Art Buchwald, the familiar, funny and irreverent Pulitzer-Prize winning newspaper columnist whose decision to refuse kidney dialysis and end his life earned him international acclaim early last year, died peacefully at home late Wednesday night in Washington, D.C. He was 81.
Mr. Buchwald, who spent the past summer at his longtime home in Vineyard Haven and took his place behind the podium at the Martha's Vineyard Community Services Possible Dreams auction for a final time, had been living with his son Joel Buchwald and daughter in law Tamara Buchwald. Both were with him at the time of his death.
"He died on his own terms. This was the way he wanted it. So this last year became a victory lap for him. It gave him the opportunity to catch up with people, and he had an opportunity to say goodbye, and not too many people get that opportunity," Joel Buchwald said yesterday.
Last February Mr. Buchwald, who was in renal failure and had lost one leg, made a conscious decision to refuse dialysis and checked into a hospice in Washington. But instead of dying, Mr. Buchwald made a remarkable comeback, achieving new celebrity status and handling it all with trademark humor.
"I've become a landmark. I'm like the Lincoln Memorial," he quipped in an April interview with the Gazette at the Community Hospice of Washington. "Someone called CNN and said Art's going to die, well let's put him on the air. But I'm still alive."
In November he published a book about his experience titled Too Soon to Say Goodbye. Also in November, the National Press Foundation awarded him the W.M. Kiplinger Award for Distinguished Contributions to Journalism. He was meant to receive the award at a dinner in February.
He wrote 33 books, one play and hundreds of columns over a career that spanned more than half a century. He was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Outstanding Commentary in 1982, and in 1986 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He also wrote his own biography, which appears separately and unedited in this edition.
Born on Dec. 12, 1925, in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., he was the son of an Austrian-born drape installer. His mother suffered from chronic depression and was institutionalized shortly after he was born. He grew up in the New York city borough of Queens in a series of foster homes. In his book Leaving Home, he wrote that he discovered at an early age that clowning around and drawing laughs was a way to relieve the loneliness and confusion in his life. At age 17, he left home to join the U.S. Marine Corps, and served in the Pacific Theatre from 1942 to 1945.
He enrolled at the University of Southern California under the G.I. Bill. There he was managing editor of the campus magazine and wrote a column for the university newspaper, The Daily Trojan.
In 1948, he left the university without a degree and bought a one-way ticket to Paris, where he landed a job as a correspondent for the Paris bureau of Variety. In 1949, he took a sample column to the Paris offices of the International Herald Tribune, and was hired to write a man-about-town column. His columns soon were published in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, and he traveled all over Europe to gather material for them.
He returned to the United States in 1962 to live in Washington, D.C.
Outgoing and good-natured to a fault, the gravelly-voiced and formerly cigar-chomping Mr. Buchwald had a newspaperman's dream job: writing a column that skewered politicians, celebrities and anyone who was overly serious.
This included residents of the Vineyard. In 1966, after his first visit to the Vineyard, Mr. Buchwald wrote a column suggesting that what the Island really needed was a bridge to the mainland. After the column drew howls of protest from dyed-in-the-wool Islanders, Mr. Buchwald wrote a letter to the Gazette that made it clear he was kidding.
The next year he began coming to the Vineyard as a summer resident, and soon after that bought his home in the area near West Chop that has been dubbed Writers Row, because its residents included William Styron, John Hersey and Mike Wallace. All were his friends.
"Art Buchwald shamed his friend, Mike Wallace, into buying a house on the Island they both loved so much by telling Mike that his tombstone would read, ‘He was only a renter,' " recalled his friend and Vineyard Haven neighbor Sheldon Hackney yesterday.
Politics provided much of the material for his columns nearly until the time of his death. After the death of former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet interrupted a book party for Mr. Buchwald in New York, he wrote a column laying out his strategy for how to land a big obituary.
Over the years he also wrote many columns zinging the social hierarchy on the Vineyard - and no one was immune, from former President Clinton, whose summer White House years on the Island were a field day for the columnist, to the Benjamin Hall family, whom he dubbed The Brothers Grimm in a column last summer in reaction to their Capawock theatre antics.
In 2002 he announced his plans for burial in a column:
"I have decided to do it. I am going to be cremated and then have my ashes dropped over every cocktail party on Martha's Vineyard. It's the only way I can make all the parties held here in the summer," he wrote. "I want Cape Air, the friendly, nine-seat airline to take me."
In the interview with the Gazette at the Washington hospice, Mr. Buchwald relived many of his Vineyard memories, at times turning serious.
"That's what it is, there is something about the Vineyard that binds us all together," he said. "On the Vineyard the big question is not who you are but where you've been and why you've been there. Each thing, each moment has a meaning, a place, a trail you might have walked on. The Vineyard is a very important part of my life, it's an important part of everyone's life who goes there, even when we're not there."
On the Vineyard Mr. Buchwald is perhaps best known for his many years wielding the gavel and raising millions of dollars for the annual Possible Dreams auction for Community Services.
"After I started I realized I couldn't get out of it and I was stuck . . . but even though you were on vacation it was a way to give back," he recalled in the Gazette interview.
"His contributions were in every single area on the Island - but his most official and probably most prolific was the auction, and probably more Islanders will remember his face as it appeared on the front page of so many Gazettes in early August," said his friend Carly Simon, who has been the main celebrity attraction at the auction for years.
But Ms. Simon insisted that she was only a sidekick to Mr. Buchwald. "I was proud to be his sidekick and to be a tiny light alongside his great big light," she said.
At his request, this fall she penned a song to accompany Too Soon to Say Goodbye.
"The world of the printed word has lost a great icon," declared Ann Nelson, owner of the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore yesterday. Ms. Nelson said a sign went up in the bookstore bidding farewell to Mr. Buchwald. "He always told me I had the power to make or break a writer's racket, and he said, ‘I love her especially when she puts my book in the window,' " Ms. Nelson recalled.
She said Too Soon to Say Goodbye is now in the window at the Bunch of Grapes.
Some years ago, Mr. Buchwald's friend, the late author John Hersey, found a private cemetery tucked into the woods at West Chop. "We called everybody - all our friends - Styron and everyone. We said you've got a place to die. John Hersey is there, my wife is there and that's where I am going. I think I want it to be put on my stone: To be or not to be, that is a good question," he said.
But his friend and Vineyard Haven neighbor Sheldon Hackney had another idea yesterday. "His tombstone in the cemetery on Main street in Vineyard Haven will have to be gigantic to contain even the briefest descriptions of all the ways Art's life was intertwined with the life of the Vineyard and its people. He was a benefactor and a beneficiary, a citizen and an observer, an ordinary Vineyarder and a charismatic celebrity. To have been one of Art's friends is not an extraordinary thing because there were so many of us. Yet, to have been Art's friend was a singularly enriching experience for Lucy and me. He was amazing," Mr. Hackney concluded.
Mr. Buchwald was predeceased by his wife Ann in 1994. He is survived by three children and one daughter-in-law, Joel and Tamara of Washington, D.C., Connie Marks of Culpepper, Va., and Jennifer Buchwald of Boston; two sisters and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held in Washington, D.C. at a time to be announced, and a summer memorial service is planned on the Vineyard.