The Time Of His Life

Writer Art Buchwald comes face-to-face with death and enjoys a career resurgence in the process

July 30, 2006|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN REPORTER

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASS. -- You're next, says the guy in the powder blue BMW pulling out of the driveway at the house with the plump yellow mailbox and performing wind chimes -- Grand Central Buchwald these days. "Some guy and his mother. Nice guy," says Art Buchwald. The before-afterlife can be hectic for a famous living columnist. Ambassadors, politicians, newspapermen, anchormen and former AOL guys in BMWs have all checked in with Buchwald. Great women, too.

"Carly, this is Art," says Buchwald on the phone to his island friend Carly Simon. She was set to sing "I'll Be Seeing You" at his funeral this year but canceled on account the 80-year-old Buchwald had to cancel his funeral. Eulogies written and everything. But during his five months in a hospice, Buchwald's failing kidneys stopped failing. He had to rewrite his own story.

What to do now in life? And what to do with all those wonderful eulogies?

For decades, Art Buchwald was America's reigning newspaper humorist, whose satirical columns for The Washington Post poked fun at presidents and tackled such hot topics as Watergate and Vietnam. In his prime, Buchwald's witty, economical column ran in 500 newspapers. Highest-paid lecturer in America. Cocktail party king. Pulitzer Prize winner in 1982. Writer of 30 books, including his best-selling I'll Always Have Paris, which included a column about clubbing in Paris with a young Army sergeant named Elvis Presley.

Then, time and the times caught up with Buchwald. We had Dave Barry and then everyone seemingly became a satirist. In the past several years, Buchwald virtually abandoned his column. Then, he checked into a hospice early this year with no plans of checking out.

"I had such a good time at the hospice. I am going to miss it," Buchwald wrote this month. Stunning friends, he left the hospice and returned this month to an old familiar place, Martha's Vineyard, to be with his family and his daily New York Times and daily visitors. He got better, and it's still hard to say how. "Nobody knows -- not even the doctors," Buchwald had written from the hospice.

By not dying and writing about it, his career has been resurrected. It's amusing, amazing, and, well, funny. People are again reading Buchwald columns! "They are very poignant and good," says friend Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of The Washington Post. Not dying becomes Buchwald. "His attitude had a kind of dignity about it. It was grown-up as hell."

Restocked with material, Buchwald is finishing yet another book. Scheduled to be out in December, Too Soon to Say Goodbye will include his recent columns and, oh, a chapter of those unspent eulogies. No sense in wasting good writing. "And Carly is going to write a song with that book title," he says.

Some writers have all the luck. A column. Another book. Not dying.

"I was sort of forgotten," he says. "Then all of a sudden based on this experience I'm going through, I have a whole new life."

Buchwald is back.

'Mad at the world'

"How's he doing?"

You get that question when you talk to Buchwald's friends.

Russell Baker, the former Times columnist, asks the question from his home in Leesburg, Va. "I was having lunch the other day at a local restaurant, and a friend was asking about Buchwald," says Baker, also 80. "The waiter cuts in. 'You know Art Buchwald?'" Baker laughs. "A waiter in Leesburg who is now reading Art Buchwald! God knows what he has gained in readership."

Buchwald's newspaper syndicate, Tribune Media Services, won't say how many papers carry Buchwald (not anywhere near his peak, to be sure), but acknowledges a renewed interest in the satirist. "We have just got a lot of interest in his column," says Mary Elson, managing editor of Tribune Media Services. "We've sent out his columns from the hospice and have a lot of newspaper editors picking them up because of this whole saga."

The saga played out in Buchwald's professional turf of Washington. Baker, as well as Mike Wallace, Tom Brokaw and you-name-the-big-name, paid a visit this past spring to Buchwald at the Washington Home and Community Hospices. Their friend, who was suffering from renal failure, had decided against dialysis. He didn't have diabetes -- he just had old, bad kidneys. In an unrelated medical condition, Buchwald's right leg had been amputated below the knee to prevent gangrene.

"Mad at the world," Buchwald then decided to forgo dialysis for the kidney problem. He decided he'd rather die. Friends and future pallbearers gathered to hear Buchwald map out his own funeral. "He had planned better than anyone else," Bradlee says. The only glitch really was his friends having to park in Washington to see him. "I got a parking ticket," Baker says.

Sensing an opening, Buchwald crafted one of his one-liners from his hospice stay: "Dying is easy, parking is impossible." He also tells the joke about getting thrown out of the hospice for not dying. Rim shot. All this whistling past the graveyard -- no -- all this laughing out loud in the graveyard.

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