Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Art Buchwald

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Making the Most of the Absurd

Clinical depression has its uses.  Artists and writers seem to benefit from it, somehow - see Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (1993) for a discussion of that idea.  It may be so.

Death is another matter. It's just not that useful - although the licensing agents for the estates of Elvis Presley and Steve McQueen would argue otherwise.

Did you know Art Buchwald, Mike Wallace and William Styron - all in and out of hospitals for years for their clinical depression - used to hang around Martha's Vineyard together each summer and share notes on their condition?  They called themselves "The Blues Brothers."  It was their inside joke.

Now only Wallace remains.  William Styron passed away on November 1, 2006. Art Buchwald died Wednesday night, January 17, in Washington. He was eighty-one had been living with his son for most of the last eight years.

Those of us of a certain age - you had to have come of age in the fifties or the very early sixties - remember this guy as being pretty cool.  He was the most widely read newspaper humorist around, and the only one who now does anything like what he did is the Miami Herald's Dave Barry. But it's just not the same.  Perhaps this is because Buchwald lived large, as they say.  He poked fun at things, but he was actually there, where things were happening. And it was a different world.

The best assessment of the man comes from Richard Severo in, of course, the International Herald Tribune, where Art Buchwald got his start, when that newspaper was the New York Herald Tribune's Paris-based European edition (it's now owned by the New York Times, who bought out their partner, the Washington Post, and it's pretty much the Times - "lite" and a day late).

The Richard Severo Art Buchwald obituary says the man's life was "a rich tale of gumption, heartbreak and humor, with chapters in Paris, Washington and points around the globe." Yes, he made gentle fun of the politicians and government leaders, but there was a whole lot more.  Perhaps he was "Will Rogers with chutzpah" - not a bad formulation.  He stared off as "everyone's favorite American in Paris" for his satirical columns from there, but one must remember he went to Yugoslavia to chase goats, and he went to Turkey in search of a Turkish bath, and was "astonished" when the Turks told him that they had no such thing.  We are reminded he once rented a chauffeured limousine to tour Eastern Europe - it seems he wanted the people there to know, as he put it, what a "bloated, plutocratic capitalist really looked like." Well, he was short and chubby.

He seemed to like the absurd.  And his exposition of the politically absurd earned him a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1982, with this sort of thing -

    In the Watergate years he wrote about three men stranded in a sinking boat with a self-destructive President Richard M. Nixon. As the president hid food under his shirt, he bailed water into the vessel.

    In the early 1960's, Buchwald theorized that a shortage of Communists was imminent in the United States and that if the nation was not careful, the Communist Party would be made up almost entirely of FBI informers.

It was pretty mild stuff, or so it seems now, in the age of attack and meanness. He really didn't want to hurt anybody.  As Severo notes, the world was mad (or at least a little nutty), Buchwald said, and all he was doing was recording it.

And the Paris columns were more to the point -

    Readers seemed to find vicarious pleasure in following the adventures of an expatriate but ordinary American flirting with royalty and the jet set without becoming a snob. In one column, he told readers that he had not been invited to the Grace Kelly-Prince Rainier wedding because of a family feud: "The Buchwalds and the Grimaldis have not spoken since Jan. 9, 1297." When Gary Cooper paid him a visit, he wrote a column of dialogue in which the famously reticent actor did all the talking and Buchwald replied with "yup" and "nope."

He really didn't seem that interested in politics - but some targets are too tempting -

    Buchwald became the subject of headlines himself in 1957. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in Paris attending a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization when Buchwald, weary of the soft questions lobbed at Eisenhower by the press, wrote a column about a fictitious news conference in which reporters demanded to know, among other things, when the president started eating his morning grapefruit. The column incensed the Eisenhower's press secretary, James C. Hagerty.

    "Unadulterated rot," he called it.

    Buchwald countered that he had "been known to write adulterated rot" but never "unadulterated rot."

That's a taste of the man. But there was a dark side.

It seems he had been brought up in foster homes and an orphan asylum, and said, when he was six or seven, he decided that his life was "so awful" that he should make a living making everybody laugh, "even if he did not always laugh along with them."  It's a classic manic-depressive stance.

The bare bones of it is that he was born in 1925, in Mount Vernon. His father, an Austrian, had fled to the United States to avoid service in the Austro-Hungarian army, He started a busines making drapes and slipcovers. His mother had immigrated here from Hungary. He was the youngest of four children, and the only boy - and he pretty much never saw his mother. There were the delusions - she was admitted to a mental hospital a few weeks after his birth and was in there for her remaining thirty-five year. He not permitted to visit her when he was a child, and decided not to visit her after he became an adult. As he said in a 1994 memoir - "I preferred the mother I had invented to the one I would find in the hospital."

