The last words of the famous can be touching and sometimes funny, but one cannot always be certain they were the real thing, or are simply words attributed to them by tradition and popular acceptance.
“Kiss me, Hardy,” Admiral Nelson is reported to have said to his second-in-command, as he lay dying aboard his embattled flagship Victory. “Nonsense,” said my old friend, Sir Edmund Gibson, who was something of a history buff. “Nelson wasn’t like that. What he said was: ‘Kismet, Hardy’ (Fate, Hardy).” No doubt Nelson had picked up the expression ‘kismet’ in the course of his naval campaign off Egypt.
Dear old Sir Edmund, who lived to be 84, often said: “Growing old is a rotten business, Ruskin. Don’t even think about it.” Well, it’s too late now. I have to start thinking about it.
William Pitt the Younger is supposed to have uttered these touchingly patriotic last words: “Oh, my country! How I love my country!” In actual fact his last words were: “I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s veal pies”—Bellamy’s being the first dining-room in the House of Commons.
Terry Breverton records this and other memorable last words in this entertaining compilation which has life-sketches of 370 of history’s better-known celebrities, ranging all the way from Alexander the Great (died 323 BC) to Michael Jackson (died 2009). Alexander’s last words: “To the strongest!” Michael’s last words: “I love you more!”
I prefer the mundane. It must take quite an effort trying to say something profound when one is struggling for breath.
I prefer the mundane to the majestic. It must take quite an effort trying to say something very profound when one is struggling for breath. The most convincing last words are those spoken without any thought for posterity. When Frederick the Great of Prussia lay dying, he noticed that one of his favourite greyhounds was shivering. “Throw a quilt over it,” he told his attendant. And said no more.
This last anecdote reminds me of one of my aunts who, as she lay dying, told her anxious husband: “Don’t forget to feed the parrot”.
The dying don’t always realise that they are going. “I’ve not felt this well for ages,” said Keith Floyd, the famous TV chef, just before passing away. And the Contessa Di Verulles, friend of Rousseau, having passed wind rather loudly, remarked: “Well, a woman that can fart is not yet dead!” These last words were recorded by Rousseau.
Groucho Marx made up his own epitaphs. ‘Here lies Groucho Marx—and lies and lies and lies. PS. He never kissed an ugly girl.’ An alternative went: ‘Excuse me. I can’t stand up.’ Neither were used.
The Eminent Victorian, Lytton Strachey, said: “If this is dying, I don’t think much of it!” The economist John Maynard Keynes has my undying admiration. When asked if he regretted anything, he said: “I should have drunk more champagne.”
Perhaps King George V summed it all up on his death-bed when he exclaimed, “God damn you!” We cannot be sure if he was addressing his Maker or his night-nurse. A comma would have made all the difference.