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Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I think Gaius Caligula was the stupidest Roman Emperor of them all. According to Tacitus, who was never wrong about these things, in 41 A.D., after having been stabbed by his own bodyguards, the sovereign lunatic’s last ravings were a statement of defiance; “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? It's probably not going to work, but what are you afraid of - looking foolish? If your own bodyguards have just stabbed you why not at least try keeping your mouth shut until some guards who don't know you well enough to hate you yet, happen by. Needless to say, the instant his highness issued this update on his peronal health the bodyguards finished the job. What an idiot.
Last words such as those are self defining in two senses; you are dead if you deliver them, and you are dead because you deliver them. Consider Billy the Kid’s last words, delivered into a darkened bedroom he had just entered. Billy was looking for a little comfort in the arms of Paulita Maxwell. But Paulita was bound and gagged on her bed. And sitting in the dark next to her on that bed were two men, Sheriff Pat Garritt and Paulita's brother, Pedro. As Billy stepped through the door somebody made a sound. Billy asked, “Who’s there?” And Garritt responded with both barrels of his 12 gauge shotgun, at close range. That may be the ultimate, definative answer to that particular question.
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 are suddenly aware they are facing an imminent death. As one example consider, Thomas de Mahay, the Marquis de Mavras, who in 1790 was handed his death warrant as he climbed the steps to the guillotine. Thomas actually spent his last moments on earth standing on line reading the document, as if he were looking for a loophole. And his last words on earth were addressed to the clerk who had handed him this legal justification for his execution. The Marquis interupted his own demise long enough to point out the clerk,  “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.” That was not a helpful remark, if he was hoping for a delay in the proceedings. But it did tell us a great deal about Thomas. As did the immediate observation of the clerk, who was heard to utter the telling response; "Touche".
Or consider the final words of Lady Nancy Langhorne Astor (above), the first female member the English Parliament. Lady Astor awoke on her deathbed to discover her family had gathered around her. Quite logically 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 (above). She was 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 merely because she was so bad at it that she got caught. It is not clear even today who she was spying for, if anybody, when she was arrested.
But at 5:00 A.M. on October 15, 1917, as she(above) stood in front of the French firing squad, Margaretha was asked if she had any last words. Her reply was, "Il est incroyable."
That roughly translates as “This is unbelievable.” And then the idiots shot her (above). They did not even ask what she meant by that. What was unbelievable, unbelievable to whom? I would like to know. What, they couldn't take five minutes to ask?
There is a story told about the last words of Pietro Arentino, the father of modern pornography, and thus one of my personal heroes. Pietro was a good friend of the painter Titian. And it was helping out his friend that got Pietro killed. See, 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, and prickly about her looks; a very dangerous combination. If the portrait didn’t look like her she would be offended and Titian might end up dead. If it looked too much like her, she would be offended and Titian might end up dead. 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 this bad joke became a piece of great art, i.e. the Venus Urbino (below).
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 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. No, he really did.
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 flickered open 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, tho. And that he had effectivly 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, a physically ugly little man 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. His crime was that he was Jewish and had mocked Hitler and the Nazi jackboots from the stage. While his housekeeper delayed them at the front door, Ergon climbed onto his bedroom window ledge, but before he jumped to his death he warned those beneath him in the darkness, “Watch out, please.” Only then did he jump.
God bless him.
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