And there's more -

    By his own account he had always wondered if his birth had somehow been responsible for her illness, and when he sought help for his depression, he said, he confessed to his psychiatrist that he had conducted "a lifelong search for someone to replace her."

    Arthur soon parted from his father as well. Joseph Buchwald, unable to support his children after his business ran dry during the Depression, placed his son in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York. The boy was then shuttled to a series of foster homes, including a Queens boarding house for sick children - he suffered from rickets - run by Seventh-Day Adventists.

Maybe the absurdist humor started there - the five-year-old Jewish kid with the crazy mother, trying to figure out life in a Queens boarding house for sick children run by Seventh-Day Adventists.  They told him that eating meat, fish and eggs was sinful - "There is still a tiny Seventh-Day Adventist inside of me screaming to get out every time I make a pass at a tuna fish sandwich."

So coping produces humor. 

The rest is just what could not happen now.  When World War II started, Buchwald cut out of high school and ran away to join the Marines - he hitchhiked to North Carolina for that.   He ended up assigned to the Fourth Marine Air Wing - but that too turned a bit absurd.  As for nobly fighting the enemy and doing one's part, he spent his tour "on a Pacific atoll cleaning aircraft guns and editing his squadron's newsletter." But he did make sergeant. 

After the war, Buchwald end up out here at USC - the University of Southern California - thanks to the GI Bill, and became managing editor of the campus humor magazine. He just decided not to mention he hadn't really finished high school.  They found out. He could stay and take more classes, as many as he wanted, but there would be no degree for him.

What the heck - he decided to go to Paris - "My dream was to follow in the steps of Hemingway, Elliot Paul and Gertrude Stein. 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."

The road to the absurd was clear - he sailed for Paris and used the GI Bill there - he enrolled in the Alliance Française and then talked his way into a job with The Herald Tribune writing a column about entertainment and restaurants.  They paid him twenty-five dollars a week and the exchange rate was in his favor.  The man just did things.  Why not?  It's all absurd.

The column, "Paris After Dark," was a big hit - in the early fifties the Tribune syndicated it internationally. He said own favorite was a 1952 column - the one where he explained Thanksgiving to the French.  Miles Standish became Kilometres Deboutish in this - Meanwhile: Chacun à son goût on Thanksgiving - "One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant."   And he kept writing new introductory paragraphs for it (here from 1992 through 2004).

After fourteen years in Paris he had become a celebrity - and he then, in 1962, moved to Washington, and thing got even better. By 1972 his column was appearing three times a week in dour hundred newspapers in the United States and in a hundred in other countries. You could find him at Sans Souci lunching with Ethel Kennedy and Edward Bennett Williams (the famous attorney who was co-owner of the Washington Redskins). He has his summer home on Martha's Vineyard, where hung around with William Styron.  He played poker those summers with the Carl Rowan and David Brinkley - Jack Valenti, the fellow who devise the movie rating system and all that. He got around. He was even friends with the political columnist some now call "The Prince of Darkness," Robert Novak.

But there was his own darkness -

    Another friend, the CBS correspondent Mike Wallace, said Buchwald could not escape his depression even at his summer retreat.

    "Three of us - Bill Styron, he and I - suffered depression simultaneously, so we walked around in the rain together on Martha's Vineyard and consoled each other," Wallace said in a phone interview in February. "I traveled a lot on '60 Minutes,' and no matter where I was, every single night I got a call from Art Buchwald to listen to the same tale of woe. He did the best to make life palatable, to help you be optimistic, to let you know he believed you would beat it. We both did, and so did Bill. We named ourselves the 'Blues Brothers.'"

The absurd has its down side, after all.

The obituary is rich in more detail of course. The man sued Paramount Pictures, demanding to be paid for a script idea that he contended was the basis for the movie "Coming to America" - that thing about an African prince (Eddie Murphy) who visits the United States and ends up working at a really crappy job.  And he won. In 1990, a Superior Court in California ruled in his favor. And he established a scholarship for "the most irreverent student" in journalism at USC - and thirty-five years after they said they'd never give him a degree, USC gave him an honorary doctorate. That's absurdly amusing.

