Columnist Art Buchwald Dies at 81

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Columnist and author Art Buchwald, who for over four decades chronicled the life and times of Washington with an infectious wit and endeared himself to many with his never-say-die battle with failing kidneys, is dead at 81.

Buchwald’s son, Joel, who was with his father, disclosed the satirist’s death, saying he had passed away quietly at his home late Wednesday with his family.

Buchwald had refused dialysis treatments for his failing kidneys last year and was expected to die within weeks of moving to a hospice on Feb. 7. But he lived to return home and even write a book about his experiences.

“The last year he had the opportunity for a victory lap and I think he was really grateful for it,” 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.”

Neither Buchwald nor his doctors could explain how he survived in such grave condition, and he didn’t seem to mind.

The unexpected lease on life gave Buchwald, a Pulitzer Prize winner, time for an extended and extraordinarily public goodbye, as he held court daily in a hospice salon with a procession of family, friends and acquaintances.

“I’m going out the way very few people do,” he told The Associated Press in April.

Buchwald said in numerous interviews after his decision became public that he was not afraid to die, that he was not depressed about his fate and that he was, in fact, having the time of his life.

Often called “The Wit of Washington” during his years here, Buchwald’s name became synonymous with political satire. He was well known, too, for his wide smile and affinity for cigars.

Among his more famous witticisms: “If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it.”

Naturally, he found the humor in his choice to renounce dialysis, and he wrote about it in some final columns.

“I am known in the hospice as The Man Who Wouldn’t Die,” Buchwald wrote in March. “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.”

Last January, doctors amputated Buchwald’s right leg below the knee because of circulation problems. Losing it was “very traumatic” and he said it probably influenced his decision to reject the three-times-a- week, five-hours-a-day dialysis treatments. In 2000, he suffered a major stroke.

His syndicated column at one point appeared in more than 500 newspapers worldwide. It appeared twice a week in publications including The Washington Post and was distributed by Tribune Media Services.

In a 1995 memoir on his early years, “Leaving Home,” Buchwald wrote that humor was his “salvation.” In all, he wrote more than 30 books.

“People ask what I am really trying to do with humor,” he wrote. “The answer is, ‘I’m getting even.’ … For me, being funny is the best revenge.”

In 1982, he won the Pulitzer, journalism’s top honor, for outstanding commentary, and in 1986 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He also was at the center of a landmark battle with Hollywood over the question of who originated the idea for Eddie Murphy’s 1988 hit film “Coming to America.”

Buchwald first attracted notice in the late 1940s in Paris, where he became a correspondent for Variety after dropping out of college.

A year later, he took a trial column called “Paris After Dark” to the New York Herald Tribune. He filled it with scraps of offbeat information about Paris nightlife.

In 1951, he started another column, “Mostly About People,” featuring interviews with celebrities in Paris. The next year, the Herald Tribune introduced Buchwald to U.S. readers through yet another column, “Europe’s Lighter Side.”

“I’ll Always Have Paris!” is the title of a 1996 book. He celebrated his 80th birthday at a party at the French Embassy in Washington.

Among the many who visited Buchwald at the hospice was French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte, who brought a medal honoring the 14 years Buchwald spent as a journalist in Paris.

Buchwald returned to the United States in 1962, at the height of the glamour of the Kennedy administration, and set himself up in an office just two blocks from the White House. From there, he began a long career lampooning the Washington power establishment.

Over the years, he discovered the allure of show business and in 1970 he wrote the Broadway play “Sheep on the Runway.”

But he was best known in that realm for the court battle over “Coming to America.” A judge ruled that Paramount Pictures had stolen Buchwald’s idea and in 1992 awarded $900,000 to him and a partner.

The case dated to a 1983 Paramount contract for rights to Buchwald’s story “King for a Day.” The studio had dropped its option to make such a movie in 1985, three years before releasing “Coming to America” without credit to Buchwald.

Both stories involved an African prince who comes to America in search of a bride.

Paramount argued that the two stories were not that similar. After the judge ruled in Buchwald’s favor, Paramount lawyers insisted in the trial’s next phase that the film failed to produce any net profits. The case became a celebrated example of “Hollywood accounting.”

The judge wound up awarding Buchwald and his partner far less than the millions they had sought, but the columnist said he was satisfied.

Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Oct. 25, 1925, Buchwald had a difficult childhood. He and his three sisters were sent to foster homes when their mother was institutionalized for mental illness. Their father, a drapery salesman, suffered Depression-era financial troubles and couldn’t afford them.

At 17, Buchwald ran away to join the Marines and spent 3 1/2 years in the Pacific during World War II, attaining the rank of sergeant and spending much of his time editing a Corps newspaper.

After the war, he enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he became managing editor of the campus humor magazine and a columnist for the student paper. But he dropped out in 1948 and headed for Paris on a one-way ticket.

He married Ann McGarry, of Warren, Pa., in London on Oct. 12, 1952. The writer and one-time fashion coordinator for Neiman-Marcus later wrote a book with her husband. They adopted three children.

She died in 1994. In 2000, Buchwald published his first novel, “Stella In Heaven: Almost a Novel,” about a widower who can communicate with his deceased wife.

Despite his successes, the perennial funny man said he battled depression in 1963 and 1987. He once joked about deciding not to commit suicide out of fear that The New York Times miss the story.

“You do get over it, and you get over it a better person,” he once said of the illness.

Buchwald is survived by son Joel Buchwald, of Washington; daughters Jennifer Buchwald, of Roxbury, Mass.; and Connie Buchwald Marks, of Culpeper, Va.; sisters Edith Jaffe, of Bellevue, Wash., and Doris Kahme, of Delray Beach, Fla., and Monroe Township, N.J.; and five grandchildren.

A family spokeswoman said Buchwald would be interred at the Vineyard Haven Cemetery in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where his wife Ann is buried.


— Related E&P Story: A Visit With Art Buchwald: ‘Tell Them to Just Keep Writing’

Click here to read Buchwald’s Washington Post obituary.

Click here to read Buchwald’s New York Times obituary.

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