Art Buchwald, the political humorist, would probably not make it onto many lists of “great authors.” But he had such compelling comments about his own impending death that he has earned a place in this particular pantheon. Sent to a hospice to spend his last days with terminal kidney disease, Buchwald was known there as “The Man Who Would Not Die.”
Born October 20, 1925, in New York City, Buchwald never graduated from high school, but still won a Pulitzer Prize—not once, but twice—for his newspaper columns. Raised in several foster homes, he was too young to join the Marine Corps in World War II without parental permission, so he bribed a Skid Row drunk with a pint of whiskey to impersonate his legal guardian. He served in the Pacific for three years and after the war he managed to enroll at the University of Southern California, but was denied a degree when it was discovered he lacked a high school diploma.
He went to Paris and talked his way onto the staff of the European edition of The New York Herald Tribune as a columnist, writing about Paris night life. The column morphed into a wide-ranging satirical commentary syndicated in The Washington Post and many other newspapers.
In Paris Buchwald met an American publicist named Ann McGarry, and they were married in London’s Westminster Cathedral at a Catholic ceremony arranged by Lena Horne and attended by Gene Kelly, Rosemary Clooney, John Huston, José Ferrer, and Perle Mesta. The Buchwalds divorced after forty years, but reconciled shortly before her death in 1994.
At the age of seventy-four Buchwald suffered a stroke, which left him partly incapacitated. His condition worsened over the years and in February of 2006, when he was eighty, his leg was amputated owing to poor circulation, and he entered a hospice suffering from kidney failure, anticipating his “last hurrah.”
He had discontinued dialysis treatment and expected to live only a few weeks. “If you have to go, the way you go is a big deal,” he told an interviewer. He added that he was happy with his choice and was eating regularly at McDonald’s. He continued to write his syndicated humor column during that time.
A few months later, still in the hospice, he wrote: “I am writing this article from a hospice. But being in the hospice didn't work out exactly the way I wanted it to. By all rights I should have finished my time here five or six weeks ago—at least that's all Medicare would pay for."
He told a radio interviewer that his kidney was working again and that he blessed it every morning. “Some people bless their hearts,” he said. “I bless my kidney.”
In July he left the hospice for his home on Martha’s Vineyard. “I am known in the hospice as the Man Who Wouldn’t Die….I think some people are starting to wonder why I’m still around,” he said.
He was able to complete another book, called Too Soon to Say Goodbye. Of his future he wrote: “I don't know what's coming next and neither does anyone else. It's something that we do have to face but the thing is that a lot of people don't want to face it. And there's denial. If somebody says it, like me, everybody feels a little better that they can discuss it.”
Buchwald hung around until January 17, 2007, when he died at the age of eighty-one—of kidney failure—at his son’s home in Washington, D.C. He left a videotape that was posted on the website of The New York Times, in which he declared: “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”
Buchwald was buried on Martha’s Vineyard in West Chop Cemetery, in a service with a United States Marine Corps color guard and personal tributes from a small gathering of family and friends, who included Mike Wallace, Robert Brustein, and Walter Cronkite. There was a reading of his favorite poem, “In Flanders Field,” an a cappella song by Carly Simon, an informal choral rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and a recitation by Buchwald’s physician, Dr. Michael Newman, of the Kaddish, the traditional Hebrew prayer of mourning.