By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
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.
His columns about Paris nightlife and jet-setting celebrities were carried in New York by the Herald Tribune under the name "Europe's Lighter Side." Ernest Hemingway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Gina Lollobrigida, Aristotle Onassis, Pablo Picasso, Elvis Presley, E.B. White and uncrowned heads of international society made their way into Buchwald's pieces, turning him into something of a celebrity expatriate himself.
The column for which he is best known managed to drop names from several centuries earlier. In 1953, with help from newsroom colleagues, Buchwald undertook to explain the meaning of the Thanksgiving day feast to the French with laughable translations of the American tradition. It was the only day, he noted, that American families "eat better than the French."
Many newspapers ran it annually for years afterward.
Another of his favorites was a 1964 column that asserted that President Lyndon B. Johnson could not ask J. Edgar Hoover to resign because the former FBI director didn't exist; he had been made up by the ultraconservative magazine Reader's Digest.
After the Eisenhower era ended and the Kennedy administration was in full swing, Buchwald decided to return to the United States.
"I knew if I didn't get out, I'd be there forever, and I didn't want to become an expatriate," he recalled. "I found myself duplicating myself, talking about the French and the Italians and the tourists. It was getting harder, not easier. And I knew that I could work off the headlines in America, but I couldn't in Europe."
He and his wife, Ann McGarry Buchwald, whom he had met in Paris, moved to Washington in 1963 with their three children, who were adopted from orphanages and child welfare agencies in Ireland, Spain and France.
After Paris, Washington turned out to be a city that had no soul, he later wrote, although it was a wonderful place to make a living off satire. He said it was relatively easy to compose his twice-weekly take on the news, often done as an imagined dialogue between the major players.
Buchwald also wrote a satirical play, "Sheep on the Runway," that was produced on Broadway in 1970. He also did some screenwriting, including work that resulted in a major lawsuit against Paramount Studios. In 1992, he and producer Alain Bernheim won a $900,000 judgment after contending that they were not paid for their writing for the Eddie Murphy film "Coming to America."
The case, which centered on Paramount's definition of a movie's "net profit," led to what is known as the "Buchwald clause" in Hollywood contracts, protecting studios from having to compensate a writer for an original idea.
Buchwald, who gave up his trademark cigars when he was 59, was much in demand as a toastmaster in Washington and on Martha's Vineyard, where he was master of ceremonies of an annual auction to benefit the island's social service agencies.
In 1998, he moved from Washington to New York. "After a certain amount of time, there's nothing new," he observed then. "I do think one of the purposes of my move was to keep going."
But after he had a major stroke in 2000, he returned to Washington.
His wife, from whom he was separated, died in 1994.
Survivors include three children, Joel Buchwald of Washington, Connie Marks of Culpeper, Va., and Jennifer Buchwald of Boston; two sisters; and five grandchildren.
His children, he said, were initially upset with his decision to turn down dialysis treatments last year, but he insisted that he preferred to control his last days, which lasted longer than even he expected.
"I don't know if this is true or not, but I think some people, not many, are starting to wonder why I'm still around," he wrote while in the hospice. "In fact, a few are sending me get-well cards. These are the hard ones to answer.
"So far things are going my way. I am known in the hospice as The Man Who Wouldn't Die. How long they allow me to stay here is another problem. I don't know where I'd go now, or if people would still want to see me if I weren't in a hospice. But in case you're wondering, I'm having a swell time -- the best time of my life."
Former staff writer Claudia Levy contributed to this report.