Everybody dies (at least so far), and we only get to do it once. At the brink of death, people get to express their last words. The more we understand how a person lived his/her life, the more profound and meaningful we find their last words. That is what makes the subject of people’s last words compelling and sometimes controversial. It is even more true of famous people on their deathbeds. The public was interested in them in life, and when they get the chance to say whatever is most important to them in the end, the results can be eye-opening. Famous last words will continue to abound, but these ten last words were worth dying for.
1. Groucho Marx: “This is no way to live!”
Groucho Marx was born Julius Marx, the third of five sons, in 1890. A Vaudeville performer from his early childhood, Groucho was always looking for a laugh. Even into his 70s and 80s, he was making television appearances and sharing carefully rehearsed spontaneous quips with his audience. In 1977, Groucho was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles with the symptoms of advanced pneumonia and gradually declined.
Dying is no excuse to be boring, however, so Groucho did what he could to stay fit, conversation-wise. As a performer who lived (and also died) for his entrances and exits, he kept up as much witty banter with nurses and visitors as his condition would permit. When his friend Elliott Gould came for his last visit, he found Groucho very weak and almost unable to talk, with tubes delivering oxygen to his nose. True to form, Groucho slowly raised his hands to his nose, rested his fingers on the tubes, and played them like a clarinet. His last words were delivered shortly before he slipped into his final delirium and passed away in August 1977.
2. Joan Crawford: “Damn it! Don’t you dare ask God to help me!”
Joan Crawford led a hard life. Though her daughter’s later memoirs, which were made into the classic movie Mommie Dearest, may have exaggerated Crawford’s hard edge, the legendary “Queen of Hollywood” certainly had her moments. Rumors circulated throughout her career that she had started in silent stag films in the early 1920s, before signing with MGM in 1925. According to the stories, once she got the money, she bought up every last reel of her films and destroyed them in her fireplace. For 30 years, Crawford’s fortunes rose and fell, and then rose again, in a series of big-budget pictures during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Joan’s personal life had always been difficult. The first three of her four marriages ended in divorce, usually after only a few years, and her fourth husband, Pepsi CEO Alfred Steele, died after only four years of matrimony. Joan parlayed the company shares he left her into a controlling stake in the soda company, though her drinking kept getting in the way of her career as a businesswoman. Her last words are apocryphal and are supposed to be what she shouted to her maid, who made the sign of the cross and prayed for help when she found the heavily inebriated Crawford sprawled on the floor in 1977.
3. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “You are wonderful.”
As befits the creator of literature’s most famous detective, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a complicated man. Trained as a physician, the Sherlock Holmes author moved in the highest circles of late-Victorian British society, but he also reportedly withdrew from other people for long periods to be by himself. It is possible that Conan Doyle was part of the conspiracy of hoaxers who produced the infamous Piltdown Man, which had even British anthropologists baffled for over 20 years.
Despite his training as a man of science, Conan Doyle had an awful superstitious streak in him. Completely without irony, it seems, he believed in the literal existence of faeries, and he even lent his considerable prestige to “authenticating” yet another hoax: the Cottingley Faeries. His eccentricities aside, he did have his tender side. In what were to be his last moments of life, while walking through his (presumably faerie-infested) garden, the author clutched at his chest and gasped for air. Turning to his wife, he delivered a final compliment and fell over.
4. Richard Mellon: “Tag”
To the thousands of businessmen who feared his name, Richard B. Mellon was a terror from On High. Born the son of a judge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shortly before the Civil War, Richard grew up to become a wealthy industrialist and financier. He got his start working under his brother, Andrew, at the bank he ran, and later branched out into almost every industry that turn-of-the-century America had to offer. Along the way, both he and his brother made numerous philanthropic gifts to charity, arguably to buy their way into heaven after all of the smaller men’s dreams they crushed together.
Throughout their rise, and even later in life, when Andrew went off to Washington to serve as the Secretary of the Treasury, the two were inseparable. From early childhood, they had been engaged in a long-running game of tag, which could spontaneously break out at any moment, either their father’s dinner table in 1870 or around the boardroom conference table in the 1920s. Richard won the final round of the game on December 1, 1933, when he reached up from his deathbed, clutched Andrew’s hand one last time, and said: “Final tag.”
5. Chris Farley: “Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”
Chris Farley was a legend in the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, his high-energy comedy (which he described as “Fatty falls down”) was only part of the reason for the legend. The other part was his heroic intake of drugs and alcohol. For five years, Farley was about 50 percent of the reason Saturday Night Live was watchable, and he spent nearly the entire time in a continuous round of partying, private drinking and drugging, rehearsal, and then more partying.
