For Art Buchwald, humor's had little to do with real life It Wasn't All Laughs

May 16, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

When Art Buchwald started writing his memoirs, he started to lie. And lie. From the first draft through the fourth, he just couldn't tell a truthful account of his life.

"After the fifth draft, I finally started to get it out," says Mr. Buchwald, the syndicated humor columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1982. "When you start out, when you get to a tough part, you just lie. You just don't know how to be truthful. The first draft was complete lies.

"I really faced up to a lot of things -- my relationship with my father, the fact that my mother had been taken away from me when I was so young, my relationships with my sisters."

His efforts paid off with the publication in January of "Leaving Home: A Memoir." It became a best seller and received praise for its unsparing account of Mr. Buchwald's early life, which included being shuttled in and out of foster homes and orphanages, and joining the Marines when he was 17 (under age and lacking parental permission, he got a drunk in Durham, N.C., to pass himself off as his father and sign the necessary papers).

It also opened up a whole new audience. Mr. Buchwald, 68, had been a leading funnyman in this country for more than 30 years, but now he found thousands of new readers. "The book touched a lot of different people -- orphans, foster people, Marines, people in depression," he says by telephone from Orlando, Fla., where he is appearing at a benefit event.

In fact, he's as busy as he's ever been. In addition to writing his twice-weekly column for more than 500 newspapers, including The Sun, he's on the road constantly -- he has committed to 13 appearances in May, six of them benefits.

One benefit will take place tomorrow night at Johns Hopkins University, when Mr. Buchwald will speak on "Humor and Medicine." Money from the benefit will go to the Lucas Scott Livingston Memorial Fund of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, named for a 7-year-old Columbia boy who died of leukemia in 1992. The purpose of the memorial is to provide housing for families of patients who are undergoing bone-marrow transplants.

"When you've been in the business as long as I have, you get asked to do a lot of these kinds of things," Mr. Buchwald says, "and this one in Baltimore is right down the road [from his home in the Washington area]."

Of his topic, he says: "It's not really new. Norman Cousins wrote a lot about it, for instance. But I'll talk about how humor can make you feel better." He pauses, then adds this aside: "Maybe I should organize the humorists so we can get Blue Cross to cover us. Or maybe we can be part of the Clinton health plan."

That's the Art Buchwald most readers are familiar with -- the guy who's quick with a quip. But, as he writes in "Leaving Home": "People ask what I am really trying to do with humor. The answer is, 'I'm getting even. I am constantly trying to avenge hurts from the past.' "

According to the book, they were plentiful. There are glimmers of humor in "Leaving Home," but it's mostly a sad, occasionally heart-wrenching story. His mother was seriously depressed and was institutionalized a few months after young Arthur was born in 1925. His father couldn't support his four children, thus accounting for their growing up in other homes. Mr. Buchwald talks openly of his lifelong fight with depression, including two serious depressive episodes, in 1963 and 1987.

"This book surprised everyone because it was out of casting. I was known as a funny guy," Mr. Buchwald acknowledges. "It surprised me, too."

His model for "Leaving Home" was the memoir of another American humorist, Russell Baker, whose "Growing Up" chronicled his own boyhood in Virginia and Baltimore. In "Leaving Home," Mr. Buchwald tells of seeking Mr. Baker's counsel:

"At one point I called [Baker] and asked, 'What do you do if you're discussing someone who was mean to you in your childhood and that person is still alive?'

"He replied, 'Change his name.' "

Mr. Buchwald couldn't change the names of his parents, though, and his struggle to understand them gives "Leaving Home" much of its poignancy. He writes that though he never knew his mother, at various important times of his life he has called out for her. "In 1963, I had a severe depression myself and was hospitalized," he writes. "In the darkest moments in my room, I would cry, 'I want my mommy, I want my mommy.' "

Now, Mr. Buchwald says, "I got a lot off my back. It [writing the book] was a form of catharsis."

He ended "Leaving Home" with his arrival in Paris in 1948 and his beginning a night-life column in the International Herald Tribune. He's currently working on the sequel, and, at least for now, it's a more upbeat book.

"Oh, yeah," he says. "It should be a lot different. By this point, I had arrived. The Paris years were great years. This book won't be about a poor, sad childhood."

BUCHWALD AT HOPKINS

What: Humorist Art Buchwald will speak on "Humor and Medicine" at a benefit for the Lucas Scott Livingston Memorial Fund

When: Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Shriver Hall, Homewood Campus, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St.

Tickets: $25; $100 for admission to Mr. Buchwald's talk and a champagne reception with him afterward

Call: (410) 964-5351

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