When famous people die, their last words often go down in history as pearls of wisdom or funny one liners. Ever thought what you’d want your last words to be? Would you want to be remembered as witty, wise or just plain wacky. Here’s a selection of some of the most famous last words ever uttered to inspire you.
“Friends applaud, the comedy is finished.”
These are the much-disputed last words of the German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven and the words typically used to end a performance of commedia dell'arte. Beethoven died in the middle of a thunderstorm on March 26, 1827 after a long illness.
Within hours of his death, a Beethoven mythology began to develop. Just two days after his death, souvenir hunters were snipping off locks of his famously wild hair.
One lock of that hair eventually reached a laboratory in the States, and it revealed Beethoven had lead poisoning.
2. Marie Antoinette
“Pardon me sir. I meant not to do it.”
The last words of Marie Antoinette, extravagant wife of Louis XVI of France who, according to rumour, dismissed the starving peasants with a flippant “let them eat cake”.
At the height of the French revolution, first Louis, then Marie Antoinette, were charged with treason and sent to the guillotine. After a humiliating ride through the streets of Paris on a cart, she was brought to the guillotine.
While on the scaffold, she accidentally stepped on her executioner’s foot and respectfully apologised to him. Seconds later he chopped off her head.
3. James Donald French
“Hey fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French Fries!”
The last words of James Donald French, a convicted murderer and the last criminal ever to be executed under the death penalty in Oklahoma. After killing a cellmate, he was sentenced to death by electrocution. In the death chamber, he shouted these words to the members of the press, there to witness his execution.
4. Salvador Allende
“These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice and treason.”
Chillean president Salvador Allende died during the military coup of 1973 led by Augusto Pinochet. Allende gave his farewell speech on live radio with the sound of gunfire clearly audible in the background.
Shortly afterwards, it was announced that he had “gone to war with an AK-47 rifle”, in other words he’d committed suicide, although his supporters were convinced he’d been assassinated.
The gun he used was supposedly a gift from friend, Fidel Castro.
“Tomorrow I shall no longer be here.”
Whatever your views on Nostradamus’ powers as a prophet, his last words show he certainly managed to predict his own death. The sixteenth century seer was found dead the morning after uttering these words to his secretary.
His visions, called quatrains, contain specific names, dates, places and events as well as symbolism and metaphor, leaving them open to interpretation and the subject of heated debate.
On the day of his death, Nostradamus was working on a quatrain about the end of the world.
6. Humphrey Bogart
“I should have never switched from Scotch to Martinis.”
These are the witty last words of Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart.
The founder member of the hard drinking, heavy smoking rat pack, he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in 1954 but did little about it until it was too late.
On his deathbed in January 1957, he bid his wife, Lauren Bacall, and children goodbye and uttered this immortal line before dying just a few seconds after. He was 57.
7. John Barrymore
“Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.”
The last words of John Barrymore, the American actor of stage, screen and radio who bridged the silent and sound era. He came from a theatrical dynasty and was the paternal grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore.
A heavy smoker and drinker, in 1942 Barrymore collapsed while appearing on Rudy Vallee's radio show and died later the same day.
According to Errol Flynn's memoirs, film director Raoul Walsh “borrowed” Barrymore's body before burial, and left it propped in a chair for a drunken Flynn to discover when he returned home from The Cock and Bull Bar, but many dispute this.
8. Winston Churchill
“I’m bored with it all.”
The last words from the mouth of statesman and great orator, Winston Churchill, before slipping in to a coma. He died 9 days later aged 90.
Thought of as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century, Churchill's speeches are often credited with mobilising the embattled British to “never give up” and to eventually win the Second World War.
But aged 90, after a lifetime of tremendous achievement and unstinting service to his country, he finally surrendered.
9. Dominique Bouhours
“I am about to – or I am going to – die: either expression is correct.”
The last words of legendary French grammarian Dominique Bouhours certainly immortalised his skills. A tremendous wit, he never failed to demonstrate his proficiency in all aspects of grammar, seizing the opportunity to show off even as a frail man on his death bed in 1902. The question is… did he also dictate how his last words should be punctuated?
Beethoven | Marie Antoinette | James D French | Salvador Allende | Nostradamus | Humphrey Bogart | John Barrymore | Winston Churchill | Dominique Bouhours
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Chère Académie française,
I have always dreamed of being immortal. Imagine my surprise and delight upon discovering that such a job description exists, and that it can be found among your illustrious number on the Académie Française, protectors extraordinaire of the French language!
Why should you consider my humble application?
Firstly, let me assure you that I meet your sole qualification of being under the age of 75 at the time of application, and, as an aside, that jacket would look good on me.
Secondly, although English is my first language, I have spent nearly half of my life in this fair land and have come to appreciate both its language and its denizens, along with the produce of its labours, namely the fine foods and wines of la belle France.
At the same time, I have become intimately familiar with its weaknesses as perceived both from within and beyond its borders.
