The lives aren’t always notable but the deaths are eminently quotable in this engrossing dictionary of final soliloquies.
Yes, Nathan Hale did say, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” (though he apparently cribbed the line from a Cato biography). And, no, Oscar Wilde did not die spouting witticisms about the wallpaper; in one of history’s great anti-climaxes, he expired with an inarticulate gurgle. These are among the intriguing and error-evading factoids that librarians, writers and editors will glean in this well-organized, meticulously researched reference tome. In each alphabetically ordered article, Brahms (Notable Last Facts, 2005) includes an engaging biographical snippet complete with circumstances of death, lists every attested version of the subject’s last spoken and written thoughts (with full source citations) and politely tags apocryphal quotations as “doubtful.” The more than 3,500 entries run the gamut, from Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and Elijah to the lowliest of condemned wise-acres. (“I am sorry for the mistake, but this is the first time I’ve been beheaded,” cracks British miscreant Alexander Blackwell after misaligning his head on the block.) In between there are valedictories from statesmen and geniuses, a generous helping of wounded Civil War soldiers’ dying visions—the most poetic is Stonewall Jackson’s “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”—and many pious, long-winded last gasps of medieval saints and kings. The book rewards the casual reader as much as the professional fact-finder or trivia junkie. Death in all its guises—peaceful, agonizing, tiresome (“I’m bored with it all,” sighs Winston Churchill)—is vividly sketched. Lives are encapsulated: Chekhov departs with the quintessentially Chekhovian “I haven’t drunk champagne for a long time;” Tallulah Bankhead’s “Codeine…bourbon,” sums up quite pithily. And the great existential questions are addressed—never more profoundly than when jazzman Glenn Miller, boarding a doomed flight, wonders, “Where the hell are the parachutes?”
An information-packed reference for writers and researchers, and an addictive, thought-provoking browse for ordinary mortals.