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Humorist Art Buchwald dies at 81

Columnist Art Buchwald, whose wry political and social satire made him a pillar of the nation’s capital for more than four decades and earned him a Pulitzer Prize, has died, his son said Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Satirist Art Buchwald, who made dying fun, is dead.

Buchwald’s son, Joel, who was with his father, disclosed his death at age 81. He said his father passed away quietly at his home late Wednesday with his family.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author chronicled the life of Washington with an infectious wit for four decades, then cheated death and laughed in its face in a richly lived final year that medical science said he wasn’t supposed to get.

Buchwald had refused dialysis treatments for his failing kidneys a year ago and was expected to die within weeks of moving to a hospice on Feb. 7, where he held court as a parade of luminaries and friends came by to say farewell. But he lived to return home and even write a book about his experiences.

“I’m having a swell time,” he said of his dying. “The best time of my life.”

“The last year he had the opportunity for a victory lap and I think he was really grateful for it,” said son Joel Buchwald. “He had an opportunity to write his book about his experience and he went out the way he wanted to go, on his own terms.”

Neither Buchwald nor his doctors could say how he survived in such grave condition, and he didn’t seem to mind. “Nobody’s been able to really explain what’s going on because I’m not taking dialysis,” Buchwald told The Associated Press in May. “I have to thank my kidneys.”

He described his earlier decision to forgo dialysis and let himself die as a liberating one. “The thing is, when you make your choice, then a lot of the stress is gone. Everything is great because you accept that you are the one who made the choice.”

But when death didn’t come nearly as quickly as expected, Buchwald wrote that he had to scrap his funeral plans, rewrite his living will, buy a new cell phone and get on with his improbable life. “I also had to start worrying about Bush again,” he deadpanned.

'Wit of Washington'
Buchwald was called the “Wit of Washington” during his years here and his name became synonymous with political satire. He was well known, too, for his wide smile and affinity for cigars.

Among his more famous witticisms: “If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it.”

Jack Valenti, former chairman and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, recalled Buchwald’s humor. The two had been friends since 1964.

“What Art had was the gift of laughter — that’s a rarity today,” Valenti told AP on Thursday. “He could take simple ordinary things and make you laugh. God knows all of us need that. I’ve been with him in all kinds of situations, good and bad, triumph and tragedy but Art always was able to see a little wisp of humor in everything.”

Ben Bradlee, former Washington Post executive editor and a friend of Buchwald for 60 years, said in an interview that Buchwald was “the humorist of his generation.” Buchwald was a Paris nightlife columnist in the 1950s when he met Bradlee, whose paper carried Buchwald’s columns in later years.

‘The Mark Twain of our time’
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said in a statement: “Art was the Mark Twain of our time.

“For decades there was no better way to start the day than to open the morning paper to Art’s column, laugh out loud and learn all over again to take the issues seriously in the world of politics, but not take yourself too seriously,” he said. “The special art of Art Buchwald was to make even the worst of times better.”

His syndicated column at one point appeared in more than 500 newspapers worldwide. It appeared twice a week in publications including The Washington Post and was distributed by Tribune Media Services.

In a 1995 memoir on his early years, “Leaving Home,” Buchwald wrote that humor was his salvation. In all, he wrote more than 30 books.

“People ask what I am really trying to do with humor,” he wrote. “The answer is, ’I’m getting even.’ ... For me, being funny is the best revenge.”

Pulitzer winner in 1982 In 1982, he won the Pulitzer, journalism’s top honor, for outstanding commentary, and in 1986 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In January 2006, doctors amputated Buchwald’s right leg below the knee because of circulation problems. Losing it was “very traumatic” and he said it probably influenced his decision to reject the three-times-a-week, five-hours-a-day dialysis treatments. In 2000, he suffered a major stroke.

Buchwald first attracted notice in the late 1940s in Paris, where he became a correspondent for Variety after dropping out of college.

A year later, he took a trial column called “Paris After Dark” to the New York Herald Tribune. He filled it with scraps of offbeat information about Paris nightlife.

In 1951, he started another column, “Mostly About People,” featuring interviews with celebrities in Paris. The next year, the Herald Tribune introduced Buchwald to U.S. readers through yet another column, “Europe’s Lighter Side.”

“I’ll Always Have Paris!” is the title of a 1996 book. He celebrated his 80th birthday at a party at the French Embassy in Washington.

Among the many who visited Buchwald at the hospice was French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte, who brought a medal honoring the 14 years Buchwald spent as a journalist in Paris.

His own national lampoon Buchwald returned to the United States in 1962, at the height of the glamour of the Kennedy administration, and set himself up in an office just two blocks from the White House. From there, he began a long career lampooning the Washington power establishment.

Over the years, he discovered the allure of show business and in 1970 he wrote the Broadway play “Sheep on the Runway.”

But he was best known in that realm for the court battle over “Coming to America.” A judge ruled that Paramount Pictures had stolen Buchwald’s idea and in 1992 awarded $900,000 to him and a partner.

The case dated to a 1983 Paramount contract for rights to Buchwald’s story “King for a Day.” The studio had dropped its option to make such a movie in 1985, three years before releasing “Coming to America” without credit to Buchwald.

Both stories involved an African prince who comes to America in search of a bride.

Paramount argued that the two stories were not that similar. After the judge ruled in Buchwald’s favor, Paramount lawyers insisted in the trial’s next phase that the film failed to produce any net profits. The case became a celebrated example of “Hollywood accounting.”

The judge wound up awarding Buchwald and his partner far less than the millions they had sought, but the columnist said he was satisfied.

A child of the Depression battled his own
Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Oct. 25, 1925, Buchwald had a difficult childhood. He and his three sisters were sent to foster homes when their mother was institutionalized for mental illness. Their father, a drapery salesman, suffered Depression-era financial troubles and couldn’t afford them.

At 17, Buchwald ran away to join the Marines and spent 3½ years in the Pacific during World War II, attaining the rank of sergeant and spending much of his time editing a Corps newspaper.

After the war, he enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he became managing editor of the campus humor magazine and a columnist for the student paper. But he dropped out in 1948 and headed for Paris on a one-way ticket.

He married Ann McGarry, of Warren, Pa., in London on Oct. 12, 1952. The writer and one-time fashion coordinator for Neiman-Marcus later wrote a book with her husband. They adopted three children.

She died in 1994. In 2000, Buchwald published his first novel, “Stella In Heaven: Almost a Novel,” about a widower who can communicate with his deceased wife.

Despite his successes, the perennial funny man said he battled depression in 1963 and 1987. “You do get over it, and you get over it a better person,” he once said of the illness.

Buchwald is survived by son Joel Buchwald, of Washington; daughters Jennifer Buchwald, of Roxbury, Mass.; and Connie Buchwald Marks, of Culpeper, Va.; sisters Edith Jaffe, of Bellevue, Wash., and Doris Kahme, of Delray Beach, Fla., and Monroe Township, N.J.; and five grandchildren.

A family spokeswoman said Buchwald would be interred at the Vineyard Haven Cemetery in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where his wife Ann is buried.