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1925-2007

Art Buchwald

By Russell Baker

I am here to speak of Art Buchwald, a dear friend for the past fifty years and colleague in the hurly-burly of mass-market journalism. Art would have enjoyed the irony of being memorialized by the Academy, which is a very exclusive congregation, for he had a proletarian dislike of all things exclusionary. This prompted him, long before the Academy took him in, to found the American Academy of Humor Columnists, an organization which never had more than two members, since it existed for the sole purpose of keeping people out.

When he died last January at the age of 81 he had spent most of his life working to make people laugh. This seems a poor career choice in a world that grants its gaudiest prizes to those who make people weep—or cry out in pain—or beg for mercy. It is gravitas, not jollity, that pays off in high office and Nobel prizes, but Art lived by the conviction that Molière mattered at least as much as Eugene O’Neill, and that Jack Benny had done more to ease the human predicament than Henry Kissinger could.

He took laughter seriously. I once heard him open a lecture with two simple sentences. “I am in a very serious business,” he said. “I am a humorist.”  To have an audience and not leave it laughing was an unforgivable failure to Art. He had an almost compulsive need to hear an audience roar with laughter. His audiences usually did, and the good humor that he conveyed across the country made him one of the most popular lecturers of his time.

When he bravely chose to die rather than endure exhausting medical procedures that might have prolonged his life, he made his imminent death the subject of a series of humor columns. Having entered a Washington hospice to die, he was soon presiding over the most entertaining salon in town as the French ambassador, congressmen, and assorted Kennedys came by for conversation.

The cream of the jest of course was that the hospice finally put him out for failing to die expeditiously, and he went off for a summer vacation at Martha’s Vineyard where he produced an entertaining book. Among other things it contained the speeches he had asked friends to deliver at his funeral.

I don’t think Art consciously chose a career in laughter. One cannot choose to be a funny man any more than he can choose to be a pompous ass. Genes and life’s happenstance impose these things on you. Happenstance put an orphanage in Art’s childhood, and foster homes, and a family shattered by mental illness and the Great Depression of the Thirties. Later there were frequent onsets of black depression and impressive psychiatrists’ bills. But there was also an extraordinary generosity, and an affection for children that could make him dress up head to toe as a gigantic bunny rabbit to delight a room full of kids. All this seems to flow like a comfortable cliché from the terrible childhood.

But then there is his improbable love of everything French—especially Paris, where he fell in love, married, and lived the best fourteen years of his life. Even more improbably, he had been a Marine in the pacific in World War Two. He had partied with Elvis Presley and Lauren Bacall, had brooded with Bill Styron, gossiped with Arthur Schlesinger, and written a Broadway comedy, had been best pals with Ben Bradlee and Edward Bennett Williams, and conned the Prince of Monaco into inviting him to his wedding with Grace Kelley.

Art was like the hero of a picaresque novel. Life just seemed to happen to him without plausible reason, but simply to keep a good plot bubbling. So the wretched childhood ends with him dropping out of high school and going off to North Carolina to be with the woman he loves. Don’t ask how a schoolboy in Queens cultivated a passion for a Carolina girl. I tell you the tale as he told it to me from his hospice bed where he was waiting to die, and I believe it to be essentially true, including the fact that the young woman’s name was Flossie.

Imagine the heartbreak when he discovered that Flossie had another love in her life. In his despair he decided to die for his country, which was quite feasible since World War Two was in progress, and the Marines had a recruiting station at the local post office. The Marines, however, needed parental consent, so with a half pint of whiskey he hired a curbside alcoholic to play his father and sign the necessary papers. While waiting for the bus to Parris Island, Art phoned Flossie, thinking his tale of patriotic sacrifice might melt her heart. Unmoved, she denounced him as a cheapskate, said she never wanted to hear from him again, and hung up.

Back from the Pacific in 1946, he enrolled at the University of Southern California, which finally refused to give him a degree after noticing that he had not graduated from high school. But never mind that. He had enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Paris. And in Paris wonderful things can happen, especially in picaresque novels.

His pieces in the Paris Herald-Tribune about the absurdities uttered and committed by visiting American celebrities in the immediate postwar years quickly made him a celebrity in his own right. When President Eisenhower’s irritated press secretary denounced a Buchwald piece as “unadulterated rot,” Art took the opportunity to reject the charge and declare that his rot was adulterated.

I leave it for critics to judge whether it was adulterated or not. Whatever it was, it was always written with great simplicity and an unusually pure English built on simple sentences and good straight-forward Anglo-Saxon root words. Plain English is serious, just as humor is, and it was the language that Art instinctively wrote.

 

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 6, 2007.

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