I am very pleased to have had the chance to write about Art Buchwald. I grew up reading Buchwald’s syndicated column in the pages of the Boston Globe, so I jumped when the online project American National Biography asked me to research his life and write about him.
[ANB is a publishing project in partnership with Oxford U Press, and I was hoping that they could include some illustrations, but they could not. So I am posting one of my favorites here at the top of this post.]
|Buchwald, Art (20 Oct. 1925-17 Jan. 2007), journalist and humorist, was born Arthur Buchwald in Mount Vernon, New York. His father, Joseph Buchwald, a Jewish immigrant from Austria, was a draper in New York City; his mother, Helen Klineberger, whom he never met, was placed in a mental hospital shortly after Arthur’s birth and remained institutionalized for the rest of her life. Arthur was the couple’s fourth child and only son.
Arthur endured a Dickensian childhood in New York City, spending his younger years in a series of foster homes coordinated by the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. His father, who spoke little English, struggled to provide for Arthur and his three sisters, often failing to keep the family together. As a boy, Arthur turned to humor to ward off the many blows life dealt him. “Laughter was the weapon I used for survival,” he wrote in his 1993 memoir, Leaving Home.
Arthur Buchwald attended New York City’s public schools and was a fair student, but he excelled in English and writing. Much of his real education took place in the city’s streets and subways, which he roamed while working at odd jobs as a young teen. One job involved clerking in the mailroom at Paramount Pictures. At age fifteen he was reunited with “Pop” and his sisters in an apartment in Forest Hills in the borough of Queens.
When the United States entered World War II the sixteen-year-old Buchwald attempted to enlist, but his father refused to sign the required papers. During the summer of 1942 Buchwald worked as a bellboy at the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire, where he had his first serious encounter with anti-Semitism. In an effort to impress a girlfriend, he ran away to South Carolina and enlisted in the marines after plying an alcoholic man with a bottle of whiskey to forge his enlistment papers.
The marine corps was not an obvious choice for Buchwald, who was not much of a physical specimen and knew nothing about guns or fighting. He survived basic training and developed a loyalty to the corps, later calling it the best foster home he ever had. Buchwald served as a munitions loader during the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, seeing duty at Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Engebi, and other islands and atolls. He was discharged without a scratch on 12 November 1945.
After the war Buchwald decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. He hitchhiked across the country and enrolled at the University of Southern California (USC). When it was discovered that he did not have a high school diploma, Buchwald was allowed to continue taking classes but denied the chance to earn a degree. He edited the USC campus humor magazine, the Wampus, and he wrote a humor column for the student newspaper, the Trojan. More than forty years later USC awarded Buchwald an honorary degree, and the dean of journalism bestowed his cowl.
In 1948, flush with a veteran’s bonus granted by the state of New York, Buchwald left Los Angeles. Although he spoke not a word of French, he headed for Paris, hoping to emulate the life of Ernest Hemingway and other writers. Following a brief stint as an assistant to a stringer for Variety, Buchwald talked his way into writing a column about the city’s nightlife for the Paris Herald Tribune, which was widely read by Americans visiting Europe. With no credentials of any sort, he wrote a column titled “Paris After Dark” about the city’s nightlife and also contributed restaurant and movie reviews. In his column Buchwald developed a distinctive style, based on his stance as a bemused Everyman, perplexed by French words and customs, willing to humiliate himself for a laugh. His struggles with the French language and culture (dogs in restaurants!) became a source of amusement to his fellow Americans. Buchwald’s work in Paris also allowed the former orphan to rub elbows with the international jet set, and he continued to mingle with the talented and powerful throughout his life.
While in Paris he talked the owners of the Herald Tribune into running his column in their flagship paper in New York. In addition the Washington Post and other U.S. papers–eventually numbering eighty-five–ran his Paris pieces during the 1950s. One of his most famous columns was an attempt to explain Thanksgiving to the French. In fractured Franglais, Buchwald introduced such characters as “Kilometres Deboutish” (Miles Standish) and the “Peaux-Rouges” (redskins). The column was reprinted every November for the rest of his career.
