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Art Buchwald's Life of Letters and Humor

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Art Buchwald, the humorist who became a Washington institution, died yesterday at his home in Washington, about a year after refusing treatment for kidney failure. He was 81.

CHADWICK: Once, his column was carried in hundreds of newspapers. He poked fun at the foibles of celebrities and politicians. He privately struggled with depression. But later in his life, he talked publicly about it, hoping to help others.

Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: There was little in young Arthur Buchwald's situation that seemed very funny. His father went broke in the Depression, his mother was institutionalized shortly after his birth. And Art and his sisters were shuttled between an orphanage and separate foster homes. It was an often wretchedly unhappy and hugless childhood. But in this 1994 interview with NPR, Buchwald said he had no idea.

Mr. ART BUCHWALD (Humorist): While I was living it, I don't think I said this is rotten. I did discover early in life I could make people laugh. And that's what changed my life, because as long that I can make them laugh, I could get a lot of love.

FOLKENFLIK: Buchwald didn't finish high school. Instead he dropped out at 17 to join the Marines during the World War II and served in the Pacific. After the war, he went to the University of Southern California on the GI bill and wrote columns for student newspapers but dropped out again to head to Europe. He forced his way onto the Herald Tribune there, recounting anecdotes about restaurateurs, celebrities, and the occasional monarch.

A true believer in the value of a good stunt for a column, he once marched in a Mayday parade in East Berlin and headed to Turkey, ostensibly to write about Turkish bathhouses but finding none.

Ben Bradlee, who became the executive editor of the Washington Post, was one of Buchwald's best friends. Bradlee says Buchwald relied on current events for inspiration most of the time.

Mr. BEN BRADLEE (Executive Editor, Washington Post): My God, he wrote nine zillion columns. He wrote a very famous one about explaining Thanksgiving to the French. He used to run it every Thanksgiving, got an extra day off.

FOLKENFLIK: Buchwald returned to America in 1961 because he said it was a better place to raise his children. Politics became his primary focus, and he found Washington rich with targets. In 1974, Buchwald told graduates at Holy Cross College that, quote, "As a humor columnist, I need President Nixon more than he needs me. I worship the quicksand he walks on." He continued writing, winning a Pulitzer for commentary in 1982.

He also wrote books and plays, and pitched a script to Paramount Pictures about an African prince visiting the U.S. But Paramount made the Eddie Murphy movie "Coming to America" with the same storyline and said it wasn't Buchwald's plot. He sued, not for plagiarism, but for a breach of contract. When the case went to court, the studio claimed the hit movie didn't make any profits. In this NPR interview back in 1990, Buchwald offered Paramount his help.

Mr. BUCHWALD: At the moment, the picture made between $350 million and $400 million, but there were no profits. It is now our job to go out there and find some. Maybe they forgot. They may have left them in the park, or they may have left them in a boat. We'll find it somewhere.

FOLKENFLIK: Paramount settled. But the case laid bare Hollywood's dishonest accounting schemes. Throughout his successes, Buchwald battled depression. So did two of his neighbors on Martha's Vineyard, CBS newsman Mike Wallace and the author William Styron. The three men called themselves the Blues Brothers. Wallace says Buchwald tried to joke the others into a good mood.

Mr. MIKE WALLACE (Journalist): No matter where I was in the United States or abroad, he would find me and try to talk me out of the slough of despond that I was in.

FOLKENFLIK: Buchwald later wrote about his depression, hoping to share with others the ability to endure such pain. Last year, he also suffered a series of setbacks to his health when his kidneys started to fail. He refused dialysis and instead prepared for his own death. Mike Wallace asked his friend about his legacy.

Mr. WALLACE: He virtually shouted it. Joy. That's what I'm going to leave behind.

FOLKENFLIK: When Buchwald spoke to NPR last year, he said he was ready for his death.

Mr. BUCHWALD: I've had a good life. I'm 80 years old. And I'm going out the way I want to.

FOLKENFLIK: Instead, he unexpectedly lived for another year. And Buchwald enjoyed the celebration of his life by family, friends and fans.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.