Last Call

Going Out With a Bang

What's more important than a last will and testament? One's last words.

By 1.18.12

When Steve Jobs died, his last words were, "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." Jobs, a famed perfectionist and detail guy who figured he had a pretty good shot at immortality but wanted to seal the deal, clearly had thought about his last words. And, just as he wished, they've been quoted a lot.

Jobs came up with an excellent exit line -- unless, of course, those at his bedside misheard him and he actually said, "Oh ow. Oh ow. Oh ow." That might make more sense, under the circumstances, but Steve Jobs was not a man to leave his farewell words to chance when he devised the neatly crafted "oh wow" version; even those missing punctuation marks (no pesky commas) reveal Jobs's efficient, user-friendly hand.

It made me realize that, even although I've got a will and a trust, a medical directive, long-term care insurance and a resting place selected, I have neglected to devise any final words. For most people, it might not matter, but for a writer this is a crucial oversight that cries out to be corrected.

On his death bed, Pancho Villa reportedly protested, "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." Not just something, but something memorable. Pancho, presumably a busy guy right up to the end, had forgotten to devise a great parting line, although the quotation he devised on the spot is pretty good, considering the urgency of the moment and all. Julius Caesar's "Et tu, Brute?" isn't bad either for a guy who's being stabbed to death.

I don't trust myself to make up something pithy on my death bed, so I've been mulling over a few possible last words that I thought I might sort of test-market. Many of history's most famous last lines sound suspiciously calculated, like Oscar Wilde's, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do," and when Alice Toklas asked Gertrude Stein, "What is the answer?," Gertrude asked her, "What is the question?" Emily Dickinson said, "I must go on. The fog is rising." Nathan Hale's hallowed gallows farewell is hard to top: "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." That line is far too rich to believe it fell extemporaneously from the lips of someone on the verge of being hung.

It's permissible to write a clever advance epitaph, like W.C. Fields's "Everything else considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia," or Dorothy Parker's "Excuse my dust," or the famous British actor who said, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard" -- all of which were carefully worked out ahead of time, perhaps with the aid of a writer -- a service that funeral homes might want to provide in our social networking age. It seems a shame to die without being able to share your very last line on Twitter and Facebook.

The tough part about a final line is that it needs to sound memorable but also spontaneous, and you also want to make sure that nobody gets it wrong. Lincoln was unable to utter his own last words, but when Abe died, Edwin Stanton said at his bedside, "Now he belongs to the ages" -- although it may have been "Now he belongs to the angels." Historians are still wrangling over what was actually said.

I want to make sure that my own last words are not garbled and have a shot of getting reprinted in one of those collections of famous last lines. Since I'm not famous enough to guarantee a place in an anthology of parting words, I badly need to come up with something so terrific that no editor can possibly pass it up. This will, after all, be my last published work and I need to make it pithy as hell.

Some alleged parting words of major figures fall a little flat, like Winston Churchill's disappointing, "I am bored with it all," or Conrad Hilton's "Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub," or Timothy Leary's vague "Why not? Yeah…," or Louisa May Alcott's "Is it not meningitis?" James Joyce said, "Does nobody understand?" You would think Joyce might have devised something juicier. But at least all of those lines sound authentic, like Lady Astor's great tagline, as her family gathered around: "Am I dying or is this my birthday?" If I can't come up with something on my own, I may just steal that.

I'm still working on a farewell line but here are a few I thought I'd run by friends and family: "It was fun while it lasted," "I hate to leave the party before it's over," "If there is a God, I look forward to our meeting -- I've heard so much about him," "I forgot to pack a toothbrush," "Much as I hate to travel, this could be an interesting trip," "Did I miss my deadline?," or maybe just a simple, "OK, I'm outta here."

Those are just working last lines, you understand, but if you have a particular favorite, let me know. I plan to select three finalists before making a choice. My big worry is that I'll be so groggy when the time comes, with everyone waiting for me to come up with something witty or profound, I won't have the presence of mind to remember my official last words and may only be able to croak out something like, "What time is it?" or, "I'd like a sip of water," or, "Is it just me or does it seem cold in here?" Those won't do at all.

To guard against a banal farewell, I plan to include my exit line in a press release that can be read to the media upon my demise. If no reporters are present, which is fairly likely, a paid death notice could include my final words. It's pretty embarrassing for a professional writer not to have a compelling last line ready to go when he does.

Karl Marx may have had the last word on last words, in answer to a housekeeper who urged him to give her a memorable parting line for posterity: "Go on, get out," Marx shouted. "Last words are for fools who haven't said enough." Nice work, Karl.

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.