CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

11 People Who Lived to Read Their Own Obituaries

Getty Images
Getty Images

You might think that the death of a famous person would be relatively easy to double check before reporting it—but you would be wrong. For hundreds of years, the news has been jumping the gun on the deaths of some of our most celebrated personalities, so these 11 all had the surreal experience of reading their own obituaries.

1. Mark Twain

Twain is the most famous person to have had his death reported incorrectly, but the story most of us think we know is actually a combination of two. In 1897, his cousin was dying and a reporter, mixing up his Twains, sent an inquiry to Twain’s publisher asking if he had passed yet, but was corrected before an obituary ran. It was when retelling this story that Twain wrote his famous (though often misquoted) line, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Ten years later, Twain actually did get a premature obituary of sorts published. While he was yachting, the waters his boat was supposed to be in became rough, and the air foggy. The New York Times published a piece saying it was likely he had been lost at sea. The next day Twain, whose boat hadn’t set off yet, got to rebuff the article with one of his own.

2. Alfred Nobel

While the story may be apocryphal, it's said that Nobel decided to start giving his famous prizes after reading about his death in the French papers. His brother had recently died, and at least one publication got confused and announced that the inventor of dynamite had passed on, under the not-at-all subtle headline, “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.” Since Nobel was a pacifist who hated that his discovery was killing people, he was allegedly inspired to rehabilitate his name before his real obituary ran.

3. Titan Leeds

Benjamin Franklin decided to annoy one of his business rivals in 1733 by announcing in Poor Richard’s Almanac that Titan Leeds, the producer of his own almanac, would die at 3:29pm on October 17 of that year. When Leeds didn’t die and made fun of Franklin for that fact in his own almanac, Franklin decided to run an obituary for him anyway. He kept the game up for years, insisting that the real Leeds was dead, and that the man calling himself Leeds had stolen his identity. This meant the real Leeds had to continue to insist he was in fact still alive until he actually did pass away 5 years later, at which point Poor Richard’s ran a note congratulating the “fake” publisher for finally accepting that Leeds was dead.

4. Marcus Garvey

The Jamaican politician is the only person known to have possibly been killed by their premature obituary. In 1940, Garvey suffered a stroke, and his death was reported in a Chicago paper which he happened to read. Unfortunately, the obituary was completely unflattering, saying the once loved man had died “broke, alone and unpopular.” According to legend, the stress of reading about what people really thought of him was so stressful it brought on another stroke, which actually did kill him.

5. Ernest Hemingway

After Hemingway was almost killed in a plane crash in 1954, numerous papers reported his death. Not only was the writer not bothered by this, he is said to have put together a scrapbook of all the obituaries and read them after breakfast every morning while drinking a glass of champagne.

6. Bill Henry

Henry might not be the most famous baseball player of all time, but his career, which included 16 years in the majors and two World Series appearances, was big enough that his death made the national news. And there was no mistake this time—there was a body and everything. Bill Henry was definitely dead.

This probably came as a shock to the real Bill Henry, who heard about his death on the news and after looking into it discovered that the man who had died had stolen his identity. A retired salesman had convinced everyone he was the retired baseball player, including his wife of 19 years, who said he even used to go to elementary schools and talk about his sports career.

7. Joe DiMaggio

In 1999, the baseball great was watching a movie in his home with his friend Morris Engelberg. He stopped the movie to do something at almost the exact moment that an NBC news crawl announced he had just died. The crawl only ran once and a retraction was issued 20 minutes later, so it was astonishing DiMaggio had seen it live. Engelberg reported that his friend was furious at first but calmed down when he started joking about them both being in heaven together.

8. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In 1816, the famous poet was minding his own business at a hotel, enjoying a coffee, when he heard the men at the table next to him discussing his recent suicide. The paper they were reading had reported he had hanged himself. Coleridge asked to read the article and then announced who he was. In typical polite English fashion the men were mostly concerned they might have hurt his feelings by talking about his death in such a way.

9. The CNN Incident

If CNN had their way, April 16, 2003 would have been one of the most tragic days in history. That day their website announced the deaths of, among others, Fidel Castro, Dick Cheney, Nelson Mandela, Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan. While the sheer number of people listed as having just died should have been a clue something was wrong, the incident is also a good example of why you should always read the actual article. While the headlines may have looked accurate, the information in them was decidedly not, since most of the obituaries were just templates that borrowed text from others, specifically the late Queen Mother. This resulted in Dick Cheney being memorialized as “the UK’s favorite grandmother.”

10. Pope John Paul II


The late pope may have been the only person to have his death falsely announced three times during his lifetime. In 1981, CNN anchors referred to him repeatedly as if he was deceased after he had been shot. The same network again announced his death as part of their 2003 incident (above). Finally someone else got it wrong, although FOX was much closer; they announced the pope was dead on his actual date of death, but they jumped the gun by several hours after failing to confirm their source’s information was correct.

