I think Gaius Caligula was the stupidest Roman Emperor of them all. According to Tacitus, who was never wrong, after having been stabbed by his own bodyguards in 41 A.D., the lunatic’s last words were, “I am still alive!” Playing opossum never seems to have occurred to him. Neither did offering money to his assassins. Listen, if you are already falling to your death, what could be the harm in trying to fly? Last words such as those are self defining; you are dead because you deliver them. Consider Billy the Kid’s last words, delivered into a darkened room, which allowed Sheriff Pat Garritt, who was waiting in the room armed with a shotgun, to identify the shadow figure. Said Billy,“Who’s there?”There is a school of thought that last words reveal some insight into character. I’m not referring to suicide notes or pompous words meant for posterity, but the spontaneous utterances of those who know they are facing an imminent death; as in 1790 when Thomas de Mahay, the Marquis de Favras, was handed his death warrant as he climbed the steps of his scaffold. Thomas actually spent his last moments on earth reading the document, as if looking for a loophole, and his last words were addressed to the clerk, to whom he pointed out, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.” That was not a helpful remark if he was hoping for a delay the proceedings, but it did tell us a great deal about Thomas. Or consider the final words of Lady Nancy Whitcher Langhorne Astor, the first female member the English Parliament, who awoke on her own deathbed to discover her family was gathered around her. She asked, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?” Unfortunately, the family’s response was not recorded, and I am the kind of person who wonders what they replied to that question. I have also wondered about the last words of Margaretha Geertfuida Zella, the little Dutch girl better known by her stage name, Mata Hari. She was a dancer who became a stripper because, as she admitted, “I could never dance very well.” During the First World War she became a famous spy because she was so bad at it. It is not clear even today who she was spying for, if anybody.
But at 5:00 A.M. on October 15, 1917, as she stood in front of the French firing squad, Margaretha was asked if she had any last words. Her reply was, “It is unbelievable.” And then the idiots shot her without asking what she meant by that. What was unbelievable, unbelievable to whom? I would like to know.There is a story told about the last words of Pietro Arentino, the father of modern pornography, and thus one of my heroes. Pietro was a good friend of the painter Titian. And it was helping out his friend that got Pietro killed. In 1556 Guidobaldo Il della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, hired Titian to paint a portrait of his wife, Giulia da Varno. Titian needed the money, as usual, but the problem was that Giulia was not only middle aged but she was also “vain and ugly” and rich; a dangerous combination. If the portrait didn’t look like her she would be offended. If it looked too much like her, she would be offended. Luckily for Titian, Pietro came up with the solution.At Pietro’s suggestion, Titian hired his favorite prostitute from a local brothel, and had her pose for the painting of the body. But in place of the prostitute’s head he painted a glamorized portrait of Giulia, based on paintings done of her as a young woman. It sounds like a bad joke but in the hands of a genius like Titian such absurdity can become great art, i.e. the Venus Urbino.
Giulia was thrilled with the finished product. But when the Duke saw the painting for the first time he was even more deeply affected. He later confided, wistfully, to both Titian and Pietro, “If I could have had that girl’s body, even with my wife’s head, I would have been a happier man.” Pietro laughed so hard he had a stroke.They carried him to a room out of the way and when it became clear that he was not likely to recover the Duke called for a priest to administer extreme unction. First the priest prayed for Pietro, and then offered to hear his last confession. But since Pietro was still unconscious, the priest continued, anointing Pietro with holy oil on his eyelids, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet, each time repeating the chant, “By this holy unction and his own most gracious mercy, may the Lord pardon you whatever sin you have committed.” As the priest finished the prayer, Pietro’s eyes opened and he clearly said, “Now that I’m oiled. Keep me from the rats.” And then he died. There was no doubt about what he meant, and that in effect he died laughing.And then there are last words for which no explanation is required because the act of dying is the explanation; such as when the great amateur botanist Luther Burbank delivered his last words on earth; “I don’t feel so good”, or the poet Hart Crane who delivered his last words, “Good-bye, everybody”, from a ship’s railing just before he jumped into the sea. What more explanation could you require from such people?But I retain my deepest affection for the actor, poet, playwright and historian, Ergon Friedell, whose last words revealed a sweet and gentle heart, to go with the quick and facile mind he had exhibited his entire life. On the night of March 16, 1939 two Nazi thugs arrived to arrest Egron. While his housekeeper delayed them at the front door, Ergon climbed onto his bedroom window ledge and before he jumped to his death warned those beneath him, “Watch out, please.”God bless him.
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