The following article contains mentions of suicide and substance abuse.
Some, if not most, parts of day to day life in the modern world are ordinary — mundane, simple things we tend to take for granted. Life can become a routine for everyone in every part of the social strata or wealth ladder, and that includes taking care of humdrum things like picking up the phone to make call, or grabbing it when it rings, all to communicate small pieces of information or to share experiences with a loved one or business associate.
It’s often only after the fact these daily tasks become drenched in importance and extra meaning. If it’s the “last” something someone does, it gains an air of poignancy and wistfulness that might not have been there before. A last meal or last words are a curious thing to think about, as are final phone calls. Here are some famous people whose final use of the telephone has been recorded into history, because they’re well-known individuals, because what they said mattered, or because it was one of the last things they did — a humble, equalizing, and humanizing act capping off a grand or newsworthy life.
Princess Diana called her preoccupied sons
Princess Diana was only a public figure for less than two decades, from just before her 1981 storybook, widely-watched wedding to Prince Charles, the United Kingdom’s heir to the throne, to her death at age 36 in a car accident in a Paris traffic tunnel in August 1997. In that time, she became a humanitarian, earned a reputation as “The People’s Princess” and had two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
In the 2017 TV documentary Our Mother Diana: Her Life and Legacy, William and Harry shared rare, intimate, and frank thoughts and recollections about their mother. At the time of Diana’s death, William was 15 and Harry was 12. On that fateful day, they were enjoying a getaway at Balmoral, the royal family’s vacation property in Scotland. Diana placed a call to check in on her boys, but neither prince would have any of it — they rushed to get off the phone as quickly as possible, as they were in the middle of playing with their cousins and they wanted to get back to the fun. “If I’d known that that was the last time I was going to speak to my mother the things I would — the things I would have said to her,” Harry said (via People).
Michael Jackson talked to one of his kids
Whatever the origins of the “King of Pop” title may be, Michael Jackson sure fit the bill. In the 1980s, he was a record-selling and hit-making machine, moving more than 30 million copies of Thriller and churning out No. 1 singles like “Rock With You,” “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Man in the Mirror.” Jackson fell hard from his cultural pedestal in the ’90s and 2000s, beleaguered by numerous allegations of child abuse and an appearance in a documentary where he dangled his baby son out of a window.
In 2009, Jackson staged a comeback, announcing a residency at London’s O2 Arena. The shows never happened — Jackson died at the age of 50 on June 25, 2009. As reported by The New York Times, Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, was held liable in the pop star’s death, ruled guilty of involuntary manslaughter for overprescribing the singer powerful and addictive pain medications.
Jackson’s family later filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the comeback concerts’ promoter, AEG Live. As CNN noted, during the 2013 court proceedings, Jackson’s 16-year-old son, Prince, testified that AEG executive Randy Phillips showed up at the family’s home in Los Angeles and confronted Murray over Jackson. As CNN reported, “[Prince] called his father from the security guard shack telephone to let him know Phillips was there. His father asked him to offer Phillips food and drink.” They didn’t speak again — by the next morning, Michael Jackson was dead.
Desi Arnaz still loved Lucy
I Love Lucy stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were one of the original, definitive sitcom couples, but they were also married off-screen, a TV power team as co-heads of production company Desilu Studios. According to People, the marriage was tumultuous — Desi frequently cheated, and Ball once tried to shoot him in the head — and they ultimately divorced in 1960. They remarried (Ball to producer Gary Morton, to neighbor Edie Hirsch) but they remained very close friends (and they’d also had a couple of kids together). As People noted, when Desi lay in a hospital bed dying of lung cancer in December 1986, Ball visited.
Near the end, the progression of the cancer left Desi barely able to speak, but he fielded a phone call from his beloved former wife. According to Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert’s Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (via CheatSheet), daughter Lucie Arnaz said she held the phone up to her father so he could talk. “She just said the same thing over and over again,” Lucie recalled. “It was ‘I love you. I love you. Desi, I love you.'” He replied, “I love you, too, honey. Good luck with your show,” referring to one of Ball’s upcoming appearances.