Let me put this simply: I think you need me. As someone who has long worked in the field of communications, who understands brand and is familiar with the blogosphere, I can bring you kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
The Academy has a bit of an image problem, you see.
The French perceive you as a bunch of decrepit old coots, completely disconnected from reality, falling asleep in your plush chairs – I among them, until it became clear that I had confused you with the elected members of our National Assembly.
My confusion can perhaps be forgiven. You, too, are elected by vote, although uniquely among yourselves, a far more civilized approach than asking the public to weigh in, n’est-ce pas? What, after all, does the average Joe (sorry, make that Jacques) know about the language of Molière?
I do realize, bien évidemment, that you will not be able to consider my candidacy until a chair has been duly vacated, that is, until one of your number has gone on to better things – oh, let’s just call a spade a spade: popped his clogs, kicked the can, croaked. As you can see, I have a fair grasp of the vernacular in my native tongue and une maîtrise certaine in French.
The Guardians of the French Language Are Deadlocked, Just Like Their Country
Continue reading the main story
PARIS — Balzac tried and failed. Zola knocked on the door dozens of times and was always refused. Verlaine got no votes. Hugo got in, barely, only after multiple tries.
The august Académie française — the elite club of 40 “immortals,” as the members are known, that serves as the official guardian of the French language — does not admit just anybody. So exclusive is it that most of France’s greatest writers never made it.
But the sacred job of protecting France from “brainless Globish” and the “deadly snobbery of Anglo-American,” as a member spat out in a speech last month, has rarely been more difficult to attain.
Four vacancies — lifelong tenures — have opened since December 2016. Three times the academy members have voted, most recently in late January, and three times they have failed to achieve a majority.
The deadlock, some academy members say, reflects France’s own — between the proud, timeless France determined to preserve itself at all costs, and the France struggling to adapt to a 21st century defined by globalization, migration and social upheaval, witnessed in the “Yellow Vest” revolt.
“We’re the reflection of the society, and it’s a society that’s questioning itself,” said Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese-born novelist and a member of the academy.
Then there are those who grumble that, for a conservative institution rived by mutually hating factions, it is merely business as usual. The academy has been around since 1634, when it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu to promote and protect the French language, and it is not in any hurry.
The academy “is an old lady, and very sensitive,” said one of the newer members, the Haitian-born Canadian writer Dany Laferrière.
ImageThe French Institute is home to the Académie Française. The group is so exclusive that most of France’s greatest writers were never admitted as members.Credit…Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Actually, it is mostly old white men. There are just five women among the members, and Mr. Laferrière is the only black member. The average age was well over 70 in a recent tally by the French media.
Whether the academy is struggling to update or diversify itself, or even wants to, is difficult to divine. The deliberations of its members, under the graceful 17th-century dome of the Institut de France, are swathed in mystery.
But the rejections are humiliatingly public: The former education minister Luc Ferry saw his name in the headlines recently, and not in a good way. The vote on his membership was decisive. Mr. Ferry declined to comment.
Aside from renewing itself, the academy’s real business is updating the definitive dictionary of French, which it has been doing since the 17th century. So sacred is the task that the updates are published as an official government document.
On Thursday, the members approved the feminization of professional titles. It was a veritable breakthrough for an academy that has for years resisted the adaptation, which is already practiced widely in France, with or without the sanction of the immortals.
Language may change, and society, too, but slowly in the view of the academy.
“The question is, should the academy guard its principles?” Mr. Laferrière said. “We could fill all the seats tomorrow.”
That is not likely to happen. The academy chooses you, you do not choose the academy. Nonetheless, no one can become a member without writing a strongly worded letter soliciting a place.
Some French writers never bother, as is rumored to be the case with some of the country’s best-known contemporary authors.
Neither of France’s two living Nobel literature laureates, Patrick Modiano and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, are members. Neither is Michel Houellebecq, reckoned to be among the most penetrating of all contemporary European novelists. Others are encouraged to apply, then lose the vote.
The academy “is an old lady, and very sensitive,” said Dany Laferrière, center.Credit…Charles Platiau/Reuters
“We are alarmed at not finding académiciens that are to the taste of the academy,” Mr. Laferrière said.
- But some members reject the argument that no upstanding defender of France’s language and cultural values can be found, and hint at a deeper crisis.
- “It’s absurd,” growled Jean-Marie Rouart, a critic and novelist who has been a member since 1997.
- The real question, for some, is what the deadlock says about the beleaguered France of today.
“What was special about France is that everybody recognized themselves in literature,’’ Mr. Rouart said. “Now, you’ve got to write for the university, or this group, or that group. It’s deplorable. People read more, yes, but what they read are idiocies. The academy is a boat adrift in a dry sea.”
Of the inability to move forward, Dominique Bona, a novelist and one of the few women to sit among the immortals, said, “I’m a little bit astonished.”
