By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
It was a perfect match. The Trib in its heyday was the lifeline for American expatriates and tourists. Buchwald wrote in a concise, straightforward style well suited to making newspaper deadlines, and his wit, while topical and wisecracking, wasn't lacerating or bitter. Fast and mainstream: the ideal newspaperman.
He liked to meet people and be places and see things and never feel lonely. He liked to drop names, which meant collecting names to drop. Postwar Europe lay shattered and stunned; every party and palace was wide open to Americans with pockets full of robust dollars. Buchwald simply invited himself along.
He escorted Elvis to the Lido, strolled the boulevards with Satchmo and Ellington, gave tours of the paper's office near the Champs-Elysees to Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye, Fred Allen and Jane Russell. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were "one of my favorite couples." Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Mike Todd tried to stiff him on a $4,000 restaurant tab. Thornton Wilder assured him that "the rich need you more than you need them." Lucky Luciano, the exiled gangster, took Buchwald to lunch in Naples, which led to a novel that he sold to his friend Stanley Donen as a possible movie for his other friends Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.
"My background as a foster child, an enlisted man in the Marines, and a student at USC had not exactly prepared me for this role of bon vivant in Paris," Buchwald acknowledged, "but I rose to the task." How? Easy. "Most of the celebrities who visited Paris often appeared uncomfortable in such unfamiliar surroundings," he explained. "And I was one of the few people with whom they could feel any kinship. I was an American, I spoke their language."
(He spoke it like he was trying to hold a dime under his tongue while talking, another impediment that Buchwald simply shrugged off. He earned a fortune as a public speaker without actually being able to speak clearly.) Buchwald's 1952 wedding -- Lena Horne arranged for it to be held in London's Westminster Cathedral -- was attended by Gene Kelly, John Huston, Jose Ferrer, Perle Mesta and Rosemary Clooney, to name a few. If these names don't ring a bell with you, suffice it to say they were the sort of international superstars who do not normally attend the weddings of 26-year-old newspapermen.
As the Paris column grew more popular, Buchwald made it more and more about himself -- a comic version of himself. On the eve of the biggest wedding of the age, matching gorgeous Grace Kelly to Monaco's Prince Rainier, he wrote that the only reason he wasn't on the guest list was because the Buchwald family and the Grimaldi dynasty had been feuding for 500 years.
His invitation from the prince was hand-delivered the next day.
"What I planned to do was spend my life entertaining the crowd," he later explained with characteristic candor. "I needed constant applause." But those amazing 1950s passed away. Appropriately, Buchwald -- short, swarthy and round -- closed the decade by appearing in a Richard Avedon fashion shoot, wearing white tie alongside Audrey Hepburn. As the era closed, he decided to return to the United States. The only question was where.
"If he had gone to New York, I guess he would've become another Leonard Lyons," Bradlee said not long ago, recalling the names of the major gossip columnists of that era. "If he'd gone to L.A., he would've been another Earl Wilson."
Instead, Buchwald moved with his wife, Ann, and three children to Washington, where -- Jack and Jackie notwithstanding -- glamour was in short supply. So he invented himself again, this time as a political satirist.
Once again, Buchwald perfectly leveraged his gifts. The cutting edge of American humor was drawing more and more blood, but Buchwald chose the safer role of jester to the court of official Washington. He preferred not to ridicule actual lobbyists, flacks, bureaucrats and members of Congress; instead, he invented fictional malfeasants and spun imaginary conversations in which they blandly disclosed their dumb ideas and bad intentions to an eternally credulous narrator.
In this way, he tackled hot issues -- like anti-communism, women's rights, gun control, Vietnam and the sexual revolution -- without making enemies. He also enjoyed pricking overblown egos, especially those of the highborn and overserious. His Vietnam-era play "Sheep on the Runway" lampooned the pompous pro-war columnist Joseph Alsop. Buchwald took glee in the squirms of Important Washingtonians who desperately wanted to see the show but worried that Alsop would hear about it.
Buchwald was soon syndicated to more than 500 newspapers, including the Denver Post, where I first encountered his work during the summer of 1973. It was the height of Watergate; I was a 12-year-old dweeb who spent those prime months in the basement watching the televised hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate. When the hearings adjourned each afternoon, I moved to the front step and waited for the afternoon paper to be delivered. I wanted to see two things: Pat Oliphant's brilliant editorial cartoons and Buchwald's common-sense columns.
By then, Buchwald was as wired into Washington as he had been in Paris. You could find him every Easter wearing a bunny costume at Ethel Kennedy's house. He lunched weekly with Bradlee, the charismatic Washington Post editor, and the powerful lawyer Edward Bennett Williams. He talked Hollywood with producer George Stevens, shared inside jokes with Katharine Graham and commanded the best tables at Sans Souci and Maison Blanche.
These names meant little or nothing to a gawky kid in a Denver suburb. Yet I got a life-shaping jolt from the discovery that someone got paid for saying irreverent things about the president in newspapers from coast to coast. Buchwald's columns weren't deep or nuanced; he didn't believe in transition sentences or dependent clauses. But if he had been a writer of more subtle ideas, more complex prose, more cutting humor, I probably wouldn't have been reading him, and I suspect that's true for many of his millions and millions and millions of readers over the decades.
I was reminded the other day of Buchwald's column from July 30, 1974. I recalled it instantly, because Buchwald had collaborated with another of my early heroes, Dr. Seuss. In a typical turn of Buchwaldian fortune, he had met Theodor Seuss Geisel at the San Diego Zoo and they immediately became friends. They, like a growing number of Americans, were fed up with the Nixon presidency. Buchwald proposed that they write something together.
Dr. Seuss had recently published a book titled "Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!" It was a simple thing to cross out one name and substitute another. In 500-plus papers, the writer of kids' books and the poor kid from the orphanage published "Richard M. Nixon Will You Please Go Now!"
Nine days later, Nixon went.
Buchwald loved that story. It had a famous friend, a mild joke and a lot of moxie. The little guy made it big, which was the essence of Art Buchwald, and the reason he endures, no matter what the obituaries say.