Looking At a Book About Columnist Art Buchwald Titled “Funny Business”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Dave Shiflett of the book by Michael Hill titled “Funny Business”:

The world is thick with commentators who are indistinguishable in their pretensions to glamour and wisdom. The late and legendary Art Buchwald (1925-2007), the subject of Michael Hill’s admiring biography, “Funny Business,” was cut from a different cloth. Short and a bit of a pudge, he primarily wrote satirical newspaper columns. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, though he parked seven or eight cigars there most days. His praises are well worth singing.

Mr. Hill, a historical researcher who has worked with a wide range of luminaries, including John McCain, Walter Mondale and Ken Burns, begins with Buchwald’s recollection of his rough start. “Soon after I was born, my mother was confined to a mental institution, where she remained for thirty-five years. With my three sisters, I was placed in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York, and then boarded out with foster parents . . . in eight different kinds of homes with God knows how many strangers.” His father too was mostly a stranger.

Yet Buchwald had big dreams. He joined the Marines at 17, seeing action in the Marshall Islands during World War II, then used the GI Bill at the University of Southern California and for a study program that took him to Paris. “I wanted to stuff myself with baguettes and snails, fill my pillow with rejection slips, and find a French girl named Mimi who believed that I was the greatest writer in the world.”

A job would be necessary to finance this vision, and readers experiencing a stall in their professional life may find inspiration in Buchwald’s job-seeking technique. Though he was without contacts or credentials and could hardly write a lick, he approached an editor at the International Herald Tribune with a column idea. The initial response had an air of finality: “Get the hell out of here!” Unbowed, Buchwald waited for the nay-sayer to go on vacation, then told his stand-in that the initial meeting had gone swimmingly. “Paris After Dark” was launched. From such humble beginnings Buchwald’s later columns would eventually be syndicated to 550 papers in 100 countries.

Paris, Mr. Hill writes, was Oz for Buchwald. His star rose, and he made lots of A-list friends and admirers, including Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, Peter Ustinov, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. He married, adopted three children and eventually followed a new dream: moving in 1962 to Washington, D.C., a land of fat satirical targets.

Buchwald sweated little blood while writing his thrice-weekly column. He typically knocked off the 600-word pieces in less than an hour, ran the jokes by an assistant, then headed to Sans Souci, where he might rub feedbags with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. He enjoyed friendships with a vast array of rainmakers, including several Kennedys.

Was he too much an insider to afflict the powerful? Buchwald didn’t think so. “I’ve always been against the establishment, whatever it is, and I think most humorists should be against the establishment, whoever is in power.” His willingness to ruffle at least some official feathers was affirmed six years after his death, when it was disclosed that the National Security Agency had been ordered to conduct secret surveillance of Buchwald in the 1960s, due to columns ridiculing LBJ’s Vietnam policies.

How funny was Buchwald? More than a few readers, encountering his columns in the Washington Post in the 1980s and 1990s, might say: not enough. Or perhaps readers found them increasingly lame and tame. But Christopher Buckley calls him “the funniest human being on earth” in a glowing introduction, and while some Buchwald quotations presented by Mr. Hill may seem a bit flat, he could pull off a good line. “Frankly, I did so poorly in science I still don’t know how to make a hydrogen bomb,” he admitted in artful self-deprecation, though he did better in the humanities: “You can’t learn from history, unless you rewrite it.” In an imaginary letter to Soviet chieftain Mikhail Gorbachev about a treaty to dismantle nuclear missiles, he asked: “Where are you going to bury the warheads? If you haven’t decided yet, may I put in a good word for Cleveland?”

Mr. Hill tells us that Buchwald harvested plenty of bucks, both from his column (and column collections) and from the lecture circuit. By the late 1970s, his annual salary was around $2 million in today’s dollars. He also won a Pulitzer, penned a Broadway play, and successfully sued Paramount for swiping his and a co-writer’s movie idea that became Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” (1988).

There was a dark lining to his golden cloud, including hospitalization for depression and the collapse of his marriage. In 2003, Mr. Hill writes, Buchwald told his readers that the Herald Tribune, “the paper that had been part of his life for nearly fifty-three years, would no longer run his column.”

Two years later, when he was 79, vascular distress forced the amputation of his lower right leg. Yet his sense of humor didn’t desert him. Death came on Jan. 17, 2007, preceded by a request that his ashes “be spilled over every Trump building in New York”—a complimentary fairy dusting of sorts. A friend planning a hospital visit received, also free of charge, an aphorism for the ages: “Dying is easy. Parking is impossible.”

Dave Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com.

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