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The Surprising Last Words of 11 Entertainers

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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?"

Glenn MillerThe 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."

Eugene O'NeillThe 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!"

Alfalfa
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!"

Groucho Marx
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."

Alfred Hitchcock
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."

MoeThe 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.)

Rod Serling
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."

Sid Vicious (graffiti)
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."

John Wayne
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."

Jackie WilsonThe 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.

Follow Chris Higgins on Twitter for more stories like this one.

(Note: all images via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license or out of copyright.)

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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