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In Memoriam at 81, Columnist Art Buchwald

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Do you know in American history, or world history for that matter, anyone who has gone from dying in a hospice to living another year with renewed fame, international acknowledgment, plaudits and gifts from world celebrities?

During his last year — half of it spent in the hospice, a quarter in Martha’s Vineyard and the final months at his son’s home in Washington — one man wrote a dozen newspaper columns to add to the 8,000 he already had written, added a new book to the 30 he already had published, and then slipped off Wednesday to eternal rest, or wherever this famous and beloved character has gone.

The man is Art Buchwald — a Jew, a writer, a celebrity and a mensch.

Here’s the story of Art Buchwald’s last year. Suffering from kidney disease, he entered a Washington hospice Feb. 7 after deciding that he didn’t want to prolong his life by having dialysis five hours a day, three days a week.

One leg already had been amputated for other reasons, and Buchwald figured, “I had two decisions. Continue dialysis, and that’s boring to do three times a week, and I don’t know where that’s going, or I can just enjoy life and see where it takes me.”

From February until July, Buchwald entertained family and friends, political and artistic glitterati at the hospice. When he didn’t die and his kidneys seemed to be functioning again, he returned to summer at Martha’s Vineyard, continuing his tradition of working the annual summer auction to raise funds for local social service agencies.

The hospice stay became almost a well-publicized celebrity roast.

Visitors came by the Washington Hospice Center not only to shmooze and reminisce but to bring Buchwald his favorite foods like Big Macs, corned beef and other previously forbidden delicacies. The mere mention from Buchwald that he liked hot pastrami resulted in 10 sandwiches from guests the next day.

With all the newspaper columns about him and all the radio and television interviews he gave, pretty soon hundreds of people were writing to Buchwald, thanking him for a brave decision that strengthened their resolve to end life their way, whatever that might be.

Born to Joseph and Helen Buchwald in New York in 1925, Buchwald saw his mother institutionalized for acute depression when he was 3 years old, and never saw her again. His father, unable to care for Buchwald and three older sisters, placed them in a Seventh-day Adventist home in Flushing, N.Y. Two years later they were transferred to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Manhattan.

Buchwald ran away at age 17 in 1942 to join the Marines. He said he hired a guy from Skid Row to act as his father because kids under 18 needed parental approval to enlist.

Buchwald served more than three years in the Pacific and, while never a great supporter of war, he always cherished and helped the Marine Corps.

After World War II Buchwald attended the University of Southern California and edited the campus magazine — but he never graduated because the school discovered he didn’t have a high school diploma.

So Buchwald went to Paris, where a small job at the International Herald Tribune morphed into several humor/gossip/satire columns that were very well-received by expatriates, tourists and soldiers.

As a 20-year-old airman stationed in Paris, I heard Buchwald speak at a noontime cultural session at the American embassy in 1956. At the end of the talk I knew for sure that this man, besides doing his work well, loved and enjoyed it. He was the funniest guy I had ever heard in person.

In 1962 Buchwald took his column to Washington, churning out three columns a week that were syndicated in 700 newspapers.

Buchwald always seemed amazed that Washington politicians made his job so easy.

“Just when you think there’s nothing to write about, Nixon says, ‘I am not a crook'; Jimmy Carter says, ‘I have lusted after women in my heart'; and President Reagan says, ‘I have just taken a urinalysis test and I am not on dope.’ You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.”

Buchwald and his wife, Ann McGarry, adopted three children. Though they divorced in the 1990s, they remained good friends. Buchwald will be buried next to Ann on Martha’s Vineyard.

Buchwald always had a marvelous relationship with colleagues, readers and aspiring writers. Dave Barry spoke this week about how Buchwald wrote to him and congratulated him on his work when Barry was a new hand and Buchwald the old pro. They became friends, and Barry was one of the many who saw Buchwald in the past year.

Many stories tell of his availability, his phone number listed in the Washington directory and his invitations to aspiring writers to have coffee, bagels and talk.

In 1985, Ervin Duggan wrote in the Washingtonian that Buchwald was “the bad boy tweaking the nose of the establishment [with] the countenance of a Jewish leprechaun.”

In 1989, Buchwald wrote, “If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it.”

Both men were right.

A memorial service will be held in Washington, and lots of people will be remembering Art Buchwald with his own words. After all, how can you not love and quote the man who said, “Now that Henry Kissinger has left Washington, I am the last remaining sex symbol here.”

Hearing of Buchwald’s death, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) called him “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,” Kennedy said. “The special art of Art Buchwald was to make even the worst of times better.”

Buchwald’s take on his impending death was part humor columnist, part rabbi.

“I have no idea where I’m going, but here’s the real question: What am I doing here in the first place?” he said. “It’s what you do on Earth and the good deeds you do on Earth that are important.”

In that spirit, his last year was a curtain call of many sweet and exquisite moments and good deeds.

Lehitraot, Art. From all of us.

Dov Burt Levy, a former political science professor and government official, is a columnist for the Jewish Journal Boston North.

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