Saturday, March 29, 2008

JOY IS MY LEGACY: Art Buchwald

Muhammad Mahtab Bashir

He poked fun at the idiocy of the rich, the famed and the influential for half a century as the most widely read newspaper humourist of his time. His column, syndicated to more than 550 newspapers at one point, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1982. In 1986 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He began writing columns, later syndicated, for The Washington Post in the late 1960s. The humourist authored 33 books, including two memoirs, Leaving Home (1993) and I’ll Always Have Paris (1996). He also wrote: Paris After Dark (1950), Son of the Great Society (1961), Washington is Leaking (1976) and While Reagan Slept (1983).

The last year didn’t start well for the writer. In February, he entered Washington Home and Community Hospices, which he described as “a place where you go when you want to go”. But by July, despite his physicians’ predictions, he left the hospice. He finished his last book, Too Soon To Say Goodbye there and it was published in November 2006. He kept his sense of humour until he slipped into unconsciousness just before he died. He was a columnist who delighted in the absurd. He was Art Buchwald.

Arthur Buchwald was born with rickets in New York on October 20, 1925 in Mount Vernon N.Y to struggling parents. His father, Joseph, Austrian-born, was a drape installer and mother Helen was a victim of chronic depression. Shortly after his birth, his mother was institutionalised. She lived for another 35 years but virtually never saw her son again. “I preferred the mother I had invented to the one I would find in the hospital,” Buchwald wrote in a 1994 memoir, Leaving Home. With the outbreak of World War II Buchwald, a Jew who was in high school then, ran away to join the Marines, hitchhiking to North Carolina. “The Marine Corps was the first father figure I had ever known,” he wrote. Assigned to the Fourth Marine Air Wing, he spent most of his tour on a Pacific island cleaning aircraft guns and editing his squadron’s newsletter while earning a sergeant’s stripes.

After the war, Buchwald went to the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles under the G.I. Bill and became managing editor of the campus humour magazine. But he neglected to tell USC that he had not finished high school. When officials found out, they told him that he could continue to take courses but that he could not be considered for a degree. (Thirty-three years later, the University gave him an honorary doctorate.) At 23, he sailed to Paris on a converted troop ship and enrolled at the Alliance Fran├žaise, also under the G.I. Bill. Soon he talked his way into a job with The Herald Tribune’s Paris-based European edition, writing a column about entertainment and restaurants for $ 25 a week. In his 14 years in Paris, Buchwald became as much a celebrity as those whose names he dropped in his columns. But it was in Washington where he moved in 1962 that he stole the limelight. By 1972 his column was appearing three times a week in about 400 newspapers in the US and in 100 other countries.

With his trademark wit, Art Buchwald used his newspaper column to skewer politicians in the nation’s capital. Over the decades, millions of Americans began their morning by reading his unfolding chronicle of history writ small and satirical. At the end of his life, ill health gave him a new subject, his looming death, and he wrote a series of poignant dispatches from a hospice centre he later left after outliving his stay. At the height of his popularity, Buchwald was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, where he poked fun at the foibles of celebrities and politicians.

As he continued to write his column, he found material in his own survival. “So far things are going my way,” he wrote in March. “I am known in the hospice as ‘The man who wouldn’t die’. How long they allow me to stay here is another problem. I don’t know where I’d go now, or if people would still want to see me if I weren’t in a hospice. But in case you’re wondering, I’m having a swell time — the best time of my life”.

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 US. But Paramount made the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America with the same storyline and said it wasn’t Buchwald’s plot. In 1990, a Superior Court in California ruled in his favour. His last book, Too Soon to Say Goodbye, published in November, is a humorous account of how he moved into a hospice in Washington, D.C. last February, expecting to die within weeks and ended up having “the time of my life.”

In a 54-year career as a syndicated columnist, first in Paris, then in Washington, Buchwald was known for his wit, his cigars and his gentle political satire. In his 1993 memoir, Leaving Home, he revealed he was hospitalized twice — in 1963 and 1987 — for suicidal depression. Buchwald and his wife adopted three children. After nearly 40 years of marriage, the couple separated but reconciled while she was dying of cancer. (She died in 1994.)

