Art Buchwald

'Class clown' who became the US's best-known newspaper humorist
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The Independent Online

Arthur Buchwald, humorist: born Mount Vernon, New York 20 October 1925; married 1952 Ann McGarry (one adopted son, two adopted daughters); died Washington, DC 17 January 2007.

"Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time you've got," Art Buchwald would remark in a rare philosophical moment. Grab it while you can, in other words - and the man who was America's best-known newspaper humorist in the second half of the 20th century did so with both hands.

Indeed he wouldn't let go. In February 2006 Buchwald refused dialysis for his failing kidneys and entered a hospice, expecting to be gone in a couple of weeks. Instead his stay turned into a months-long "leaving-life" party. "In case you're wondering," he informed delighted readers as he even resumed his regular column in The Washington Post, "I'm having a swell time - the best time of my life."

If suffering is an essential ingredient of great comedy, then Buchwald was proof perfect of that rule. He never met his mother, who was consigned to a mental home soon after his birth. His Austrian Jewish immigrant father was a curtain-maker who struggled to make a living in New York though the Depression. Buchwald and his three sisters spent their childhood in a succession of orphanages and foster homes, including a spell at the grim Hebrew Orphan Asylum at 135th and Amsterdam Avenue.

Amid the misery however, the humorist quickly discovered his vocation. "I had one goal and that was to make people laugh," Buchwald wrote in Leaving Home, his wonderful description of his childhood, published in 1993:

I adopted the role of class clown, I made fun of authority figures, from the principal of the public school to the social worker who visited me each month. Performing for laughs was my salvation.

Some 60 years later he went back to the HOA for its 150th anniversary dinner and addressed the obvious question head-on: "How do you become a humorist? Well, first you have to be a foster-child." Laughter, in short, became a weapon for survival:

All my life I have been able to sense a person's weak spot . . . I use humour as a way to insult. For me, being funny is the best revenge.

By now Buchwald was the very image of the street-wise, smart-assed New York Jewish kid. As a part-time flower delivery boy, he quickly realised that hanging around and embarrassing the guests at a funeral was the best way of getting a big tip. When he wanted more glamorous work, he hustled his way into a job as a messenger at Paramount Pictures in New York, which gave him an early first-hand glimpse of celebrities.

Next, somewhat astonishingly, came the US Marines. A less military man than Art Buchwald was hard to imagine, but for a 16-year-old trying to forget an unhappy childhood (and, he later claimed, an unrequited love affair) the Marines in 1942 were "the right service in the right place at the right time". With its mixture of discipline and cameraderie, the military offered a substitute for the family Buchwald never really had."

True to form, he talked his way into the service, without either qualification or parental approval. After training in North Carolina, he was sent off to Los Angeles en route to the war in the Pacific. It was a riotous interlude in a city teeming with pretty young women and young soldiers heading off to the front. "If you're going to fight a good and just world war, then every young man should be stationed in LA just once," he would remark.

War itself however was less fun. Buchwald's most rewarding job with his Marine aviation squadron in the Marshall Islands was editing a mimeographed newsletter called The U-Man Comedy. He nursed no illusions about his military prowess; indeed, as a fellow vet recalled, he possessed "the ability to screw up a two car funeral". But service in the Marines taught Buchwald a fundamental lesson - "that the secret of a long life was to keep my mouth shut and never, ever, volunteer for a better assignment".

The Marines also taught him how to smoke his trademark cigars. Buchwald was an eight-a-day man until he was almost 60. Cigars were variously pacifier or stimulant, depending on his mood. Above all they bought time:

If someone asks you a tough question you can stall for as much as 20 seconds by inhaling and then slowly withdrawing the cigar from your mouth and letting the smoke come out.

On 12 November 1945, Buchwald was discharged, and he was soon hustling once more. Though he didn't have even a high-school diploma, he talked himself into the University of Southern California at LA. He was a lousy student, but edited Wampus, the college humour magazine, and grew all the while more certain that he wanted to write for a living. Then an unwitting genius let slip the idea that changed his life: why not apply for money available under the GI Bill and head for that eternal Mecca of aspiring writers, Paris?

Thus the 23-year-old Buchwald set off for Europe, without even bothering to graduate from USC. The years in France were magical. For impressionable young Americans, the Paris of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s was the city of Sartre and Camus, of expatriate writers such as Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin. A smattering of Franglais allowed you to work for that most romance-drenched of all newspapers, the old Paris Herald Tribune. At the end of the day, you could drink at Harry's Bar at SANK ROO DOE NOO, as the daily small ad in the Trib used to give the address for those unfamiliar with the niceties of French pronunciation.

Buchwald started as a legman for the local stringer of Variety magazine, before convincing a Trib editor to hire him to write a weekly feature and do a spot of restaurant reviewing, for the princely sum of $25 a week. Thus was born the "Paris after Dark" column, and Art Buchwald had found his trade for the next 60 years.

For him, the city was paradise on earth. It offered a high life for which someone else almost always picked up the bill, and enough deflatable celebrity egos to last a lifetime. It was in Paris that he met his wife, Ann, with whom he was to adopt three children. The period was celebrated in Buchwald's memoir I'll Always Have Paris (1996), inferior to Leaving Home as a work of autobiography, but dazzling in its collection of anecdotes. Buchwald danced with Audrey Hepburn, challenged Rex Harrison to a duel (the invitation was turned down), crashed carnival balls in Venice and wangled an invitation for Grace Kelly's marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956.

That social coup was achieved thanks to a column which Buchwald's lifelong friend Ben Bradlee, later Editor of The Washington Post but then working in Newsweek's Paris bureau, swore was his funniest ever - a flight of fancy revolving around a feud between the Buchwalds and the Grimaldis dating back to the 13th century, and which had kept young Rainier from the most recent Buchwald family wedding in Brooklyn. "Of course," Bradlee later wrote, "Art got his invitation to the church, by personal courier from the palace, as soon as the Herald Tribune hit the streets of Monte Carlo."

In 1962, Buchwald returned to the United States. By now he was one of the country's most widely syndicated columnists, primarily associated with The Washington Post, but appearing at one point in as many as 550 papers. Despite the plaudits and the fame, life was not as easy as it seemed. For all the Jewish chutzpah, Buchwald was deeply sensitive and prone to terrible bouts of self-doubt. In both 1963 and 1987 he suffered depressive breakdowns, spurred by the fear he would never make anyone laugh again.

But make them laugh he did, for as long as he put pen to paper, poking fun at the presidents, politicians and other luminaries of the age - without malice, but employing a delicious satire, turning conventional political analysis inside out. Take the famous 18 1/2 minute gap on one of the Watergate tapes, assumed to have been a deliberate erasure of damning comments by Richard Nixon. Not so, argued Buchwald; it was caused by Nixon humming.

Buchwald was a workaholic, but he made humour seem effortless. The morning papers usually provided an idea and by 11.30, the column written, he was prowling the Post's office in search of luncheon partners. Along the way there was an almost yearly book, a Pulitzer Prize in 1982, as well as a play called Sheep on the Runway, dealing with the farcical misadventures of a snooty Washington newspaper columnist visiting a remote Asian country.

In 2000 he published his first novel, Stella in Heaven. That year a stroke briefly slowed him down. But the advent of George W. Bush provided rich new material, and the twice-weekly Post columns continued to appear, until shortly before his death. In November he even published another book, Too Soon to Say Goodbye. Decades earlier, however, Buchwald had become a listed national monument - proof of his own aphorism, "If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it."

Rupert Cornwell

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