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).