Art Buchwald's middle years -- living atop the meringue of a pie called Europe

September 01, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The wretched, wistful truth is that things really were better in the Good Old Days. They were, anyway, if you had vast advantages of access, mobility and the time and appetite to indulge them all, willy-nilly, helter-skelter, and got paid rather nicely for doing so.

So went the years between 1948 and 1962 for Art Buchwald. His book about all that, "I'll Always Have Paris" (Putnam's. 236 pages. $24.95) is just coming out. It should delight almost everybody it does not offend. You have to be pathologically pompous or terminally earnest to be offended.

The book gallops and gambols along, celebrating wit and nonsense and the self-indulgence that was rife during those lovely, carefree, postwar, pre-Serious Sixties times. There is barely any confrontation with larger truths or meanings - except one that rises from almost every word.

That is that the spirit of play, and celebration of it, are limited only by human energy and imagination. Who conceivably could have been a less probable companion - indeed special darling - of Europe's blooded and new-monied aristocracies than Art Buchwald, a Queens kid who grew up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York and then in a series of foster homes?

He never graduated from high school or college, though he did attend the University of Southern California for a while. The book begins on June 12, 1948, when at 22 he arrived in Paris with a bit of money and an indomitable intent of exploiting the GI Bill.

Burlesque gazette

He dropped out of French classes. "I never did learn the language," he writes, "but depended instead on an improvised Franglais which consisted of French and English and a great deal of body language, hand-waving and shoulder-shrugging."

That echoes the tone of the book, and of the newspaper columns that led him to fame.

He wangled himself into the Paris edition of the New York Herald-Tribune (now the International Herald-Tribune), and reasonably swiftly was writing four columns a week. His work there evolved from film and entertainment commentary to a sort of burlesque gazette of the high life of all Europe. That became the best-read piece of prose in the best-read English-language newspaper in Continental Europe, acutely focused on Paris.

Everybody was there, and is in the book: Hemingway asks if Buchwald has ever wrestled a bear and then ridicules him a bit. Allen Ginsberg, Stavros Niarchos (squabbling with brother-in-law Aristotle Onnasis), James Thurber, A.J. Liebling, Theodore White, Janet Flanner, more, more, and more turn up, some again and again.

The text becomes a rolling, roaring machine-gun-chatter of names dropping to the earth, some soft, some hard, some ricocheting around for years. Hardly anyone escapes: J. Paul Getty, Elvis Presley, Thornton Wilder, Somerset Maugham, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, more and more.

Buchwald is totally frank about the fact that all of it came to him because of what he did for a living.

It is his candor and - for all his arm-waving and face-making - his genuine modesty that make the book rise above a simple gossip rush or a nostalgia wallow.

He writes, "My craft is more sketching than writing; my column is almost a cartoon in words." Accurate, delightfully self-aware, that is descriptive of much of the book as well.

But as with all great burlesque, the power of the stuff is to pull back the blinds, to strip away the facades, to let a piece of human life speak for itself:

"Choosing a cafe was like choosing a home. You knew that you would be returning again and again as long as you remained in Paris. Your social life revolved around the cafe of your choice. You left messages with the bartender, you began a love affair or ended one over a drink. Hours were spent rating poets and writers and speaking with contempt about any new writer who had become a success. Those who were politically inclined discussed how the U.S. was screwing up our foreign policy with the French. We never accused the French of screwing up their foreign policy, because we didn't know they had one."

Deadpan hilarity

Buchwald is a master of the anecdote, and of something one might call "the flip" - a double-take that is mildly self-deprecating, that engages the reader in a sort of instant intimacy and ignites a sense of recognition.

That can yield masterpieces of the deadpan. And so goes much of the best of the book. You can be rollicking along, reading of his here-ing and there-ing, this-ing and that-ing, a sort of babble of moving joyfully about Paris and all Europe with every droppable name recallable, and suddenly you stumble on a line that trips you over then hits you in the back of the head:

"The cafes on the Champs-Elysees attracted a colorful mixture of tourists and hookers. For cover, the hookers usually had dogs with them. I never found out what happened to the dog when the hooker was entertaining a customer." Buchwald is splendid at ribaldry, never vulgar but often wonderfully, concretely earthy. It is great reporting.

This is the second volume of Buchwald's memoirs. The first was "Leaving Home," which was gutsy and full of candor, poignant, anecdotal, often touching, occasionally deeply moving - and utterly clean of sentimentality. It ended where this volume begins.

For 14 years he had worked Europe. In 1962, he moved to Washington because he felt he was repeating himself. The Washington Post invited him to move his feast to America, and he agreed it was an exciting time to be there - amid Camelot.

This book ends with that repatriation in 1962. May God speed volume three.

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