An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Buchwald's birthday. This version has been corrected.
ART BUCHWALD : 1925-2007
Art Buchwald, 1925-2007
Friday, January 19, 2007
Art Buchwald, 81, the newspaper humor columnist for more than a half-century whose newfound comic material about death revived his celebrity, died of kidney failure Jan. 17 at his son's home in Washington.
Buchwald, an owlish, cigar-chomping extrovert whose column won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1982, teased death for the past year, after kidney and vascular problems forced doctors to amputate one of his legs just below the knee. Refusing dialysis, in February he entered the Washington Home and Community Hospices, which he described as "a place where you go when you want to go."
Then, amazing himself, his doctors, friends and the scores of reporters who thronged to him for a last goodbye, Buchwald didn't die. His kidneys began to work again. By July, he left hospice for his summer home. "Instead of going straight upstairs, I am going to Martha's Vineyard," he wrote.
His column, syndicated to more than 550 newspapers at one point, chugged on through the summer and fall, mining the field of death and dying for laughs, with the unexpected result of making his work once again the topic of conversations in the capital's powerful salons. He also finished the last of his more than 30 books. "Too Soon to Say Goodbye" was published in November. Buchwald, back in Washington, did a series of appearances in support of the book that reminded his fans of his heyday as a humorist who zinged the high, mighty and humor-challenged bigwigs of Washington politics.
Buchwald kept his sense of humor until he slipped into unconsciousness just before he died, said his longtime friend, Washington Post Vice President-at-Large Benjamin C. Bradlee.
"I just don't want to die the same day Castro dies," Buchwald told his friends, Bradlee said.
Strategizing about how to land a big obituary became part of his repertoire of jokes, especially after news of the death of former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet interrupted one of his book parties in New York.
"It was Phyllis's party, and she couldn't care less about what happened in Chile," he wrote, referring to his former editor, Phyllis Grann. "After about half an hour, Pinochet's death was forgotten. It was as if it had never happened."
Buchwald reveled in organizing his last hurrah. He called gossip columnists and radio talk show hosts to declare, "I'm still alive!" He talked on national television about planning his funeral, covering his bets by inviting ministers of different denominations. His March 7 column began, "I am writing this article from a hospice. But being in the hospice didn't work out exactly the way I wanted it to. By all rights I should have finished my time here five or six weeks ago -- at least that's all Medicare would pay for."
He also dealt publicly with more serious aspects of wrapping up one's life. The existence of heaven and hell is possible, he decided, and if it provides comfort, people should believe in it.
"I have no idea where I'm going, but here's the real question: What am I doing here in the first place?" he wrote in one of his columns.
In December, he told admirers at Wesley United Methodist Church in the District that he did not want to be remembered as dying after a long illness. "I want to die at 95 playing tennis against Agassi -- because he couldn't handle my serve," he told the crowd.