American journalist Art Buchwald (1925–2007) was one of the most widely read newspaper columnists of the 20th century.
Buchwald's satirical writings, filed first from the Paris offices of the New York Herald Tribune and then from Washington, D.C., entertained several generations of readers who faithfully consumed his columns several times a week. Later in life, Buchwald gained attention for autobiographical writings that showed something of the troubled man behind the comic mask. He continued to turn out his columns into the 21st century, and at age 80 he made headlines once again with the remarkable story of his nondeath. Given a death sentence by doctors, he moved into a hospice and put his affairs in order. But predictions of his death proved premature, and after checking out of the hospice he began work on a new book about his experiences.
Never Knew Mother
Arthur Buchwald, born on October 20, 1925, in Mount Vernon, New York, was one of three children born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants Joseph and Helen Buchwald. His father was a curtain installer whose business, never prosperous, floundered during the economic depression of the 1930s. Buchwald's mother, Helen, suffered from paranoid delusions and was institutionalized shortly after he was born; she lived until 1960, but Buchwald never visited her, preferring early on to deal with the pain of her absence by telling acquaintances that his mother had died. Joseph Buchwald, without resources, turned his children over to foster care.
Young Art and his sister, Doris, moved from place to place; both had health problems (Art had rickets as a child) that required specialized care. They lived for several years in a boarding house for sick children run by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Joseph Buchwald, although not strongly religious, removed them from that house after hearing them sing the hymn "Jesus Loves Me." "I was five years old and this was the third home from which I had been taken away," Buchwald recalled in his memoir Leaving Home. It was not the last—Buchwald moved on to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York and then to the home of a foster family in the borough of Queens.
"I must have been six or seven years old and terribly lonely and confused, when I said something like, 'This stinks. I'm going to become a humorist,'" Buchwald wrote in Leaving Home. "From then on, I had one goal in mind and that was to make people laugh. I adopted the role of class clown." At home, he started a newspaper called The Family Gossip, and he excelled in English classes at Forest Hills High School, once writing a cowboy poem so accomplished that his teacher accused him of plagiarizing it; she owned up and apologized when it turned out that the poem was indeed Buchwald's own. Buchwald found plenty of time on the side for adventures as he traveled around New York on the subway. He sold magazines, worked as a golf caddy, delivered flowers, lost his virginity to a hotel maid during a summer stint working at a Long Island resort, and as a teenager talked his way into a job in the mail room at the Paramount film studio by spotting the Irish name of O'Connell on a personnel manager's door and claiming that a fictitious Father Murphy had sent him—nearly every Irish New Yorker, Buchwald reasoned, had a treasured Father Murphy somewhere in his background.
This adventurous life was cut short when World War II broke out and Buchwald decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He was only 17 at the time, and he was in North Carolina, having gone there to pursue a college student with whom he had enjoyed a summer romance. Needing parental consent because of his age, Buchwald convinced a struggling alcoholic he met on the street to pose as his father and sign the necessary papers, in return for money to buy liquor. Buchwald served in a fighter squadron in the Marshall Islands, in the Pacific theater; he cleaned guns and planes, did burial duty, and put out a mimeographed comic newsletter for his fellow Marines.
Enrolled at USC
Back in the United States in late 1945, Buchwald enrolled at the University of Southern California. He had never finished high school, as the university soon discovered; he was allowed to remain in school, but was given the status of special or nondegree student. Buchwald enjoyed his job as an editor at the campus humor magazine, the Wampus, but by 1948 he was restless once again. Upon hearing from a friend that he could use funding obtained under the G.I. Bill (Servicemen's Readjustment Act) to attend classes in Europe as well as in the United States, he used the money from a New York state veterans' bonus check to buy passage on an ocean liner headed for Le Havre, France. He made vague plans to study the French language at the Alliance Française in Paris, but instead he bribed a clerk to mark him as present on the attendance rolls. Soon he had taken up residence in the Montparnasse district, spending time in cafés and flirting with female American students traveling in France. Although he lived nearly 15 years in that country, Buchwald never learned to speak French well.