Despite his popularity he never took on literary airs. His writing was not as stylish as Mark Twain’s but he was funny on deadline, decade after decade. He said he could write a 400-word column in less than an hour: “My craft is more sketching than writing; my column is almost a cartoon in words.” “What was difficult was him almost dying and then not,” his daughter Jennifer of Roxbury wrote in an online forum on the Washington Post’s website. “And then it was great for a year. Every day was a gift. That made it easier … to accept his death.” Mr. Buchwald had lived in Washington nearly 45 years, dividing his time between the capital and a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard for the past 35 years.

Shortly after he entered the hospice last year in February, he organised his last hurrah by calling up gossip columnists and radio talk show hosts to declare, “I’m still alive!” His March 7 column began, “I am writing this article from a hospice. But being in the hospice didn’t work out exactly the way I wanted it to. By all rights I should have finished my time here five or six weeks ago — at least that’s all Medicare would pay for.”

Buchwald reveled in the parade of famous visitors who came to see him and dealt publicly with more serious aspects of wrapping up one’s life. The existence of heaven and hell is possible, he decided, and if it provides comfort, people should believe in it. “I have no idea where I’m going but here’s the real question: What am I doing here in the first place?” In December, he told admirers at Wesley United Methodist Church in the district that he did not want to be remembered as dying after a long illness. “I want to die at 95 playing tennis against Agassi — because he couldn’t handle my serve,” he told the crowd. “I just don’t want to die the same day Castro dies,” Buchwald told his friends.

Before death and dying presented itself as a topic for his columns, politics was a favourite jumping-off point. As a long-running observer of the nation’s political scene, Buchwald said his favourite President was Richard Nixon, whose delusions made for rich satirical material. “I worship the very quicksand he walks on,” Buchwald quipped. Most of his books were collections of his columns which were syndicated by the Los Angeles Times and appeared in The Washington Post.

Two of his books Leaving Home (1993) and I’ll Always Have Paris! (1996) were memoirs. They told the story of his journey from a lonely, insolvent childhood lived largely in foster homes, to the salons of the famous. His entertaining, name-dropping memoirs — published in a period when some said his column was losing its edge — also won him new respect in the publishing world.

Although he had been elected in 1991 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he said in a 1996 interview that “people don’t take humourists seriously; they don’t even call them writers.” “It was those two books that made me a writer,” he said. “Now, I’m being reviewed seriously. That gives me great pleasure, because I want to be known as a writer, not a humourist. It’s one step up, and that’s the direction I want to be headed at this stage of my life.”

Buchwald also wrote about his bouts with mental disorders with a frankness that won him new fans around the country. He had been hospitalised for clinical depression in 1963 and for manic depression in 1987. Both episodes nearly drove him to suicide, he said; drugs and therapy were his salvation. He joked to friends that if he had a third bout of depression, “I will be inducted in the Bipolar Hall of Fame.”

His children, he said, were initially upset with his decision to turn down dialysis treatments last year, but he insisted that he preferred to control his last days, which lasted longer than even he expected. “I don’t know if this is true or not, but I think some people, not many, are starting to wonder why I’m still around,” he wrote while in the hospice. “In fact, a few are sending me get-well cards. These are the hard ones to answer.”

Buchwald, who wrote about 8,000 newspaper columns and 33 books, found a way to laugh about most everything. In the final year of a life filled with career highs and personal lows, he had become what he called “the poster boy for death”.

Buchwald suffered a stroke in 2000, and was plagued by kidney and circulation problems. 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 asked his friend about his legacy. “He virtually shouted it,” Wallace recounted. “Joy! That’s what I’m going to leave behind.”

Arthur Buchwald, who satirised the follies of the rich, the famous and the powerful for half a century as the most widely read newspaper humourist of his time, died in Washington on Wednesday evening, January 17, 2007. The columnist was 81. Early in February 2006, he entered the hospice care when his kidneys failed as a result of diabetes and doctors gave him just weeks to live. He left his hospice and survived for another 11 months.

Buchwald’s syndicated column was a staple for a generation or more of newspaper readers, not least the politicians and government leaders he squeezed so regularly. His life was a rich tale of bravery, calamity and hilarity, with chapters in Paris, Washington and places around the globe. His legacy is not to be measured but to be treasured.

The writer is a freelance columnist and a political analyst from Islamabad

Published in daily The Post, 14th Feb, 2007

Muhammad Mahtab Bashir

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