While working in Paris, Buchwald met an American woman, Ann McGarry of Warren, Pennsylvania. Despite their religious differences (he was Jewish, she was Catholic) they were married on 11 October 1952 in London at Westminster Cathedral. They later adopted three children and remained married for forty years until they separated in 1992.
In 1962 Buchwald returned to the United States to begin a new phase of his career, settling in Washington, D.C. Shortly afterward he suffered his first major bout of depression, resulting in hospitalization. Although Buchwald often tapped his own life for material, he wrote relatively little about depression. When he resumed writing his column, it was a great success. The number of papers carrying the Buchwald column, via the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, rose to more than 450 by the end of the decade.
One of his most notorious columns involved the disputed burning of a bra outside the Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1968. A gathering of feminists protested the pageant by throwing items associated with gender oppression into a “Freedom Trash Can” and burning them. Several bras were probably destroyed in this fashion, along with many other items. In his column of 12 September 1968, though, Buchwald fixated on the brassieres, giving rise to the popular image of feminists as “bra-burners.”
During the 1970s and 1980s Buchwald was in frequent demand as a commencement speaker, delivering humorous advice to graduates and their families. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1982, and in 1986 he was admitted to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In these years Buchwald was instantly recognizable: a rounded figure with a cigar, dressed in loud clothes and zany hats. Buchwald also rarely turned down a chance to appear in costume. One of his favorites was a (large) bunny suit worn at Easter.
As in Paris, Buchwald continued to mingle with the celebrated, forging fast friendships with the Washington Postpublisher Katharine Graham and the editor Ben Bradlee, among many others. Two of his most celebrated friendships involved the author William Styron and the television journalist Mike Wallace. All three men summered on Martha’s Vineyard, and all three suffered serious mental depression; they were known as the “blues brothers.”
In the late 1980s Buchwald threw himself into a lawsuit that became a milestone in American entertainment law. Buchwald had sketched an idea for a movie involving an African potentate who is overthrown while visiting the United States, resulting in comic complications. The idea was sold to Paramount and eventually developed into the major motion picture Coming to America, starring Eddie Murphy. Buchwald sued the film studio for breach of contract on the grounds that the Murphy film was “based on” Buchwald’s idea. The trial, which lasted three years in California State court in Los Angeles, resulted in an examination of the methods that Hollywood studios used to compensate creative contributors to the movies, under which many were promised a fraction of “net profits” that mysteriously never materialized. In the end Buchwald was awarded $150,000.
After he celebrated his eightieth birthday in 2005, Buchwald’s health began deteriorating. A blood clot in his right foot required amputation, followed by kidney failure. Rejecting dialysis, Buchwald chose to enter a Washington hospice instead. There his condition stabilized, and he became known as the “Man Who Would Not Die.” He received a long line of visitors, disarming them with wisecracks and reminiscences. After five months he checked out and spent the summer on Martha’s Vineyard. He died at his son’s home in Washington the following January and he was buried in a cemetery on Martha’s Vineyard next to his wife; nearby are the graves of Styron and Wallace.
Buchwald was a much-beloved journalist, humorist, and syndicated newspaper columnist whose career spanned six prolific decades. A successor to Mark Twain and Will Rogers as a popular political satirist enjoyed by millions, Buchwald took on both major parties, skewering generations of Washington officeholders. Even in his final illness he depended on humor for survival. Before his death Buchwald created a “video obituary” with the New York Times in which he spoke directly to viewers, saying, “Hi. I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died. . . .”
Buchwald published more than thirty books, including three memoirs: Leaving Home (1993), I’ll Always Have Paris(1996), and Too Soon to Say Goodbye (2006). Also of interest is Ann Buchwald, Seems Like Yesterday (1980). Pierce O’Donnell and Dennis McDougal, Fatal Subtraction: The Inside Story of Buchwald v. Paramount (1992), discusses Buchwald’s legal case against Paramount. For general background on the world of journalism see W. Joseph Campbell,Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (2010); Katharine Graham, Katharine Graham’s Washington (2002); and Richard Kluger, The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune (1986). Obituaries appeared in the Washington Post and New York Times, 19 Jan. 2007.
Christopher B. Daly
Christopher B. Daly. “Buchwald, Art“;
American National Biography Online April 2014.