Buchwald's first writing job, as a stringer or freelance correspondent for Variety magazine, paid nothing but led to big things. He began to attend movie and theater openings and could often wangle invitations to high-powered parties where he ate well from the buffet. As he accumulated a portfolio of articles about Paris nightlife, he set his sights in 1949 on a prime job for American expatriates in Paris: a staff post with the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune (now the International Herald Tribune). Once again, the gift of gab provided Buchwald with his shot. Turned down cold by the first editor he approached, he refined his pitch, referred to the advertising an entertainment column could generate, and was hired by another editor, Geoff Parsons, to write two columns a week, one on movies and one on nightlife, for $25 weekly. Buchwald remained at the Herald Tribune until 1961.
As his columns expanded beyond their original focus on entertainment, Buchwald gained readers, and the paper began to syndicate his column in 1952. One of Buchwald's most famous columns was also one of his earliest; in 1953, he wrote what purported to be an explanation of American Thanksgiving Day traditions for French audiences, translating key terms into hilariously fractured French. The column was reprinted in the Thanksgiving editions of American newspapers for decades afterwards. Buchwald evolved into an entertaining restaurant reviewer, using Paris as a home base for trips around Europe and beyond. His romantic fortunes improved dramatically as he hobnobbed with visiting celebrities such as actresses Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, and in 1952 he married Pennsylvania-born fashion designer Ann McGarry. The couple adopted three children, Joel, Conchita, and Jennifer.
Gradually, satire of a political nature began to creep into Buchwald's writing. He recounted his adventures as he and some foreign correspondent friends spoofed the espionage mania of the 1950s by organizing an "International Food Patrol" in Vienna, Austria. "We cannot fight the Russians unless we know how much paprika they are putting in their Hungarian goulash," CBS reporter Alex Kendrick pointed out (as Buchwald recalled in the second volume of his memoirs, I'll Always Have Paris!). A 1957 column satirizing the content-free qualities of presidential press briefings raised the ire of President Dwight Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagerty, who called the column (again as quoted in I'll Always Have Paris!) "unadulterated rot." Buchwald rejoined that he actually wrote rot. Eisenhower himself turned out to have been amused by the column, and the controversy boosted Buchwald's popularity.
Moved to Washington
In 1961, leaving what many considered a dream job at the Herald Tribune, Buchwald moved to Washington, D.C., and launched a new incarnation of his syndicated column that focused mostly on American politics. The Herald Tribune column had run in 85 papers, and Buchwald was not particularly well known in the United States; he was, in effect, barging in at the top floor. With characteristic confidence, Buchwald moved forward and proved the doubters wrong; his new column was a hit from the start, appearing in 550 papers at its peak and staying close to that total for many years.
Inwardly, however, Buchwald was anything but confident. He suffered an attack of major depression in 1963, spending a month in a Washington-area hospital. "I was ready to kill myself," he was quoted as saying in a 1994 article in People. "I could not handle the emotional pain." Attributed to stress over his career change, the episode may well have had its roots in the difficulty of Buchwald's lifelong effort to put a facade of humor in front of his childhood feelings of abandonment. Treated with both psychoanalysis and medications at various times, Buchwald suffered another depressive episode in 1987.
Meanwhile, he was maintaining a high level of celebrity. His columns were often noted for their consistency; if he was rarely noted as an especially pungent satirist, he also rarely turned out a column that fell flat. Buchwald was not an ideological satirist, and he made fun of presidents of both political parties. He had little sympathy for the Vietnam War, however, and his toughest barbs were reserved for President Richard M. Nixon. "Just when you think there's nothing to write about, Nixon says, 'I am not a crook,'" he was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune. Buchwald's columns relied on several formulas that could be varied endlessly for comic effect. One type of Buchwald column resembled the classic satires of English writer Jonathan Swift in the way they presented topsy-turvy versions of reality in order to make a satirical point. Another was the fictitious conversation among powerful government officials; writing in the early 2000s he imagined President George W. Bush vetoing legislation to permit research using human stem cells because he thought the legislation involved cell phones. The imaginary conversation between columnist and a fictitious expert who gives answers with a comic thrust, now a commonplace technique among newspaper columnists great and small, was a Buchwald staple and perhaps his invention.
