Pen Ultimate / Bye-lines

Some reflections on famous people's last words.

Hanoch Levin wrote in his play "The Great Whore of Babylon": "In death's glaring light all the colors of our life fuse into a filthy hueless mess." Maybe because I feel, deep down inside, that this makes sense - whoever has not stood in that glaring light himself cannot know for sure - I'm a keen reader of "famous last words."

My favorite last words are those attributed to Oscar Wilde, uttered in his shabby Paris hotel room sometime before his death on November 30, 1900: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go." What I admire in those words is the man's ability to formulate, while facing death, yet another quip that somehow illuminates a profoundly serious moment. It serves, of course, as a shield against the Grim Reaper, and as one - possibly last - instance of a person's control over life, before succumbing to death's dominion.

Shakespeare puts into right words our attentiveness to a dying person's last words: "O, but they say the tongues of dying men / Enforce attention like deep harmony: / Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain, / For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain. / He that no more must say is listen'd more / Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose; / More are men's ends mark'd than their lives before: / The setting sun, and music at the close, / As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last, / Writ in remembrance more than things long past" (Richard II, ii:1).

I may not always remember how to live, but I'd sure like to know how to die. That is why I remember what Malcolm says to Duncan about the Thane of Cawdor in "The Scottish Play": "Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it; he died / As one that had been studied in his death / To throw away the dearest thing he owed, / As 'twere a careless trifle" (Macbeth, i:3).

This is is a description of a public execution, once a spectator sport. The parting words of the executed are recorded in our times only in instances where capital punishment is legal, as in enlightened countries like the U.S. The final words of famous mortals reach us sometimes many years after they were uttered, as usually they are spoken in camera and deserve to remain confidential.

Unusual variant

There is one unusual variant of last words: those written by regular columnists. One of modern medicine's minor miracles (who's to know whether it is a blessing or a curse?) is that one can sometimes predict when one will die, which allows one to pen a column to be printed post mortum.

The piece veteran syndicated columnist Art Buchwald wanted to have published following his death - which occurred on January 18, 2007 - appeared on February 8, 2006. At the end of 2005 he was diagnosed with kidney failure and after undergoing dialysis, he decided not to go ahead with further treatment and was told he would most probably die within weeks. He checked himself into a hospice, but when in February, 2006, he got sick of being labeled "the man who wouldn't die," he checked out and returned to his home on Martha's Vineyard.

The New York Times has a long tradition of interviewing well-known people for their own obituaries, recording how they would like to be remembered. Recently it instituted a video interview feature, headlined "the last word," on its Web site. In July of last year, Buchwald was interviewed by the Times at home, and he said he would like to be remembered as the man who "made people laugh." He elaborated on ideas for his memorial service, suggesting that his cremated ashes be dispersed from the air over every cocktail party on the Vineyard. The interview opened with the camera focusing on Buchwald's face, with him saying "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald, and I've just died."

Israeli artist Rafi Lavie, who died on Monday, May 6, after being diagnosed two months earlier with pancreatic cancer, wrote regularly for the Tel Aviv weeklies Ha'ir and Achbar Ha'ir, for 26 years. On Sunday, May 5, he sent to Achbar Ha'ir an envelope addressed in his handwriting, bearing the words: "To Achbar, from Rafi Lavie, 5.5.07, last." It was his regular weekly classical music column, with recommendations about new recordings, his report from a weekly session comparing performances of certain works (opening in his usual vein: "I'm not mad about Liszt"), plus two items headed "P.S." In the first Lavie highlighted the performance of a musical ensemble slated to appear at an upcoming festival. The other item was terse: "This is my last column. I've loved writing it."

I'd like to be able to make my exit, when and if, with such a line. Those who live for bylines live by deadlines. When my time comes I would like to make my last deadline.