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Columnist Art Buchwald Leaves Us Laughing

Buchwald, circa 1955
Buchwald, circa 1955

Humorist Art Buchwald has died at the age of 81. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist, suffering a debilitating kidney failure, took himself off dialysis last February. Doctors gave him weeks to live. Instead, he left his hospice and survived another 11 months.

He wrote a final book — Too Soon to Say Goodbye — about the experience.

"The last year he had the opportunity for a victory lap and I think he was really grateful for it," his son, Joel Buchwald, said. "He had an opportunity to write his book about his experience and he went out the way he wanted to go, on his own terms."

At the height of his popularity, Buchwald was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, where he poked fun at the foibles of celebrities and politicians.

There was little in young Arthur Buchwald's situation that seemed very funny. His father went broke in the Depression. His mother was institutionalized shortly after his birth. And Buchwald and his sisters were shuttled between an orphanage and separate foster homes.

It was an often wretchedly unhappy — and hugless — childhood. But in this 1994 interview with NPR, Buchwald said he had no idea of this reality at the time: "While I was living it, I don't think I said, 'This is rotten.' I did discover early in life I could make people laugh. That's what's changed my life, because as long as I could make 'em laugh, I could get a lot of love."

Buchwald didn't finish high school. Instead, he dropped out at 17 to join the Marines during World War II and served in the Pacific. After the war, he went to the University of Southern California on the G.I. bill and wrote columns for student newspapers — but dropped out again to head to Europe.

He forced his way onto the Herald-Tribune there, recounting anecdotes about restaurateurs, celebrities, and the occasional monarch. A true believer in the value of a good stunt for a column, he once marched in a May Day parade in East Berlin and headed to Turkey, ostensibly to write about Turkish bathhouses but finding none.

Ben Bradlee, who became the executive editor of The Washington Post, was one of Buchwald's best friends. Bradlee says Buchwald relied on current events for inspiration — most of the time: "My God, he wrote nine zillion columns. He wrote a very famous one about explaining Thanksgiving to the French. He used to run it every Thanksgiving, got an extra day off."

Buchwald returned to America in 1961 because he said it was a better place to raise his children. Politics became his primary focus, and he found Washington rich with targets.

In 1974, Buchwald told graduates at Holy Cross College, "As a humor columnist, I need President Nixon more than he needs me. I worship the quicksand he walks on."

He continued writing, winning a Pulitzer for commentary in 1982. He also wrote books and plays and pitched a script to Paramount Pictures about an African prince visiting the United States. But Paramount made the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America with the same storyline and said it wasn't Buchwald's plot.

He sued — not for plagiarism, but for breach of contract. When the case went to court, the studio claimed the movie, a major hit, hadn't made a profit.

In this NPR interview back in 1990, Buchwald offered Paramount his help. "At the moment, the picture has made between $350 to $400 million, but there are no profits. It is now our job to go out there and find some. Maybe they forgot. They may have left them in the park, or they may have left them in a boat, [but] we'll find it somewhere."

Paramount settled. But the case laid bare Hollywood's dishonest accounting schemes.

Throughout his successes, Buchwald battled depression. So did two of his neighbors on Martha's Vineyard: CBS newsman Mike Wallace and the author William Styron.

The three men called themselves the Blues Brothers. Wallace says Buchwald tried to joke the others into a good mood. "No matter where I was in the United States or abroad," Wallace said, "He would find me and try to talk me out of the slough of despond that I was in."

Buchwald later wrote about his depression, hoping to share with others the ability to endure such pain.

Last year, he also suffered a series of setbacks to his health. When his kidneys started to fail, he refused dialysis, and instead, prepared for his own death.

Mike Wallace recently asked his friend about his legacy. "He virtually shouted it," Wallace recounted. "'Joy! That's what I'm going to leave behind.'"

Buchwald spoke to NPR shortly before his death. He said he was ready: "I've had a good life, I'm 80 years old, and I'm going out the way I want to."

Just a few years ago, Buchwald even found a way to joke about that. He told Phil Donahue, "I was going to be cremated and have my ashes spread all over every cocktail party on Martha's Vineyard."

Associated Press contributed to this story.

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