Buchwald made news in 1988 when he filed suit—successfully, but at great cost—against his old employer Paramount, accusing the studio of having failed to compensate him for his creative contribution to the hit Eddie Murphy film Coming to America. His columns were collected in some two dozen books; While Reagan Slept won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. He also wrote two novels (A Gift from the Boys in 1958, and the semiautobiographical Stella in Heaven in 2000), several children's books, and a play, Sheep on the Runway (1970). In 1994 Buchwald was shaken by the loss of his wife to cancer; the pair had separated, but reconciled before Ann Buchwald's death. Buchwald in his eighth decade was still famous enough that his moves—to New York, and then back to Washington—were widely noted media events. He suffered a stroke in 2000 that left him unconscious for two and a half months.
None of the news coverage Buchwald received toward the end of his life approached that which surrounded first the announcement of and then his eluding of terminal illness in 2006. Suffering from kidney failure and forced to undergo a leg amputation due to circulatory problems, Buchwald made plans to die. "After I lost my leg, I was very depressed. I'd taken dialysis about 12 times, and I said, 'I'm not going to do it anymore,'" he told Elaine Shannon of Time. He checked into a hospice, visited a funeral home with his son, and took visits from friends who wanted to bid him good-bye. Buchwald embarked on one more unexpected journey, however, when his kidney apparently began functioning on its own. Feeling better, he left the hospice and headed for a family vacation home on the island of Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast. In late 2006 he published a new book, Too Soon to Say Goodbye—an appropriate farewell, perhaps, for one of America's most durable and beloved writers. Ultimately succumbing to kidney failure, Buchwald died January 17, 2007, in Washington, D.C.
Buchwald, Art, I'll Always Have Paris: A Memoir, Putnam, 1996.
―――――, Leaving Home: A Memoir, Putnam, 1993.
Billboard, April 18, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, August 30, 2006.
Columbia Journalism Review, November-December 2001.
People, March 21, 1994; June 12, 2006.
Physical Therapy, October 2002.
Time, June 26, 2006.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (September 26, 2006).
Born Arthur Buchwald, October 20, 1925, in Mt. Vernon, NY; died of kidney failure, January 17, 2007, in Washington, D.C. Humor columnist. In syndicated columns that ran for more than 60 years in more than 500 newspapers, Art Buchwald fulfilled one of his goals in life. “I was put on earth to make people laugh,” he was quoted in Entertainment Weekly as having said. Through his columns, memoirs, four novels, a stage play, a screen play, and a number of radio and television appearances and interviews, Buchwald spent his life doing just that. When he began writing his first column as an American living in Paris, he became part of the daily read for Americans and Europeans alike. “The routine for readers was to scan the front page, check out the sports scores and the funnies, then settle into 600 words from either Buchwald or [fellow sati-rist] Russell Baker,” wrote a columnist for the London Times.
Buchwald’s career introduced him to world leaders and celebrities, but though he hobnobbed with big names, he never became a snob: His phone number was always listed in the phone book, and he professed to love people. Though his columns showed a savage wit, they also contained optimism on topics from politics to dying. Buchwald received the Pulitzer Prize for Outstanding Commentary in 1982 and the 2006 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He was also elected into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1986, and was named a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France in 2006.
