An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Buchwald's birthday. This version has been corrected.
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Art Buchwald, 1925-2007
Before death and dying presented itself as a topic, politics was a favorite jumping-off point. As a long-running observer of the nation's political scene, Buchwald said his favorite president was Richard M. Nixon, whose delusions made for rich satirical material. "I worship the very quicksand he walks on," Buchwald quipped.
Most of his books were collections of his columns, which were syndicated by the Los Angeles Times and appeared in The Post. Two, "Leaving Home" (1993) and "I'll Always Have Paris!" (1996), were memoirs. They told the story of his journey from a lonely, impoverished childhood lived largely in foster homes to the salons of the famous.
His entertaining, name-dropping memoirs -- published in a period when some said his column was losing its edge -- also won him new respect in the publishing world. Although he had been elected in 1991 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he said in a 1996 interview that "people don't take humorists seriously; they don't even call them writers."
"It was those two books that made me a writer," he said. "Now, I'm being reviewed seriously. That gives me great pleasure, because I want to be known as a writer, not a humorist. It's one step up, and that's the direction I want to be headed at this stage of my life."
Buchwald also wrote about his bouts with mental disorders with a frankness that won him fans across the country. He had been hospitalized for clinical depression in 1963 and for manic depression in 1987. Both episodes nearly drove him to suicide, he said; drugs and therapy were his salvation. He joked to friends that if he had a third bout of depression, "I will be inducted in the Bipolar Hall of Fame."
After his appearances on television to talk about the chokehold these illnesses once had on his life, people would stop to thank him on the street for spreading a message of hope, he said.
Buchwald was born in New York City on Oct. 20, 1925, to a struggling, Austrian-born drape installer and a mother who suffered from chronic depression. Shortly after his birth, his mother was institutionalized. She lived for 35 more years but never saw her son again.
He had rickets and lived his first year in a foundling home before being sent to a Seventh-Day Adventist home for sick children. He stayed there until he was 5, with one of his three sisters. Their father, unable to support his children during the Depression, then placed them with the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Manhattan.
In "Leaving Home," Buchwald wrote that, at about 6 or 7, he realized he could deal with the loneliness and confusion by becoming the class clown. He said he recognized that he could draw laughs by making fun of the people in charge.
"It was a dangerous profession I had chosen," he recalled, "because no one likes a funny kid. In fact, adults are scared silly of them and tend to warn children who act out that they are going to wind up in prison or worse. It is only when you grow up that they pay you vast sums of money to make them laugh."
The budding humorist lived in a series of foster homes, and he and his three sisters saw their father only on Sundays. When he turned 17, Buchwald lied about his age and escaped into the Marine Corps. The Marines, he wrote, got "full credit for straightening me out." He served in the Pacific during World War II. He attended the University of Southern California for three years and then dropped out after learning that he could use the GI Bill to study in Paris.
Once there, Buchwald conned his way into a glamorous, albeit low-paying, job as nightlife and entertainment columnist for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune. He knew nothing about haute cuisine, he later recalled, but got the job by claiming to have been a wine taster in the Marine Corps. He said he faked his role as food critic by making sure to ask if the mushrooms were fresh.