What Are the Best Last Words Ever?

A big question

Graham Roumieu

Ann Patchett, novelist

Oscar Wilde’s last words were reportedly “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” That would be funny, except I once had a hideous case of food poisoning in Paris at L’Hotel, where he died. Truly, the wallpaper was as bad as the oyster I had eaten.

Margalit Fox, obituary writer, The New York Times

Those of John Adams before his death—fittingly, on July 4—in 1826. To reassure his compatriots and, one assumes, himself, that the fledgling nation remained in good hands, he was reported to have said, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Unbeknownst to Adams, however, Jefferson had died about five hours earlier.

Robert Greene, author, The 48 Laws of Power

When you are Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist and seer of the biggest and smallest things, it’s terribly fitting that, upon glimpsing the void of death, you’d be unimpressed. “I’d hate to die twice—it’s so boring” were his reported final words.

Scott Simon, host, NPR’s Weekend Edition

My mother, Patricia Lyons Simon Newman Gelbin (three marriages resulted in what she called her “railroad car of a name”), said to my wife and me on her deathbed, “You don’t have the children with you. Stop for a quickie!”

Graham Roumieu

T. C. Boyle, novelist

“Will somebody please get this fucking cat off my chest!” Filéncio Salmón (1932–96), a Puerto Rican writer of speculative fiction, on his deathbed.

Sandra Martin, author, Working the Dead Beat and A Good Death (April 2016)

O. Henry appeared to have stopped breathing, but was he really dead? Touch his feet, suggested one of the mourners clustered around his bed: Nobody ever died with warm feet. Whereupon, the short-story writer raised his head from the pillow, mumbled “Joan of Arc did,” and fell back dead. The story is almost certainly false, but that doesn’t diminish the pleasure it gives me. After all, most last words are constructs.

Marilyn Johnson, author, Lives in Ruins

Bob Hope’s, in response to his wife’s question about where he wanted to be buried: “Surprise me.” I wonder if those were really his words, or if he slipped one of his writers a little something extra to script a good send-off.

Mark and Jay Duplass, film directors and producers

“I don’t know, maybe it was Utah.” Even after a series of disastrous heists, H. I. McDunnough, the felonious hero of Raising Arizona, remains sure that he can find happiness somewhere—even if the details are vague. His closing line encapsulates what we love most about the Coen brothers and the hapless American dreamers who inhabit their films.

Reader Responses

Charles Langs, New York, N.Y.

Dylan Thomas: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskeys. I think that’s the record.”

Graham Roumieu

Eleanor Hall, Chicago, Ill.

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”  — Union Major General John Sedgwick, reprimanding his men for ducking for cover, just before he was killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania.

Jim Rettig, Williamsburg, Va.

Beethoven’s: “I shall hear in heaven.” A poignant wish, much deserved.

Gary Vallely, Sharon, Mass.

The final lines of a letter the poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote to his sister as he lay dying in a hospital: “Yes, our life is a misery, an endless misery! Why do we exist? Send me the news.”

Want to see your name on this page? E-mail bigquestion@theatlantic.com with your response to the question for our June issue: What is history’s most influential feud?