“We’ve had some remarkable candidates, real choices,” Ms. Bona said. “I’m personally disappointed that the academy is giving them the cold shoulder. Is this a French malaise? The bad mood around us, is it communicating itself to the academy?”
- To be sure, the ceremonious world of the academy seems a universe away from France’s current Yellow Vest uprising, whose instincts tend more toward revolution than preservation.
- Last month, the academy members trooped down a wooden staircase of the Institut de France, the sharp drumbeats of the Republican Guard echoing through the marbled halls.
- They were there to induct the newest member they could agree upon, the novelist Patrick Grainville, an author of baroque fantasies.
The members have been deadlocked over the filling of four vacancies since 2016.Credit…Eric Feferberg/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Grainville took the seat of Alain Decaux, a journalist, historian and writer who died in March 2016. Generally, the academy waits a year after a death to announce a vacancy, and if a replacement receives a majority vote, a formal induction comes about a year later. Mr. Grainville was elected in March 2018.
Former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, 93, a member of the academy since 2003, gamely negotiated the stairs supported by two aides. The smartly dressed invited public were scattered amid uniformed academy members, resplendent in their green embroidered uniforms.
Their custom-made robes cost in the neighborhood of $50,000, members said, and the swords that are de rigueur for members are not cheap, either. Mr. Maalouf said he had to raise nearly $230,000 for the costs associated with his induction.
The induction ceremony for Mr. Grainville spoke to an eternal France faithfully devoted to celebrating words and their ecstatic usage.
“Words shoot up like geysers from your pen, tumble in cascades, swirl about, bump into each other, are never at rest,” Ms. Bona said, describing Mr. Grainville’s work in the traditional induction speech. “You are, sir, a writer of jubilation.”
There was no hint of the social upheaval that has torn France apart in recent months. And there prevailed a certain vision of French history, in the easy invocation of former members of the academy, celebrated French writers with dubious wartime collaborationist pasts like Henry de Montherlant, cited by Mr. Grainville as a mentor.
As with other ceremonious and antiquated French institutions, the pomp provides its own justification, even for those who harbor reservations about it. The academy for them represents France’s consecration of its writers, a nearly unique national status.
“It was the idea of getting on the magic merry-go-round,” said the sharp-witted novelist Charles Dantzig, who was encouraged to apply after winning the academy’s prize, and then lost in recent balloting.
“It was the idea of protection,” he said of the appeal of being a member. ‘‘Illusory, no doubt.”
Indeed, the unusual nature of the academy’s mission, in a world where much of what it celebrates is under siege, leaves some members pessimistic it can protect even itself.
“French society: Will it continue?” Mr. Rouart asked.
Then he answered his own question. “The bourgeoisie is dying,” Mr. Rouart grumbled. Before, “you would see the academy members at dinner parties. Now there aren’t even dinner parties. It’s finished.”
Meet the Cultural Illuminati Guarding France’s Most Sacrosanct Asset: The French Language
“We have fun; it’s not stuffy. We have discussions, not arguments. I’ve never had to resort to the sword,” says playwright René de Obaldia, occupant of fauteuil 22 since 1999, who will turn 100 in October. “It is a pleasure to go there because people have a way of speaking to each other with such politeness.
It is completely out of today’s time,” says art historian Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of the Louvre, and fauteuil 23 since 1995.
“We are not here to stop change,” says author Sir Michael Edwards, the only British immortal (fauteuil 31 since 2013), “but to push language in the way of greatest eloquence, resourcefulness, and beauty; to steer it in the direction of the best French possible.”
Gabriel de Broglie, Michel Zink, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Xavier Darcos, and Jean-Louis Ferrary in ceremonial habits verts before the Institut’s 2018 awards ceremony.
Photograph by Jonathan Becker.
Académie members and guests in the Institut’s library.
Photograph by Jonathan Becker.
Controversy can erupt along the way.
Occasionally the Académie issues public edicts, injunctions, and alarms, many of which are intended to suppress some pernicious foreign word, particularly an Anglicism, from gaining traction in French discourse; in its place the members proffer a more desirable French equivalent. Some of their efforts take root—courriel is widely used instead of “e-mail”—but many others, such as prêt hypothécaire à risque élevé in place of “subprime mortgage,” just never catch on.
And then there’s inclusive writing, a tough ask for a language where gender is a central feature.
French nouns are either masculine or feminine, dictating their adjectives, and the masculine always trumps the feminine: if one male nurse appeared in a group of 99 female nurses, they would all be called infirmiers, not infirmières.
The French high commission for gender equality recently condemned this practice as “a form of sexual tyranny.” But to the immortals, changing the grammatical rules would produce a worse offense: a clumsy, inelegant, and ultimately less beautiful language.
In October 2017, according to The Telegraph, they issued a stern declaration that just said non. Gender inclusivity “leads to a fragmented language, disparate in its expression, creating confusion that borders on being unreadable. . . . Faced with the ‘inclusive’ aberration, the French language is in mortal danger, for which our nation is accountable to future generations.”