbing with food on the mind seems like something I’m likely to do, too.
- “Why should I talk to you? I’ve just been talking to your boss,” said Wilson Mizner to the priest who visited his deathbed.
- “Hurrah for Anarchy! This is the happiest moment of my life!” declared a neighbor of mine, George Engel, just before being unjustly hanged until dead. (Guests on my Bizarre Wicker Park tour learn all about this.)
- “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded” were the last words of Terry Kath, a founding member of the band Chicago, which he uttered before shooting himself during a game of Russian Roulette.
- Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary, said, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination” before doing just that. His whereabouts were never discovered and his death presumed.
- “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me” is the perfect dialectical riddle, appropriately uttered by Georg Hegel.