Famous last words
Whether witty, wise or just plain mystifying, many deathbed utterances of the great and the good have gone down in history, as Jonathan Self reports
t was, appropriately enough, a nonagenarian friend of my father’s who engendered in me a passion for ‘last words’. Francesca Wilson was a romantic figure who had rescued Russians fleeing from the October Revolution, participated in the Spanish Civil War and spied against the Nazis. ‘We get but one chance in life,’ she would admonish me, ‘to have the last word and it is important not to make a hash of it.’ I asked her if she had something prepared or whether she was planning to wing it. ‘Oh, I have several options rehearsed for when the time comes.’
It appeared to me that the time had indeed come one miserable winter’s night in 1978. Francesca had been taken by ambulance to
Ihospital and I was sitting alone by her bedside listening to her laboured breathing. Suddenly, she sat up. ‘Find me a cigarette and then let’s go home,’ she said. ‘I feel better now.’ Not a bad effort, I thought, as she fell back against her pillows. However, as it transpired, she meant it and lived for several more years.
this gave her plenty of time to tease me with different things she could be planning to say. ‘It might be “After you” or then again “I’ve buried £50,000 underneath the…”’ Sadly, I wasn’t there at the end, but her main carer, Fred, claimed her last words were: ‘It must be for you, mustn’t it?’ Apparently, a female visitor whom Francesca found tedious in the extreme had said to her how nice it was to see her.
Francesca’s last words make no sense if taken out of context. this is by no means unusual. ‘I am very glad,’ Edward VII’S final statement, for example, is meaningless if you don’t know that he was responding to the news that his horse, Witch of the Air, had won at Kempton Park.
By the same token, President Lincoln’s ‘It doesn’t really matter’ appears to be somewhat fatalistic, but was actually a reaction to his wife’s admonition not to hold her hand, as people might observe them.
the obsession with last words goes back thousands of years. Jesus Christ’s are recorded in the Gospels (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) and Archimedes is reported