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Last Words

[whitespace] Sayings to die by or to live down

By Mad Dog

PEOPLE HAVE uttered some very interesting last words. Right before he died, Douglas Fairbanks declared, "I've never felt better." H. G. Wells said, "Go away ... I'm all right." Obviously they were both wrong.

They might have been delirious. Then again, they might have been optimistic. Chances are they were really just trying to make their family and friends feel better, much like Bill Clinton when he said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" or Bill Gates when he claims not to remember any of the e-mails he wrote threatening to take over the world unless everyone started using his Web browser. Apparently honesty on the deathbed is no more important than it is during life.

There's little question that we'd all like to say something truly memorable before we go, but few of us get the opportunity. Even if we did utter something wonderful, what are the chances anyone other than the dog who looked at us like we were nuts when we told him to "go get help, Lassie!" would ever hear it?

One way to make sure people hear what you say is to become a condemned murderer, since they always get the opportunity to speak some last words. And there's invariably at least one reporter on hand to write them down. This, along with the obligatory movie of the week deal, marriage proposals that come in the mail, and free last meal of your choice, makes it a career choice worth considering for those who aren't ready for community college or have flunked out of nail technician's school.

Right before being executed, Gary Gilmore simply said, "Let's do it." James Rodges, when asked if he wanted anything as he was facing a firing squad, replied, "Why yes--a bulletproof vest." And George Appel had the right attitude as he was about to get strapped in the electric chair, declaring, "Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel." Last words are like comedy: timing is everything.

There are a number of considerations to make when formulating your last words. For one, ultimatums aren't a good idea. Oscar Wilde tried this when he said, "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do" and since there wasn't a Home Depot in Paris at the time, well, Oscar went.

You should try not to sound bitter when you utter your last words. Neither should you be a smart aleck. Remember, this is your final stab at immortality, and that old saying is true: You never get a second chance to speak your last words. Another about-to-be-executed killer, Thomas J. Grasso, followed both of these rules when he matter-of-factly set the record straight about his last meal by saying, "I did not get my Spaghetti-O's, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this."

There's another type of famous last words--those which we wish we hadn't said. These are especially problematic because we continue to live, meaning we're saddled with them forever. In 1927, Harry Warner, one of the famous Warner Brothers, asked, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" That's something every Senate subcommittee chairman asks to this day when Hollywood stars parade in front of them pretending to be experts on foreign affairs because they slept with the French co-star of their last movie or claiming to know everything about atomic energy because they auditioned for a part in The China Syndrome.

People utter these foot-in-mouth last words all the time. I suspect Minnesota's Hubert "Skip" Humphrey said something like "But the guy's a wrestler, fer Christ's sake," when he heard that Jess "The Body" Ventura was going to run against him in the recent governor's race. Sure Ventura is a wrestler. He's also going to be the state's new governor, proving once again that a good nickname is important if you want to win an election.

Then there's Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose ratings and obnoxiousness have unseated Rush Limbaugh in the syndicated radio circuit. I can envision her years ago saying, "Sure, you can take some photographs of me naked. Who would want to see them anyway?" How fateful those words would have been now that a judge ruled that Internet Entertainment, the same people who posted Tommy and Pamela Anderson Lee's honeymoon video online, can put Dr. Laura's photos there, too. Of course, this still doesn't answer her question: Who does want to see her naked?

What these people's last words will be on their deathbed remains to be heard. Perhaps they'll think of something beforehand to make sure they're prepared. This is the last rule of famous last words, one that Pancho Villa forgot about when he was clutching onto a comrade and said, "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." Isn't that the same thing Harpo Marx said?

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From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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