For someone so well known for his comedy, Buchwald grew up with all the trappings of tragedy. The son of Joseph and Helen Buchwald, he was the fourth child and the only boy in the family. Soon after his birth, his mother was admitted into a mental hospital for depression. Left alone with four children, Joseph Buchwald had no way to support his family during the Depression and shuttled the four off to orphanages and foster homes. When Buchwald began school, he realized he could cope with his loneliness by making others laugh, and he quickly became the class clown.
Buchwald dropped out of two high schools before, at 17, he lied about his age to join the Marine Corps. He spent most of his tour in the Pacific, earning his sergeant stripes and editing his squadron’s newsletter. When he returned to the United States, he used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After three years, he learned he could use the G.I. Bill to study abroad, and so he took what little money he had and left for Paris. “My dream was to follow in the steps of Hemingway, Elliot Paul, and Gertrude Stein,” he was quoted as having said in the New York Times. “I wanted to stuff myself with baguettes and snails, fill my pillow with rejection slips, and find a French girl named Mimi who believed that I was the greatest writer in the world.”
It was in Paris that he first became a columnist. He took a sample to the Tribune editor and got a job writing about haute cuisine by claiming that, while serving in the Marines, he had been a wine taster. Though he bluffed his way into the role and through his assignments as a food critic, his column, “Paris after Dark,” became a popular enough feature that his editor asked him to write another. His second column became “Europe’s Lighter Side,” which, by the early 1950s, was syndicated internationally. One 1953 column, written to explain the Thanksgiving holiday to the French, was run annually for years afterward.
But by the early 1960s, Buchwald began to feel he was running out of material, and he began longing for home. In 1962, he and his wife, Ann McGarry, whom he had met in Paris, packed up their three adopted children and left for Washington. There, he wrote for the Washington Post, changing his focus from social commentary to political satire. He never revealed his own politics and seemed to have no agenda other than poking fun at Washington insiders. By 1972, his column, published three times a week, was syndicated in more than 400 U.S. newspapers and 100 international periodicals.
Along with his column, Buchwald tried his hand at memoirs, fiction, and playwrighting. Buchwald felt that his two memoirs, Leaving Home and I’ll Always Have Paris! brought him acknowledgement as not just a humorist, but as a writer. In them, he discussed his bouts with mental disorders: Twice, Buchwald was hospitalized for depression and considered suicide. His frank discussion of his illnesses, both in his memoirs and in television appearances, spread a message of hope for others suffering from depression. Two of his novels were adapted into movies, and he tried his hand at screenwriting. A disagreement with Paramount Pictures over an idea he had pitched became the center of a law suit when Buchwald and producer Alain Bernheim received no credit for their development work on the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America. When Buchwald and Bernheim won the suit, Hollywood contracts started featuring what became known as the “Buchwald clause” protecting studios from similar cases.
In 2000, Buchwald had a major stroke, and though he continued to write, his health declined. By 2006, he was on kidney dialysis three times per week, and one of his legs had to be amputated below the knee. In February of 2006, he chose to end his dialysis treatment and entered the Washington Home and Community Hospices, prepared to die within three weeks. But the diagnosis of his doctors was proven wrong: Buchwald lived for another five months at the hospice before deciding to summer in the family’s summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. His continued life, knowing that death could come at any time, provided him with fodder for new columns, as well as his final book, Too Soon to Say Goodbye, and renewed reader interest in his insights.
Throughout his life, Buchwald received praise from fellow writers and world leaders for his work.Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes wrote in People, “He was one of the most genuinely funny guys this country has ever known.” Former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called Buchwald “the greatest satirist in English since Pope and Swift,” and a London Times columnist felt, “He represented the US at its best.” Richard Severo of the New York Times called Buchwald “the most widely read newspaper hu-morist of his time.” Buchwald himself saw the reason behind his popularity: “If you can make people laugh, you get all the love you want,” he said in a final video interview with the New York Times. Buchwald died in his son’s home in Washington, D.C., on January 17, 2007 at the age of 81. Sources: Chicago Tribune, January 19, 2007, p. 1, p. 3; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2007/SHOWBIZ/books/01/18/buchwald.obit/index.html (January 18, 2007); Entertainment Weekly, February 2, 2007, p. 16; New York Times, January 19, 2007, p. A1, p. A25; January 25, 2007, p. A2; January 27, 2007, p. A2; People, February 5, 2007, p. 124; Times (London), January 19. 2007; Washington Post, January 19, 2007, p. A1, p. A10.
