Buchwald sees light side after dark past

January 18, 1994|By Judy Rose | Judy Rose,Knight-Ridder News Service

New York's Hebrew Orphan Asylum looked like a medieval castle in 1931, when "Pop" Buchwald and a cousin dragged four crying, struggling children out of the subway and up the hill to its doors.

The men kissed the children, three girls and a boy, and then disappeared. The kids clung to each other.

Art Buchwald, age 6, was entering his fifth foster home, soon to be followed by several more. Growing up as a foster child shaped his life, he writes in "Leaving Home":

"I must have been 6 or 7 years old, and terribly lonely and confused, when I said something like, 'This stinks. I'm going to be a humorist.' "

The well-known outcome is that Mr. Buchwald, now 68, writes a column of humorous political commentary that's carried in 550 newspapers. He has won a Pulitzer Prize.

But "Leaving Home" tells of Mr. Buchwald's first 24 years, the scary, stumbling path through orphanages and foster homes, the Marines and, finally, Paris.

"Leaving Home" is an ironic title, for the young Buchwald had no home to leave.

He was a few weeks old when an ambulance took his mother away. She never emerged from mental hospitals; he never visited her. He told friends his mother had died when he was born.

The baby Arthur was sent to the Heckscher Foundling Home. It was the first of many institutions that took care of him and his sisters for the next 17 years, until he ran away and joined the Marines.

"Poor Pop," Mr. Buchwald writes. "He kept picking us up and dumping us into one home after another."

Poor kids. Mr. Buchwald recalls being told when he was 5 that he was going to leave the first house he remembers. (Actually, this already was his third institution -- a house run for sick children by the Seventh-Day Adventists.)

His 5-year-old mind churned: "What did I do wrong that they no longer wanted me? Where could I go, since this was my only home? Who could change their minds and let me stay?"

He had done something wrong. He'd sung "Jesus Loves Me" for his Jewish father.

Belatedly, Pop Buchwald realized his son had been indoctrinated into a strict Christian religion. Young Arthur had been going to church every Sunday; he was fascinated by full-immersion baptism. His preschool heart soaked up his nurses' long list of serious sins -- eating meat and fish, going to movies.

During long bouts of psychoanalysis, Mr. Buchwald says, he spent almost as much time talking about the Seventh-Day Adventists as about the mother he never saw.

But Art Buchwald's dad, whom he identifies only as "Pop," was doing the best he could.

His father had crossed alone from Austria to America at 15, riding below deck in steerage and eating the herring thrown down by sailors. He started a drapery business, brought three relatives to America, then married. But in 1925, when his wife gave birth to their fourth child, Arthur, she sank into mental illness.

For much of his life, Pop Buchwald lived in a rented room and struggled to pay for the care of his children and wife.

At first, Mr. Buchwald's mom was in an expensive sanitarium, where doctors kept promising to cure her. His older sisters, Alice and Edith, were in boarding school. The younger children, Doris and Arthur, were in the Seventh-Day Adventists' home for sick kids.

Each Sunday, Pop rode subways to different sides of New York to visit his wife, his older daughters and his younger children. But the Depression ate away his drapery business, and eventually his family went to charity homes. But Pop never stopped visiting every Sunday, and he never let on he had problems.

At 17, during World War II, Art Buchwald ran away and joined the Marines, getting a street drunk to sign as his father. He came out safely, though he buried many young soldiers as part of his duty.

"I can now state without hesitation the Marine Corps was the best foster home I ever had," he writes.

Mr. Buchwald emerged a grown-up, went to the University of Southern California on the GI Bill and edited the campus humor magazine. "My plan was to become a famous screenwriter and make love to Ginger Rogers."

Instead, he followed American expatriates to Paris and got a job on the International Herald Tribune. Then it was on to Washington and the column for which he's known.

But success hasn't erased the deprivation of his younger years. He has had two depressions so severe he was hospitalized. During the first, he found himself crying: "I want my mommy. I want my mommy."

As for his humor, he writes: "I'm getting even. I am constantly avenging hurts of the past."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Leaving Home"

Author: Art Buchwald

Publisher: Putnam

Length, price: 254 pages, $22.95

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