In this Farley’s life resembled that of another SNL alumn, John Belushi. Like Belushi, Farley had an almost infallible sense of timing and position on camera, and also like Belushi, he died in a hotel room with a combination of cocaine and heroin in his system. Knowing that he was about to die from an overdose, Farley called out his last words from the floor of a hotel room as the prostitute he was with tried to flee. Chris Farley died at 33 and was posthumously awarded a star on the Walk of Fame.
6. Johnny Ace: “It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?”
John Marshall Alexander Jr. was lucky enough to be a talented Rhythm and Blues musician in the early 1950s when the scene was taking off and spawning Rock and Roll. Born in 1929, the 25-year-old Johnny Ace went straight from a term in the Navy to playing the piano for B.B. King. By 1954, he was earning a reputation of his own for having an animated style and reckless partying backstage. This last trait was to be his undoing. By 1954, Ace had sold over a million and a half records and was on his way to superstardom.
By 1954, Ace had sold over a million and a half records and was on his way to superstardom. During a Christmas performance in Houston, backstage between sets, Ace pulled out his small .32-caliber pistol. People who knew him later reported he did this often. When others warned him to be careful, he laughed and assured them the gun was safe. To prove his point, Ace held the gun up to his temple and pulled the trigger, not knowing those would be his very last words.
7. Private First Class Edward Ahrens: “The bastards tried to come over me last night. I guess they didn’t know I was a Marine.”
Edward Ahrens was born in 1919, in the same town in Tennessee where the Scopes Monkey Trial would later be staged. Apart from that, he was nobody different his whole life until he joined the Marines at the start of World War II. As a young Marine, Ahrens was deployed to the Pacific in 1942 as part of an elite Marine Raider company.
In August 1942, Ahrens’s company went ashore at Guadalcanal as part of the second assault wave. That night, his company and another were sent to hold the Marines’ right flank. The Japanese chose the small gap between companies to strike in a massive counterattack. Ahrens’ unit came unglued in the dark, leaving him alone with a .30-caliber machine gun. The next morning, survivors of his unit found him in the position they’d left him in the night before, mortally wounded but still conscious. All around him were the bodies of 19 dead Japanese soldiers, including the unit’s officer, whom Ahrens is credited with killing in the Navy Cross citation he was posthumously awarded.
8. Willem Arondeus: “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards!”
When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, 45-year-old Willem Arondeus knew he was in for a rough time. Arondeus wasn’t Jewish, but he checked off every last box on the Nazi’s kill list. He was an openly homosexual artist who dabbled in left-wing politics and was an outspoken critic of fascism.
Amazingly, nobody killed him for a few years. Never one to practice discretion, Arondeus joined the Dutch anti-Nazi resistance and started sheltering local Jews when the Gestapo came for them. Through an intelligence source, Arondeus and his confederates learned of a repository of identity papers that the Nazis were using to ferret out Dutch Jews who had taken on false names. In 1943, a small team of operatives, including Arondeus, raided the building and set fire to the records, potentially saving thousands of people. The team didn’t get away clean, and Arondeus’ epic last words were spoken on the way to his firing squad.
9. Desi Arnaz: “I love you too, honey. Good luck with your show.”
Desi Arnaz was known to millions of people as the volatile musician Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy. In real life, the Cuban emigre was married to his co-star, Lucille Ball. The pair had wed in 1940, though Desi’s drinking and womanizing seriously hurt their relationship. Lucille filed for divorce in 1944 but withdrew from the process before it could be finalized. For many years in the 1950s, the mother of all sitcoms commanded huge ratings and made the pair a huge success. The problems in their marriage didn’t go away, however, and the two split for good in 1960.
They stayed friends after the divorce. Quickly working out an amicable sale of their production company, Desi and Lucy would keep in touch for the rest of their lives. Each remarried, but their two children moved freely between their homes and held the family together. Desi Arnaz was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early 1980s, and his last words were affectionately spoken over the phone to Lucy as she prepared to receive the Kennedy Center Honors in December 1986.
1o. Graham Chapman: “Hello.”
Graham Chapman was easily the most eccentric member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. As a preschool-age child, he had been severely traumatized by a plane crash near his home in Leicester, which left several Polish airmen badly burned. He would later say that the experience profoundly influenced his unique sense of humor.
The event may also have had a hand in his lifelong alcoholism. Living as a gay man in swinging London during the ’60s, Chapman kept odd hours and even odder company. His friends came and went at all hours, and Chapman almost never left the house without a briefcase full of liquor bottles. Chapman settled down somewhat in the ’70s, entering into a long-term relationship and adopting a son. In 1977, he gave up drinking for good and focused on his movie career with the Pythons. In 1988, his dentist found a small tumor on one of his tonsils. Cancer spread to his spine and failed to respond to treatment. In October 1989, Chapman spoke his last word, “Hello,” to his son, who had just arrived, and died within minutes.