—Alana Joli Abbott
BUCHWALD, ART (1925–2007), U.S. columnist. Born in Mt. Vernon, n.y., Buchwald, together with his three sisters, spent his first four years in a Seventh Day Adventist children's shelter, as his mother had been institutionalized a few weeks after his birth. His father, a successful businessman, visited his children once a week but took them out of the facility when he heard his young son singing, "Jesus loves me, this I know." Buchwald spent the next several years in various foster homes in New York. He worked from age nine until he dropped out of school to join the Marines at 17. After the war ended, he enrolled in college but left before graduating and went to Paris on the money he received from the GI Bill. He remained there for 14 years.
Buchwald began his journalistic career in 1948, working for Variety and then the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune. He wrote with zest and irreverence about people, politics, and places. In 1952 his editors brought his column to the U.S., and the Washington Post Syndicate began running it in 1966. His popular political satire later became syndicated with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, appearing in more than 550 newspapers around the world. In 1982 Buchwald won the Pulitzer Prize in the category of Outstanding Commentary. Four years later, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Collections of his columns have been published in volume form, among them the autobiographical The Brave Coward (1957), Is It Safe to Drink the Water? (1962), And Then I Told the President (1965), and Have I Ever Lied to You? (1968). He also wrote Son of the Great Society (1966); Counting Sheep (1970); I Am Not a Crook (1974); Washington Is Leaking (1976); Down the Seine and Up the Potomac with Art Buchwald (1977); The Buchwald Stops Here (1978); Laid Back in Washington (1981); While Reagan Slept (1983); You Can Fool All of the People All of the Time (1985); I Think I Don't Remember (1987); Whose Rose Garden Is It Anyway? (1989); Lighten Up, George (1991); Leaving Home (1993), an autobiography; I'll Always Have Paris (1996), the second volume of his memoirs; Stella in Heaven: Almost a Novel (2000); and the post-9/11 We'll Laugh Again (2002).
[Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]
BUCHWALD, Art. American, b. 1925. Genres: Humor/Satire. Career: Journalist: syndicated columnist, 1962-. Paris columnist, New York Herald Tribune, 1949-62. Publications: Paris after Dark, 1950; Art Buchwald's Paris, 1954; The Brave Coward, 1957; I Chose Caviar, 1957; More Caviar, 1958; A Gift from the Boys, 1958; Don't Forget to Write, 1960; Art Buchwald's Secret List to Paris, 1961; How Much Is That in Dollars, 1961; Is It Safe to Drink the Water, 1962; I Chose Capitol Punishment, 1963; And Then I Told the President, 1965; Son of the Great Society, 1966; Have I Ever Lied to You, 1968; The Establishment Is Alive and Well in Washington, 1969; Sheep on the Runway (play), 1970; Getting High in Government Circles, 1971; I Never Danced at the White House, 1973; Irving's Delight, 1975; Washington Is Leaking, 1976; Down the Seine and Up the Potomac: 25 Years of Art Buchwald's Best Humor, 1977; The Buchwald Stops Here, 1978; (with Ann Buchwald) Seems Like Yesterday, 1980; While Reagan Slept, 1983; You Can Fool All of the People All the Time, 1985; I Think I Don't Remember, 1987; Whose Rose Garden Is It Anyway?, 1989; Lighten Up, George, 1991; Leaving Home: A Memoir, 1993; I'll Always Have Paris, 1996; Stella in Heaven: Almost a Novel, 2000; We'll Laugh Again, 2002. Address: c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20071, U.S.A.