Monday, November 30, 2009

Famous Last Words: Oscar Wilde Uttered His This Date In 1900

in a dingy hotel room in Paris, broke, dishonored, and mostly alone. His last words: "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do."

Being reminded of this today by some note somewhere on the web, I determined to seek out some few more gems in the vernacular "sang froid" (coincidentally, yet another circumstance for which the French do not possess an expression; who gnu?).

Hollywood 'stars' have a way with (last) words. For example, and one of my favorites, is Humphrey Bogart's last sortee: "I should never have switched from Scotch to martinis." The comic actor Ed Gwynne happened to be answering a question with his last breath. The questioner asked if dying was tough. Gwynne answered, classically: "Yeah, but not as tough as doing comedy." Tallulah Bankhead muttered "Codeine...bourbon..." Joan Crawford heard her nurse begin to pray for her and said "Dammit! Don't you DARE ask God to help me!" John Barrymore claims the marquee, though: "Die? Why my dear fellow. No Barrymore would ever endure something so conventional."

Romantics swoon when reminded that, in excruciating pain from arsenic poisoning, Napoleon still muttered the name of his beloved "Josephine" as he expired. The French do seem to have a gift for this sort of thing. Rabelais' last instruction to his posterity is iconic: "I owe much, I have nothing. The rest I leave to the poor." True to the death to his calling, the French grammarian Bouhours expounded: "I am about to -- or I am going to -- die: either expression is correct."

The foregoing, of course are examples of people who were at least aware they were in extremis. All in all, it's hard to top General John Sedgwick, Union Commander, killed in battle in 1864, whose last words (swear to gawd) were "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dis..."

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