But the end of it all was most curious.  Last February doctors told him he had only a few weeks to live - his kidneys were giving out..  His response - "I decided to move into a hospice and go quietly into the night."   They were wrong.  Three months later - "For reasons that even the doctors can't explain, my kidneys kept working."

But he knew he was going.  In the Washington Post, they report one of his last wishes - "I just don't want to die the same day Castro dies."

No point in taking this all too seriously - and he got his wish. "The French ambassador gave me the literary equivalent of the Legion of Honor. The National Hospice Association made me man of the year. I never realized dying was so much fun."

That depends on your point of view.  You had to admire his.


Art Buchwald asked that this column be published following his death -

Meanwhile: Goodbye, my friends. What a pleasure it has been!

    For some reason my mind keeps turning to food. I know I have not eaten all the éclairs I always wanted. In recent months, I have found it hard to go past the Cheesecake Factory without at least having a profiterole and a banana split.

    I know it's a rather silly thing at this stage of the game to spend so much time on food. But then again, as life went on and there were fewer and fewer things I could eat, I am now punishing myself for having passed up so many good things earlier in the trip.

    I think of a song lyric, "What's it all about, Alfie?" I don't know how well I've done while I was here, but I'd like to think some of my printed works will persevere - at least for three years.

    I know it's very egocentric to believe that someone is put on earth for a reason. In my case, I like to think I was. And after this column appears in the paper following my passing, I would like to think it will either wind up on a cereal box top or be repeated every Thanksgiving Day.

Earlier (2006) -

Dear Reader, I am writing this article from a hospice...

    So far things are going my way. 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 wasn't in a hospice.

    But in case you're wondering, I'm having a swell time - the best time of my life.

The famous column "reporting from" Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly's wedding.
Buchwald attends Grace Kelly's wedding

Nick Stout on the Paris columns (1987) -

Buchwald: A funny thing happened...

    When it first appeared in February 1949, "Paris After Dark" was little more than a clumsy potpourri of Pigalle and other can-canneries. But as Buchwald learned to navigate around the Parisian lights, he began to write separate columns on films and restaurants and to gain a reputation - deservedly or not - as an authority in these matters.

    Buchwald got an unexpected boost in 1950 when he told his readers how an RKO representative attempted to elicit a favorable review of the newly released movie "Joan of Ark" by offering him free tickets to an upcoming film.

    Infuriated at this apparent breach of protocol, the producer, Walter Wanger, immediately denounced Buchwald as immature. Buchwald countered by telling a wire service reporter, "In France when a producer doesn't like what a critic says, he challenges him to duel. If Mr. Wanger can send his seconds, we can discuss weapons."

    There was never a duel, but the story got good play. And Buchwald's worldwide recognition grew.

    By now Buchwald had broadened his beat to concentrate more on the Paris social scene. He was dropping in regularly at the big hotels - the Ritz, the Crillon, the Georges V - to hobnob with Jack Benny, Gene Kelly or Elisabeth Taylor. The stars, eager to have him report on their presence in Paris, sometimes would call Buchwald and say "Could you take us to a good restaurant today?"

    … One of Buchwald's favorite subjects was American tourists. "They didn't know where they were," he recalled. "They didn't know what the money was all about, they thought they were being cheated all the time and, ah, they were funny."

    In a column entitled "Inverted Snobbism", his tourists bragged about all the sights they ignored.

    "Not only have we not gone to the Tour d'Argent and the Folies Bergère," said a visitor to Paris, but we haven't even been to the Louvre."

    Another said she skipped Florence "because we have some friends who said you can buy the same things in Rome."

Dana Cook in SALON finds other views -

David Schoenbrun, journalist -

    I was, at the time, Paris correspondent for a small but highly regarded news agency, the Overseas News Agency ... a remarkable group of young American newsmen, the finest corps of reporters ever assembled in one capital at the same time. Among them were ... a pudgy cigar-smoking youngster, a stringer for Variety covering show business news, named Art Buchwald, today the premier humor writer and political satirist in the world, published around the world. (Paris, mid-1940s)

    From "America Inside Out: At Home and Abroad From Roosevelt to Reagan," by David Schoenbrun (McGraw-Hill, 1984)

Theodore H. White, journalist and historian -

    Upstairs, in the garret, dwelt a forlorn American reporter trying to earn a living by contributing to the Paris Herald Tribune an experimental food and nightclub column. This youngster was a sweet and melancholy ex-marine of twenty-four. But his sweetness rubbed into his reporting an apparent child's naiveté, which made his humor all the more biting and wise. The Herald Tribune finally let him write a column, "Paris After Dark," with his own by-line, Art Buchwald, under which name he was later recognized as a social critic and, still unspoiled, earned fame. (Paris, 1949)