John Lennon told his aunt he was going to come visit her
After the breakup of the Beatles, John Lennon’s legacy was so secure that he could have disappeared forever to live in bliss with his wife, conceptual artist Yoko Ono. But he kept making music, such as landmark singles like “Power to the People,” “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” “Instant Karma,” and “Imagine.” But shortly after releasing the covers collection Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1975, he retired for five years to be a stay-at-home dad, according to AllMusic.
But Lennon couldn’t stay away from music forever, and in 1980, after signing a deal with Geffen Records, recorded Double Fantasy, a joint album co-credited to Ono. On the evening of December 7, 1980, according to The Sunday Post, Lennon called Mimi Smith, the aunt who’d raised him, at her home in Liverpool, England. Smith told writer Judith Simons in 1981 that on the call Lennon had been “witty, funny, bubbling over with excitement, coming over very soon,” indicating that he planned to returned to the U.K. for the first time in a decade, perhaps for a concert tour in support of Double Fantasy.
The next day, Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York apartment building by Mark David Chapman. Lennon was 40.
Marilyn Monroe reached out to a friend
Hollywood’s biggest sex symbol and “blonde bombshell” of the 1950s and early 1960s, Marilyn Monroe died a lonely and tragic death in August 1962. According to History, the Hollywood megastar was found deceased in the bedroom of her Los Angeles home. Police ruled that Monroe’s death was a “probable suicide.”
Authorities also noted that Monroe was discovered with a telephone receiver in her hand, indicating that she’d made at least one call in what would turn out to be her final hours. According to the AP, police reports indicated Monroe the final call she made was to actor Peter Lawford, a relation of the Kennedys. There have been many theories surrounding Monroe’s death, some of which were explored by The Killing of Marilyn Monroe podcast (via RadarOnline). As the series notes, Monroe’s rumored connections to both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy ostensibly didn’t end well, as the brothers were apparently afraid the alleged dalliances would ruin their reputations, and some accounts suggest this came up on her call to Lawford. “She was planning to hold a conference the next Monday and reveal what the Kennedys had done to her,” Monroe biographer Lois Banner stated on the podcast. Monroe historian Danforth Prince alleged she told Lawford that if JFK didn’t “fly down to see me and talk things over, he’ll hear from me at my press conference Monday morning.” The star purportedly added, “It’ll make headlines around the world.”
Elvis Presley made childcare arrangements with his ex-wife
A superstar who helped mass popularize rock n’ roll in the 1950s with his swinging hips and undeniable swagger on songs like “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog,” Elvis Presley had retreated into a casual life in the 1970s, spending most of his time hanging out at Graceland, his Memphis estate. There he surrounded himself with loyal employees and friends (the so-called “Memphis Mafia”), as his one-year marriage to Priscilla Presley had ended in divorce in 1973. According to Outsider, Elvis proposed to girlfriend Ginger Alden in January 1977. In the early morning hours of August 16, 1977, she was in a Graceland bedroom, with Elvis’ only child, daughter Lisa Marie Presley, down the hall, according to Express.
Elvis had been up all night, per Elvis Daily, having attended a late night dental appointment and then consuming a slew of prescription drugs, and unable to sleep, headed to the bathroom with a book. That’s where Elvis spent his final moments. After he was found unresponsive, he was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
According to author and Elvis compatriot Chris Hitchens, one of the rock star’s last phone calls, placed on the day before he died, was to ex-wife Priscilla. “During that call, they’d argued over travel arrangements for Lisa Marie,” Hitchens said (via Express). “It had been a tense conversation, but at least they were on speaking terms.”
