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The Nation | Art Buchwald: 1925 - 2007

Humorist got last laugh on death

January 19, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

ART BUCHWALD, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political satirist, columnist and author of more than 30 books who built deceptively simple spoofs of modern life on foundations of indignation, has died. He was 81.

Buchwald, who had seemed to literally laugh in the face of death over the last year, succumbed to kidney failure Wednesday while surrounded by family members at his home in Washington, D.C., according to his son, Joel.

After his right leg was amputated in February as a result of diabetes, Buchwald decided to accept the inevitability of death over the prospect of dialysis for the rest of his life.

As his kidneys started to fail, he entered a Washington hospice for what his doctors expected would be a two- or three-week stay. But as word of his condition emerged, scores of politicians and celebrities that he had known over his decades as a writer rushed to his bedside. The two- or three-week stay turned into months.

Buchwald told Times columnist Al Martinez that "I've put heaven on hold," and laughed at his own joke.

The New York Times wrote that Buchwald's deathbed had become the "hottest salon" in Washington.

The lead of one Associated Press story summed it up best:

"Art Buchwald is dying and enjoying every minute of it."

He continued to write his column and hold court with visitors that included members of the Kennedy family, former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, singer Carly Simon, former Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and television host Phil Donahue.

Through it all, his health inexplicably stabilized. Before being discharged from the hospice July 1, he finished his final book, a reflection on his time in hospice care: "Too Soon to Say Goodbye," which was released in November.

He complained in print last year that living meant he had to scrap "all the plans for my funeral" and "start worrying about Bush again."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) reflected the thoughts of many of Buchwald's fans Thursday when he noted: "For decades, there was no better way to start the day than to open the morning paper to Art's column, laugh out loud and learn all over again to take the issues seriously in the world of politics, but not take yourself too seriously."

"As Art said, 'Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time we've got.' The special art of Art Buchwald was to make even the worst of times better," Kennedy said in a statement.

Announces his own death

Buchwald, who first touched fame in the U.S. in the 1950s as a Paris-based columnist, loved being the center of attention and continued to manage to do that with the news of his death.

He "announced" his death on video on the New York Times website Thursday by saying, "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald and I just died."

Tribune Media Services, which syndicated Buchwald's work, released a final column Thursday from the humorist, which he wrote while in the hospice in February.

One of the nation's best known and successful writers of humor, Buchwald's satirical style was compared with that of H.L. Mencken. Like Mark Twain, he was a comic American observer of the European scene who was equally fascinated by the American system and its shortcomings. At the height of his career, his column appeared in more than 500 papers worldwide.

Yet, unlike almost all of his colleagues, during his more than three decades as a Washington-based correspondent, Buchwald rarely, if ever, so much as placed a telephone call to gather material. "I never talk to anybody. Facts just get in my way," he told the New York Times in 1972.

Instead, the pudgy, 5-foot, 8-inch, cigar-chewing writer with owlish horn-rim glasses preferred to scan television news programs, newspapers and magazines such as Time and Newsweek. Occasionally, he clipped articles and filed them in folders or stuffed them into his shirt pocket for safekeeping.

In his early years as a columnist in Paris, however, Buchwald would go almost anywhere and do almost anything to gather raw material. He interviewed celebrities such as actresses Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman and shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. He chased goats over mountains in Yugoslavia and marched in a May Day parade in East Berlin. He searched for Turkish baths in Turkey and made a three-week trip to the Soviet Union in a limousine driven by a uniformed chauffeur.

One of his most famous inventions was an American tourist who vied for the "six-minute Louvre race." Buchwald's tourist dashed through the Paris museum, viewing the "Mona Lisa," "Winged Victory" and "Venus de Milo" in record time "under perfect conditions, with a smooth floor, excellent lighting and no wind."

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