Art Buchwald's Moveable Feast
Friday, January 19, 2007
They say Art Buchwald is dead, but I have my doubts.
The last time Art was dying, months and months ago, he turned the hospice common room into a cavalcade of stars, from Ethel Kennedy to Donald Rumsfeld. Art basked in their adulation and gorged on the junk food they lovingly set before him. The man spent some of his best years in Paris, but his dying wish was McDonald's.
Eventually, he felt so much better that he relaunched his legendary newspaper column with tales of his near-death, and -- between columns and VIPs -- cranked out another book, number 30-something, called "Too Soon to Say Goodbye."
For most people, dying is a milestone. For Buchwald, it was fresh material.
But suppose for a moment that he really is dead this time. We've lost a great American Dreamer, the sort of self-invented, self-made success this country holds the patent on. Buchwald's adult life was an endless improvisation on American themes in both major and minor keys -- resourceful Ben Franklin on one shoulder, desperate Jay Gatsby on the other, fizzy with glamour today and dark with depression tomorrow.
The thing about Art Buchwald, his friend Ben Bradlee liked to say, was that "his French was terrible." And if you didn't know that they had been pals for more than half a century, you might think that's a snooty thing for a Harvard-educated Boston Brahmin to say about a high school dropout from Queens.
But Bradlee was right -- Buchwald's French was terrible, and that was the essential fact to embody his career. An ordinary man who could not speak French would stay home, but Art Buchwald took his terrible French to Paris and became the toast of the postwar city. He wrote a Thanksgiving Day column in fractured franglais in 1953, then reprinted the column year after groan-inducing year for half a century. He wore his bad French like an insignia; he didn't need francais because he had chutzpah, the preferred idiom of the American original.
Buchwald was one of the most successful newspaper columnists of his time, and counted the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for commentary among his trophies. Not bad for a man who was not, technically speaking, a gifted writer. His chosen form, topical humor in 500 words, was a severe discipline for even the freshest writer, and Buchwald experienced long stretches when he wasn't fresh at all.
But there was no one more engaging than Buchwald in his memoirs, such books as "Leaving Home" and "I'll Always Have Paris." In these he recalled his amazing rise to an improbable career, and revealed himself to be the epitome of the American spirit.
His childhood was miserable. His mother was institutionalized. His father was overwhelmed. Buchwald and his three sisters grew up in an orphanage and later in foster homes. He was saved by World War II -- the Marines straightened him out and returned him to the world, outwardly exuberant yet inwardly isolated.
Nothing and no one to hold him back.
Brushing off his lack of a high school diploma, Buchwald enrolled at the University of Southern California on the GI Bill, having decided to be, of all things, a writer. Soon it dawned on him, though, that a writer belonged in Paris, like Hemingway and Joyce. Skipping another diploma, he joined a tide of ambitious young men flowing toward the Seine -- many of whom were, technically speaking, very good writers indeed: William Styron, James Jones, Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton and Irwin Shaw, to name a few of Buchwald's eventual gin rummy buddies. While they went to work on novels and magazines, Buchwald talked his way into writing a nightlife column for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune.