Pulitzer columnist laughed at life, death

Art Buchwald, the son of a curtain maker who rose to become one of the best-connected and most acerbic commentators on life and politics in America and whose wry sense of humor remained undiminished by age and illness, died late Wednesday at his son's home in Washington. He was 81 years old.

A year ago, Mr. Buchwald, suffering from failing kidneys, refused the dialysis treatment doctors said would prolong his life. He entered a Washington hospice, expecting to die within a few weeks, he said then.


Instead, to the consternation of his doctors and the delight of his many visitors, he thrived there, cheerfully regaling friends, relatives and admirers with tales of his life, often punctuated by punch lines.

Almost five months later, it being clear that he was nowhere near death, Mr. Buchwald checked out of the hospice and spent a contented summer at his home on Martha's Vineyard. He resumed writing newspaper columns and completed a book, Too Soon To Say Goodbye, that was published in November.


"The joke in the hospice was I became a celebrity for death," Mr. Buchwald told The Sun in an interview in July. "I got into the business of dying, but the bottom line is everybody is going to die - even people who subscribe to public television are going to die."

As, eventually, did Mr. Buchwald. His son Joel, 53, one of his three children, said yesterday that Mr. Buchwald, who had been living with him, was "kind of struggling for the last couple of months."

The lack of dialysis treatment finally "caught up with him," Joel Buchwald said. "But the last year was a great victory lap for him. For those few months, he had another go at the life he always wanted to live - being the center of attention, holding court. It was perfect for him."

Known for deftly defusing the pomposity of high government officials, Mr. Buchwald's columns at one time were syndicated to about 500 newspapers around the world and earned him a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1982. He also wrote about 30 books, including Beating Around the Bush (2005), a collection of newspaper columns; While Reagan Slept (1983), Down the Seine and Up the Potomac (1977), I Think I Don't Remember (1987) and, in 1996, I'll Always Have Paris, in which he recalls a young Elvis Presley, on leave from military duty in Germany, singing spontaneously for a group of swooning off-duty showgirls in Le Lido, a Paris nightclub.

It was in Paris that Mr. Buchwald got his start in professional journalism after leaving the University of Southern California in 1948 without a degree. At USC, he had written his first column, for The Daily Trojan, the campus newspaper.

Before that, Mr. Buchwald had joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17 by lying about his age - he later said he gave a drunk a half-pint of whiskey to pose as his legal guardian - and spent two years in the Pacific.

Once in the French capital, the 22-year-old Mr. Buchwald became a correspondent for Variety.

"Ostensibly, he was there to learn French," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote in a profile of Mr. Buchwald in 1996, "but skipped most of his classes and majored in Paris instead, hanging out in Left Bank cafes, haunting museums (good places to pick up visiting American girls) and happily savoring the city his idol Ernest Hemingway had called 'a moveable feast.'"


Mr. Buchwald was anxious to expand his observational skills into column writing. Taking his inspiration from the city's vivid night life, Mr. Buchwald wrote a sample column called Paris After Dark and delivered it to the Paris newsroom of The New York Herald Tribune. It got him hired. Later, the column became known as Europe's Lighter Side.

The paper, now called The International Herald Tribune, each November still reprints a Buchwald column, first published in 1953, in which he describes the significance of Thanksgiving Day to French readers.

Some of Mr. Buchwald's readers had a hard time telling when he was kidding. On one occasion in Paris, James Hagerty, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's press secretary who had taken seriously a Buchwald column that was a spoof, convened a news conference to denounce it as "unadulterated rot."

Mr. Buchwald responded that Mr. Hagerty was wrong.

"I write adulterated rot," he said.

In another column, Mr. Buchwald wrote that there was no such person as J. Edgar Hoover. Mr. Buchwald said Mr. Hoover's role at the FBI had been played by various men over the years, his name inspired by a vacuum cleaner. Some readers thought Mr. Buchwald had lost his mind.


But Dean Acheson, President Harry S. Truman's secretary of state, called Mr. Buchwald "the greatest satirist in English since Pope and Swift."

After returning to the United States in 1962, Mr. Buchwald became a fixture in Washington political circles - his phone number was always listed - and wrote an estimated 8,000 columns during his career. Most were unsparing of their targets, regardless of political bent, although his touch was usually tender.

A March 4, 2006, story in The Washington Post recounted that during the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson caught press secretary Bill Moyers reading a typically antiwar Buchwald column. "Do you think he's funny?" the president barked. Mr. Moyers quickly replied, "No, sir."

The Post story also recalled that during the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Buchwald explained in a column that the infamous 18 1/2 -minute gap in the White House tapes was, in fact, the sound of Nixon humming.

Mr. Buchwald was no more merciful to President Ronald Reagan, whom he gleefully pilloried again and again. In his book You Can Fool All of the People All the Time (1987), another collection of columns, Mr. Buchwald went after the missteps of the Reagan White House, members of Congress and various government agencies, as well as professionals in medicine and journalism.

Mr. Buchwald often illustrated his points by relating a conversation between himself and someone imaginary. In The Washington Post on April 21, 2005, Mr. Buchwald used the device to show Senate Republicans painting their Democratic colleagues as lacking religious faith:


Leading the attack is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who speaks for all of God's children in the GOP.

Zack, the zealot, clued me in.

I asked, "Are you calling everyone who filibusters against judicial nominees an infidel?"

He replied, "What would you call them?"

I said, "Some of my best friends are Democrats, and I personally know several who go to church."

"That doesn't mean they have any faith. You can't believe in the Almighty if you don't believe in President Bush."


In a March 1, 2005, column, Mr. Buchwald wrote of President Bush's change of heart regarding allies who had opposed the Iraq invasion:

The State Department's assistant secretary for flip-flopping explained the new policy to us. "The president now loves everybody."

"Even France?" I asked.

"Yes, even France. Americans can once again eat French-fried potatoes, French onion soup, go on French leave and even French kiss."

Mr. Buchwald, who occasionally suffered from depression, did not take kindly to dishonesty. In 1992, he and a writing partner were awarded $900,000 by a judge after they sued Paramount Pictures, alleging that the studio had stolen their idea for the film Coming to America, a fable starring Eddie Murphy playing an African prince who comes to the United States in search of a bride.

Mr. Buchwald was born on Oct. 20, 1925, in Mount Vernon, N.Y. As children, he and his three sisters were placed in foster homes after their mother, who suffered from mental illness, was institutionalized. Their father's business faltered in the Depression and he could not afford to raise the children.


In his last columns, Mr. Buchwald offered readers the rare benefit of a lighthearted perspective on approaching death. On March 7, 2006, he revealed that one of his legs had been amputated because of poor circulation.

"I miss my leg," he wrote, "but when they told me I would also have to take dialysis for the rest of my life I decided - too much."

"I keep checking with the nurses and doctors about when I'm supposed to pull out," he wrote, mystified, later in that column. "One doctor says, 'It's up to you.' And I say, 'That's a typical doctor's answer."

Suzette Martinez Standring, president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists when she visited Mr. Buchwald last February, reported on the organization's Web site at the time that, "for a man awaiting The Reaper, he's in unusually fine fettle."

Yesterday, she wrote in an e-mail that Mr. Buchwald "was carried along by the wave of love from friends, family and food gifts."

"An outstanding cannoli really made his day," she wrote. "He literally laughed in the face of death and made it less scary for the rest of us. What a giver."


Mr. Buchwald's daughter Jennifer, 50, who is writing a book about her father, said he had always used humor to defuse tension in the family.

"He's handed me gold, and I don't mean money," she said. "He is such a gift. We were all adopted and we were all so lucky that we got picked. He was such a great father."

Mr. Buchwald is survived also by his daughter Connie Buchwald Marks, of Culpeper, Va.; sisters Doris Kahme, of Delray Beach, Fla., and Edith Jaffe, of Bellevue, Wash.; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in Washington next month, his family said. Mr. Buchwald's ashes will be interred at Vineyard Haven Cemetery in Martha's Vineyard, where his wife, the former Ann McGarry, who died in 1994, is buried.