11. Lal Bihari

While he may not have read an actual obituary, the falsely reported death of this Indian farmer had a bigger effect on his life than anyone else on this list. When Bihari went to apply for a bank loan in 1975, he discovered that officially he was not alive and therefore did not qualify for any money. It seemed a relative had paid off a government official to register Bihari as deceased in order to steal his farmland.

Despite being very much alive, and even running for public office in 1989, it took this poor farmer 19 years of activism on behalf of himself and others who had also been falsely declared deceased before he was finally declared alive again.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
7 Things You Might Not Know About Audrey Hepburn
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Though she’ll always be known as the little-black-dress-wearing big-screen incarnation of Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about Audrey Hepburn, who passed away in Switzerland on January 20, 1993.

1. HER FIRST ROLE WAS IN AN EDUCATIONAL FILM.

Though 1948’s Dutch in Seven Lessons is classified as a “documentary” on IMDb, it’s really more of an educational travel film, in which Hepburn appears as an airline attendant. If you don’t speak Dutch, it might not make a whole lot of sense to you, but you can watch it above anyway.

2. GREGORY PECK WAS AFRAID SHE’D MAKE HIM LOOK LIKE A JERK.

Hepburn was an unknown actress when she was handed the starring role of Princess Ann opposite Gregory Peck in 1953’s Roman Holiday. As such, Peck was going to be the only star listed, with Hepburn relegated to a smaller font and an “introducing” credit. But Peck insisted, “You've got to change that because she'll be a big star and I'll look like a big jerk.” Hepburn ended up winning her first and only Oscar for the role (Peck wasn’t even nominated).

3. SHE’S AN EGOT.

In 1954, the same year she won the Oscar for Roman Holiday, Hepburn accepted a Tony Award for her title role in Ondine on Broadway. Hepburn is one of only 12 EGOTs, meaning that she has won all of the four major creative awards: an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Unfortunately, the honor came to Hepburn posthumously; her 1994 Grammy for the children’s album Audrey Hepburn’s Enchanted Tales and her 1993 Emmy for Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn were both awarded following her passing in early 1993.

4. TRUMAN CAPOTE HATED HER AS HOLLY GOLIGHTLY.

Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s may be one of the most iconic films in Hollywood history, but it’s a miracle that the film ever got made at all. Particularly if you listened to Truman Capote, who wrote the novella upon which it was based, and saw only one actress in the lead: Marilyn Monroe. When asked what he thought was wrong with the film, which downplayed the more tawdry aspects of the fact that Ms. Golightly makes her living as a call girl (Hepburn had told the producers, “I can’t play a hooker”), Capote replied, “Oh, God, just everything. It was the most miscast film I’ve ever seen. It made me want to throw up.”

5. HOLLY GOLIGHTLY’S LITTLE BLACK DRESS SOLD FOR NEARLY $1 MILLION.

Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'
Keystone Features, Getty Images

In 2006, Christie’s auctioned off the iconic Givenchy-designed little black dress that Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a whopping $923,187 (pre-auction numbers estimated that it would go for between $98,800 and $138,320). It was a record-setting amount at the time, until Marilyn Monroe’s white “subway dress” from The Seven Year Itch sold for $5.6 million in 2006.

6. SHE SANG “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” TO JFK IN 1963.

One year after Marilyn Monroe’s sultry birthday serenade to John F. Kennedy in 1962, Hepburn paid a musical tribute to the President at a private party in 1963, on what would be his final birthday.

7. THERE’S A RARE TULIP NAMED AFTER HER.

Photo of Audrey Hepburn
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1990, a rare white tulip hybrid was named after the actress and humanitarian, and dedicated to her at her family’s former estate in Holland.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
11 Things You Didn't Know About Dolly Parton
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. YOU WON'T FIND HER ON A DOLLYWOOD ROLLER COASTER.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. SHE ENTERED A DOLLY PARTON LOOK-ALIKE CONTEST—AND LOST.


Getty Images

Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. SHE SPENT A FORTUNE TO RECREATE HER CHILDHOOD HOME.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. SHE WON'T APOLOGIZE FOR RHINESTONE.


Getty Images

Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. SHE IS MILEY CYRUS'S GODMOTHER, SORT OF.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. SHE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
Getty Images

In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBT members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted, "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. TO PROMOTE LITERACY, SHE STARTED HER OWN "LIBRARY."

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. PARTON'S HOMETOWN HAS A STATUE IN HER HONOR.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. THE CLONED SHEEP DOLLY WAS NAMED AFTER PARTON.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. SHE TURNED DOWN ELVIS.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. SHE JUST EARNED TWO GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios