Etc. Features Magazine

Final Acts

Here’s a lesser-spotted history of grand farewells from people who died doing what they loved: saying and/or doing strange things.

Socrates

The pug-nosed Athenian dialogist was a master of practical communication, so his last words – ‘Crito, we owe a cock to Asklepios – pay it and do not neglect it’ – may seem inscrutable, but were in reference to the offering of a sacrifice to the medical demi-God Asklepios, a death ritual which had become established in his lifetime.

Marie Antoinette

The apocryphal pastry prescriber may have been unfairly maligned when she was alive, but might just be the best mannered of these entries. Her last recorded utterance was ‘Pardonnez-moi, monsieur’ to her executioner, as she trod on his foot en route to la guillotine.

Kirk Douglas

Granite-chinned eterno-thesp Kirk Douglas finally met his maker at 103. His last public act was to endorse the presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg.

Dimebag Darrell

He yelled ‘Van Halen!’ to wish his brother a good show before being shot on stage.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

The veteran Supreme Court Justice and heroine of the Democratic centre died aged 87 in 2020. And while direct claims of ventriloquism are unseemly, eyebrows were raised when her granddaughter claimed her last recorded words, dictated from her death bed, were the distinctly practical: ‘My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.’

Richard Harris

Harris was last seen in public being wheeled out of the Savoy while yelling, ‘It was the food!’

John Peel

The problematic pop music purveyor is said to have died shortly after an evening spent making up obscene chants about Wayne Rooney while holidaying in Peru.

Joan Crawford

The iconic actress’s last words were the declaration ‘Dammit… don’t you dare ask God to help me,’ in response to a maid who’d begun praying in her aid.

George V

There is some dispute as to what words were uttered by the bearded scion of Empire/stamp-collecting when he died in 1936. One version maintains that, when a restorative trip to a particular West Sussex seaside resort was suggested to him he snarled ‘bugger Bognor’. More likely is that his final words were ‘God damn you’, growled at his nurse and doctor, Lord Dawson, who was about to kill him with an enormous speedball of morphine and cocaine in order to ensure his death was reported by the more respectable morning broadsheet press rather than the grubby evening tabloids.

Marie Curie

Few last words are more chilling than Marie Curie’s deathbed question, ‘Was it done with radium or with mesothorium?’, prefiguring the deleterious effects of both substances she’d been exposed to over years of experimentation, the former of which she’d discovered herself.

Walt Disney

Before he went to his grave, taking his terrifying plans for a futuristic city enclosed in a dome (entitled ‘The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow’, later rebranded merely as Disney World) with him, the mouse-loving megalomaniac’s last words were ‘Kurt Russell’. Or rather, ‘Kirt Russell’, since they were, in fact, the last words he wrote down, as he had misspelt the well-coiffed actor’s name in correspondence found on his desk. Whether this was to star in another one of the, now unwatched, live-action Disney films of the ’60s or to harvest his organs for his sinister space-age project, company lore does not relate.

Margaret Sanger

The birth control pioneer and amateur eugenicist is said to have greeted paradise with the cheer, ‘A party! Let’s have a party.’

Jean-Philippe Rameau

The French composer objected to a song sung at his bedside. He said, ‘What the devil do you mean to sing to me, priest? You are out of tune.’

Enoch Powell

Powell, deranged, acerbic and deliberately misunderstanding things to the very end, quizzed the nurse attending him at the King Edward VII Hospital in London on what was for lunch. On receiving the reply that he would be being fed intravenously from now on, Powell replied ‘I don’t call that much of a lunch’ before dying a little while later.

Jane Austen

When asked by her sister if she needed anything, she replied with the satisfactorily metal reply, ‘Nothing, but death.’

Pancho Villa

The death of the extravagantly moustachioed Mexican revolutionary, in a profoundly unglamorous plot involving him being tricked by a pumpkin seller, prompted his final plea: ‘Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something important.’

Aubrey Beardsley

​​’I am imploring you – burn all the indecent poems and drawings,’ was the final, vain plea of the late Victorian drawer of enormous willies.

William Barton Rogers, founder of MIT

Beginning his commencement address on a summer’s morning in 1882, Barton Rogers looked out onto a sea of bright young faces, leaned into the lectern and read: ‘As I stand here today and see what the Institute is, what it has already accomplished, and what it is at present doing, I call to mind the beginnings of science. I remember that 150 years ago Stephen Hales published a pamphlet on the subject of illuminating gas, in which he stated that his researchers had demonstrated that 128 grains of bituminous coal’ – before dropping dead instantly.

Coco Chanel

Reclining onto a bed at The Ritz after a walk with her friend, she turned to her maid and said ‘You see, this is how you die.’ (‘Vous voyez, c’est comme ça que vous mourez.’)

Nelson Rockefeller

Even his immense wealth and status – oldest son of the Rockefeller family, governor of New York, vice-president under Gerald Ford – could not keep poor old Nelson from an ignominious, and hilarious, end: a heart attack while cavorting in his townhouse with his young female assistant. Friends quipped that he thought he was coming when he was going.

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