    From "In Search of History: A Personal Adventure," by Theodore H. White (Harper & Row, 1978)

Lauren Bacall -

    Our friendship began in Paris in 1951, the year of "The African Queen." It continued through every trip to Europe and subsequently here. The Buchwalds had lived in Paris, worked there; Art's writing career as a major columnist began there. He and Bogie [Humphrey Bogart] were a funny combination. Bogie was a first-rate chess player and he loved the game; it suited his mathematical brain. And Art loved to play too. He had a chess set in his office at the then Paris Herald Tribune, which was ideal for Bogie, who enjoyed having a place to go after lunch where he could do something so familiar ... Art was a good player, but I have a feeling Bogie was better. Sorry, Art. (Paris, 1951)

    From "Now," by Lauren Bacall (Knopf, 1994)

Betty Ford -

    He'd written a book called "I Never Danced at the White House," and his publisher had posters made up showing Buchwald in top hat and tails and cane. As soon as Jerry became President, I invited Art to dinner. He said he had a speaking engagement. This happened so many times he became embarrassed that I might not believe him. It got to the point where he'd send me a copy of his contract to prove he was honest and truly had to give a lecture. He finally came to a dinner, asked me to dance, and later sent me one of his posters - framed - with the word "Never" crossed off. (Washington, D.C., 1975)

    From "The Times of My Life," by Betty Ford with Chris Chase (Harper & Row, 1978)

You get the idea.  Dave Astor at Editor and Publisher has a roundup of the views from the professional journalists, including this -

    Current NSNC [National Society of Newspaper Columnists] Mike Argento of the York (Pa.) Daily Record recalled meeting Buchwald briefly while covering the Baltimore Orioles' home opener in the 1980s. "He was in search of a hot dog," said Argento. "I gave him a little direction and he thanked me. He seemed like a kind, gentle human being."

    The columnist added: "He was one of the greats. Anybody who writes humorously about current events owes him a huge debt of gratitude."

    Argento remembered a funny line by Buchwald in a video shown at the NSNC awards dinner last summer. Buchwald had said something like: "Dying is easy, parking is hard."

Now this actually seems true.

"Hi, I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died!" - on video here.

From Rick, the News Guy, in Atlanta -

My "Just This Close" moment came in 1969, I think it was, when I was a shy young man working the overnights as a copyboy at NBC News in New York. One morning my bosses came to me at the end of my shift and asked if I would hand-carry something to NBC Washington, something they didn't want to risk shipping.

They had me take a cab out to LaGuardia, hop the Eastern shuttle to DC, hail a taxi and drop the envelope off at the bureau, then jump back in the cab and return to National to get in line for the next plane home.

While waiting to board the plane home, I recognized Art Buchwald in the group. Nobody else seemed to, although they may have been doing what I was doing, just playing coy.

I don't know where I would have read his stuff - I hardly ever read columns in newspapers - but I know I was absolutely floored by his talent. Here was one of the funniest and brightest humans on the planet, and I was going to be flying on the same plane with him. I thought of going up and saying hello, but didn't think very seriously of it, since I had no idea what I would say to him, and thought it just might be embarrassing for him and might even start something in the crowd with others coming up. I decided to allow him his privacy.

After choosing my seat in the plane - this was back when I always grabbed the prized window seat, as my kids do now -- I was settling in, when Buchwald sat down right next to me! He smiled, so I smiled and nodded, then fumbled to find my expense report and fill it out, just something to give me a reason not to chat.

Once the plane lifted off, I thought about striking up a conversation, but just couldn't imagine that he'd want to talk to some kid rather than sit quietly with his thoughts. Maybe he'd be interested to know that I, too, worked in media! Maybe he'd be curious about what it's like to work at NBC, and whether I'd ever met Johnny Carson, or what Chet Huntley is really like close up! But no, I just couldn't see that turning out well at all, so I spent the whole 40 minute flight scribbling on my expense report, while he quietly chewed on his unlit cigar.

I like to think I have a bit of a sense of humor, too, and wished I could have initiated a funny little conversation with him that I could carry around with me afterward, a memory that in time would become a treasured possession in what might become an otherwise boring little life, but then, who was I kidding? He was a very funny guy and I was sure I'd just make an idiot out of myself. I just couldn't do it.

This item posted - in its final version - January 21, 2007

[Art Buchwald]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik