Book Review – Final Chapters: How Famous Authors Died by Jim Bernhard

It seems like every person who’s ever written something famous has died at some point. So many have, in fact that (the still living) Jim Bernhard decided to write a book about it. A tome regarding such a macabre topic as death may seem morbid to some. The writer still managed to present an interesting and many times entertaining take on those who have gone before us while leaving a lasting legacy of letters in their wake.

The author structured the book by presenting short biographical sketches of various writers. He began with the Greek playwrights and concluded with the late film critic Roger Ebert. In order to liven, no pun intended, the subject matter, the author added these writers views on religion along with some witty epigrams regarding their lives and work. While not a scholarly reference book it did contain many witty and amusing anecdotes; as well as sound advice. A very engaging read resulted.

The theme of rampant alcohol abuse permeated the book. Imagine that. Jack London was an alcoholic by the age of 15, which could explain why he didn’t live past 40. Notables such as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams all possessed a legendary fondness for the bottle. Mr. Bernard explored some others’ experiences with it. In fact authors’ affectation for potent potables could be traced back to Geffrey Chaucer. Mr. Bernhard wrote, “So highly regarded was he by Edward II that he was granted a gallon of wine daily for life, possibly as a reward for an early poetical work.” (Loc 586) When warned about the dangers of his alcohol abuse just prior to his death, Miguel de Cervantes said, “Many people have told me the same thing, but I can no more give up drinking for pleasure than if I had been born to do nothing else.” (Loc 655) James Thurber provided my favorite thoughts on the subject. “’One martini is all right,’ he said, ‘two are too many, and three are not enough.’” (Loc 3368)

The author also included some interesting facts about the various writers he covered. For one, I didn’t know that Thomas Hardy invented the “cliffhanger.” In an early serialized novel an episode ended with a character physically hanging off a cliff. (Loc 2580) Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the first use of the expression “willing suspension of disbelief.” (Loc 1445) Edgar Allan Poe only made $10 from “The Raven”. Dorothy Parker supposedly came up with all the following clichés: ball of fire, with bells on, birdbrain, face-lift, doesn’t have a prayer, scaredy-cat, the sky’s the limit, and wisecrack. (Loc 3319)

The myriad uses of humor impressed me the most about this book. The author provided an amusing take on Thomas Aquinas’ burial.

Thomas’ body was given to the Dominican order, and today most of it is in a gold and silver sarcophagus in the Church of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France—except his right arm, which is in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and a bone from his left arm, which is preserved as a relic in the cathedral of Naples. Canonized in 1323, Saint Thomas now rests in pieces. (Loc 542)

Apparently, burials amuse Mr. Bernhard. He had comparable thoughts on Dante’s interment.

His body is buried in Ravenna, and the tomb erected for him in Florence in the Church of Santa Croce remains empty. Although the Florence City Council formally revoked his exile in 2008, there is no indication Dante plans to relocate. (Loc 578)

The book’s most entertaining passage described Voltaire’s deathbed.

On the morning of May 30, Gaultier and another priest came to his bedside to exhort him once more. They asked him if he believed in the divinity of Christ. Voltaire replied, “In the name of God, don’t mention that man to me again—and let me die in peace.” Asked to renounce Satan, Voltaire observed, “This is not the time to make any more enemies.” He expired at eleven o’clock on the evening of May 30, 1778. (Loc 1199)

Rabindranath Tagore (not covered in Final Chapters) wrote, “And because I loved life, I know I shall love death as well.” I don’t know that I’ll “love” it, but I sure enjoyed reading about it in Final Chapters. While witty, the book did include some serious thoughts on the subject. The follow from Marcus Aurelius seemed a fitting one with which to conclude this piece.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. (Loc 479)

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