Kobe Bryant congratulated LeBron James
There are only a few NBA players who can stake a claim to the title of “greatest of all time,” among them five-time champion and 18-time all-star Kobe Bryant, and four-time champ and 16-time all-star LeBron James. In January 2020, shortly after joining Bryant’s old team, the Los Angeles Lakers, James passed Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
It was a watershed moment both professionally and personally. As the AP noted, “LeBron James was a teenager when he first met Kobe Bryant at a youth basketball camp,” and the older star served as a mentor figure to the up-and-comer. “I’m just happy to be in any conversation with Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time greats to ever play,” James said after he topped Bryant by scoring his 33,644th point. Bryant congratulated James on Twitter. “Continuing to move the game forward, @KingJames,” he wrote. “Much respect my brother.” After the game, Bryant reached out with praise once more. According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the two legends spoke over the phone, with many of James’ Lakers teammates listening in.
Tragically, the next morning, Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people died in a helicopter crash en route to a youth basketball game.
Avicii made a concerning call to a relative
In the 2010s, when DJs became the new rock stars, lording over massive gatherings of dancers and revelers with their laptops full of irresistible beats and mixes, there were few as popular and famous as Avicii. The Swedish electronic dance musician born Tim Bergling told USA Today that he got his stage name from Avici, a name for Buddhist afterlife, and he scored some anthemic radio hits like “Levels” and “Wake Me Up,” a No. 4 hit in 2013.
Offstage, Avicii suffered. According to Billboard, he was diagnosed with pancreatitis at age 21, which he attributed to heavy alcohol consumption, and in the next few years, his gallbladder and pancreas were surgically removed. While on vacation in Oman in April 2018, according to TMZ, Avicii died by suicide at the age of 28. “He could not go on any longer,” the DJ’s family said in a statement.
Struggling with a lot of issues, Avicii reached out to his relatives, via long-distance phone call, in the hours before his death. “The family was aware that Tim felt bad,” a source close to the Berglings told Swedish site Stoppa Pressarna (via PopCulture). “The family realized that it was really bad and that one had to act.” One of Avicii’s relatives reportedly immediately boarded a plane to Oman, but by the time it landed, the musician was dead.
Chris Cornell's call to his wife sounded alarms
After an acrimonious breakup in the late 1990s, iconic Seattle grunge band Soundgarden reunited in the 2010s, and dutifully toured throughout the decade. The band’s final show with charismatic, powerfully-piped singer-songwriter Chris Cornell at the helm came on May 17, 2017 at the Fox Theatre in Detroit — but sadly, none of the fans in attendance or the band itself knew that this would be the singer’s last night on Earth.
According to The Detroit News, the frontman went to his hotel room immediately after the show. He placed a check-in phone call with his wife, Vicky Cornell, and to her, Chris, a recovering substance abuse addict, spoke with an alarmingly slurred tone. After he hung up, Vicki called Soundgarden’s bodyguard, Martin Kirsten, to perform a wellness check on her husband. He had to break down Chris’s hotel room door and then a suite door, where he discovered the singer on the bathroom floor, unresponsive and not breathing. Chris Cornell was pronounced dead at age 51, and authorities ruled the death a suicide.
Charles Manson wished tidings of love and immortality
Charles Manson is among the most notorious criminals in American history, convincing a slew of impressionable young people, mostly women, that he was a supernatural figure and that they should kill for him to ignite a world-ending race war. For his major role in a 1969 murder spree, Manson received the death penalty, but when California banned capital punishment, according to Newsweek, his sentenced was commuted to life in prison. And so, Manson died a long time later, in November 2017, at the age of 83 in a prison in Bakersfield, California, not far from his permanent residence at Corcoran State Prison.
Two days before his trip to the hospital where he would die, according to The Sun, Manson had a phone call with a man named Ben Gurecki, who purports to be the convicted killer’s friend of more than 20 years. Manson delivered numerous, cryptic, and difficult to parse statements in the mostly one-sided conversation. “Not yet found just a dream of hearsay. Who’s, what’s, why’s, for what?” Manson said, adding, “As soon as I get up, out, around me will become a team. The beast, a priest, midnight, and not as much as all. Nothing with everyone and everything over and gone to start backwards again and again to nowhere and nothing again.” Just before the prison cut off the call, Manson said, “Love for all.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse and mental health, please contact SAMHSA’s 24-hour National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
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