What do actors, musicians, and writers say when they die? I consulted the reference Last Words of Notable People by Bill Brahms to collect eleven examples. Read on, and get a hanky ready.
1. Bob Hope (1903-2003)
The words: "Surprise me."
The story: "Bob" Hope's full name was Leslie Townes Hope. As an actor and radio personality, he became best known in his later years for entertaining American troops stationed overseas. He died at Toluca Lake, California at the ripe old age of 100. His wife Dolores asked Bob where he wanted to be buried, prompting his last words.
Reports of Hope's death were greatly exaggerated in 1998, when the Associated Press accidentally released a prepared obituary. The incorrect news spread so rapidly that it was announced on the floor of the US House. Representative Bob Stump, R-Arizona, Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, broke the "news."
2. Glenn Miller (1904-1944)
The words: "Where the hell are the parachutes?"
The story: Glenn Miller was a big band leader and US Army Major during WWII. Miller boarded a plane bound from England to Paris, where he planned to perform concerts for troops on leave in Europe. His last recorded words as he boarded the plane (above) were spoken to Colonel Norman Baesell, who replied: "What's the matter Miller, don't you want to live forever?" The plane was lost over the English Channel.
3. Eugene O'Neill, Senior (1888-1953)
The words: "I knew it! I knew it! Born in a hotel room and, goddamn it, dying in a hotel room."
The story: O'Neill was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, best known for Long Day's Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh. He was born in a room at the Broadway hotel on what is now Times Square. He died at age 65 in a Boston hotel after suffering neurological disease. The hotel was later turned into the Shelton Hall dorm at Boston University.
O'Neill had an alcoholic son, Eugene O'Neill Jr., who committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40. The Junior O'Neill wrote in his note, "Never let it be said of O'Neill that he failed to empty a bottle. Ave atque vale." (The last phrase is Latin for "Hail and farewell.")
4. "Alfalfa" (Carl Switzer) (1927-1959)
The words: "I want that fifty bucks you owe me and I want it now!"
The Story: Carl Dean "Alfala" Switzer was an actor, best known for his childhood work in Our Gang, though he also appeared as an adult in films including It's a Wonderful Life and Island in the Sky. Switzer's death is a bizarrely complex story that is well-summarized on Wikipedia. Long story short, there was a dispute over a $50 reward for a lost hunting dog, and Switzer was shot and killed by Moses "Bud" Stiltz during a fight over the money. Switzer was just 31.
5. Groucho Marx (1890-1977)
The words: "This is no way to live!"
The story: Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx was widely known for comedy films with his brothers Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo. He also hosted You Bet Your Life. In 1977, he was hospitalized for pneumonia in Los Angeles, and quipped his last.
Groucho's brother Leonard (better known as "Chico") died in 1961. Chico's last words were instructions to his wife: "Remember, Honey, don't forget what I told you. Put in my coffin a deck of cards, a mashie niblick, and a pretty blonde."
6. Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)
The words: "One never knows the ending. One has to die to know exactly what happens after death, although Catholics have their hopes."
The story: Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense, directing film masterpieces including Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho, among others too numerous to mention. He died in April of 1980 in Los Angeles; his funeral was held at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church.
7. "Moe" Howard (Three Stooges) (1897-1975)
The words: "I've been really sick lately, so I'm sorry that I haven't answered yours and Ernie's letters, but I think about you daily."
The story: Harry Moses Horwitz is better known to us as Moe, the Stooge and vaudevillian. He died of lung cancer at age 77 while writing his autobiography (and apparently not enough letters); his wife died months later and they were buried together.
Moe had seen his brother Curly die tragically in 1952. Eddie Deezen's fantastic article The Final Years of Curly (of Three Stooges Fame) tells the story of Curly's life, including this passage:
By the end, Curly could only communicate with Moe by squeezing his hand, sometimes just by blinking his eyes. The hospital supervisor told Moe that Curly’s physical and mental deterioration was causing the hospital inconvenience and suggested that Moe move him to a mental institution. Moe adamantly refused.
Eddie also wrote about Shemp: The Forgotten Stooge.
8. Rod Serling (1924-1975)
The words (spoken): "That's what I anticipate death will be: a totally unconscious void in which you float through eternity with no particular consciousness about anything."
The words (written): "You can't kill this tough Jew." (Written from his deathbed to Twilight Zone colleague Owen Comora.)
The story: Rodman Edward Serling is best known for his groundbreaking television show, The Twilight Zone -- he wrote 92 of the 156 episodes, contributed to other shows, and co-wrote the screenplay for Planet of the Apes, among many others. He was known for political activism, which he injected (often thinly-veiled) into his teleplays. He died aged just 50, after suffering several heart attacks and undergoing open-heart surgery in Rochester, New York.
9. Sid Vicious (1957-1979)
The words: "We had a death pact. I have to keep my half of the bargain. Please bury me next to my baby. Bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motor cycle boots. Goodbye."
The story: Simon John Ritchie used the stage name Sid Vicious, the notorious bassist for The Sex Pistols. In 1978 he allegedly killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Vicious/Ritchie killed himself with a heroin overdose the next year, aged just 21. His last words were left in a suicide note found in his jacket pocket. He was cremated, and reports differ about the fate of his ashes. The story is told in the film Sid and Nancy, and it's exactly as devastating as you'd expect.
10. John Wayne (1907-1979)
The words: "Of course I know who you are. You're my girl. I love you."
The Story: John Wayne (born Marion Robert Morrison) won an Oscar for True Grit in 1970, and starred in more than 150 films. He died of stomach cancer, after surviving lung cancer years earlier. His grave is marked with a quotation from his 1971 Playboy interview: "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."
11. Jackie Wilson (1934-1984)
The words: "My heart is crying, crying."
The Story: Jackie Wilson was known as "Mr. Excitement," an R&B singer with soul and verve beyond his years. He collapsed onstage in 1975 while singing his hit song "Lonely Teardrops" as part of Dick Clark's Good Ol' Rock and Roll Revue. Having suffered a stroke, Wilson went in and out of a coma until 1984, when he died at the age of 49. Even when he briefly emerged from the coma, he was unable to speak, leaving his last words a snippet of song. His estate went bankrupt, and Wilson was buried in an unmarked grave. Michael Jackson dedicated his Thriller Album of the Year Grammy to Wilson the year Wilson died. In 1987, a fundraiser collected enough money to place a gravestone on his burial site in Detroit.
More Last Words
This post collects last words from the excellent volume Last Words of Notable People: Final Words of More Than 3500 Noteworthy People Throughout History (now also on Kindle) by Bill Brahms. You can get it from Brahms's website. It is notable not just as an amazing reference (this is a big book!), but as a reference book promoted by former mental_floss writer John Green. Green is a collector of last words, and Brahms's volume collects a series of (disputed) last words of François Rabelais, which are quoted in Green's novel Looking for Alaska.
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(Note: all images via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license or out of copyright.)