Art Buchwald: Still taking bids

Art Buchwald. Photo by Ralph Stewart
A podium, a hat, and nobody does it better. File Photo by Ralph Stewart

By CK Wolfson - August 3, 2006

Art Buchwald chose death and decided to live. While much remains the same, there has been a perceivable shift in that which surrounds him.

His throne has wheels. The commotion around him contains a more palpable tenderness. The appreciation he expresses to the people around him seems more pointed. And if one could turn off the sound and just watch the picture, the scene would be one of visible and deep contentment.

"Yes, I'm born again," he says, "and I'm enjoying it." Pause. "I'm just happy."

For all his years in Washington, D.C., mingling with power brokers and dignitaries, the Pulitzer prize-winning writer's sentences, raspy and a little slurred, retain a New York cadence and finish in a sort of badda-bing, upward snap. "If everybody has a private line to God, and He doesn't answer the phone, you're OK," Mr. Buchwald quips, grinning broadly.

He is clearly looking forward to being on the podium at the Monday's Possible Dreams Auction - his 26th year of cajoling bids and banging the gavel. During his long reign, Mr. Buchwald has raised more than $4 million for Martha's Vineyard Community Services. He describes some of the calls he's made to extract outrageously lavish gifts from outrageously privileged donors. Dick Ebersol is donating four tickets to Sunday night football. Former President Bill Clinton is signing his golf putter and contributing it.

Art Buchwald with Robert Brustein, Peter Stray, and Paul Munafo. Photo by Ralph Stewart
At the Vineyard Playhouse reading of his play, "Sheep on the Runway," a smiling Buchwald receives the approval of cast members Robert Brustein (left), Peter Stray, and Paul Munafo. Photo by Ralph Stewart

Mr. Buchwald is especially determined to have different people from Community Services stand and be recognized. "They do all this, and nobody knows who they are," he says, noting that he currently receives daily visits from Visiting Nurses, one of the agencies that benefits from the proceeds of the auction.

This past February, after his leg was amputated below the knee due to a vascular ailment and his kidneys failed, he checked into a Washington, D.C., hospice in order to plan the details of his funeral...and stage a gentle exit. His well-chronicled stay was given international and national media coverage. Ambassadors, government leaders, authors, and entertainment icons came to bid farewell and pay homage. "In hospice I had time to say everything I wanted to say," he says, referring to those messages for his close friends and children Connie, Joel, Jennifer and their spouses.

And then, inexplicably, after he decided against dialysis, Mr. Buchwald's kidneys began functioning again. He regained his color and strength. Beating all the odds, he left the hospice after a five-month stay, and headed for the Vineyard Haven home where he has spent summers since the 1960s. "I didn't plan on staying around, but the fact that I am still here - I love it," he practically shouts.

It is affecting to be able to see his life from this vantage, he says; to realize the difference he made with his thousands of syndicated columns, his 30 books, and the support he has lent charities such as those for foster children (of whom he was one). "I didn't realize I had that many friends. So that was good. I have 4,000 letters from people I've known in all walks of my life," he says, itemizing: the Marines, the foster children's home, his days as a columnist for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune.

Early afternoon. The bright and spacious Vineyard Haven house has, as always, a slightly chaotic feel: phones ringing, screen doors slamming people coming and going, messages being called out - did you, will you, do you. The stack of ever-present newspapers, his phone, and the iced drinks have always been kept close to his chair in front of the large television. He has always been irascible, and he has always reigned.

"I've discovered based on my own life, that people die the way they lived. Someone said that and it's true," he says, "there are some people who are content, and say, 'I'm going home,' and some people who have unfinished business, and say, 'I have to get to the office.'"

Long-time close friends Lucy Hackney and Rose Styron have joined the humorist for lunch at the porch table. The conversation centers on the details of the auction, who's donating what, and among the names that are served up are Kennedy, Carly, Clinton. His friend and protective helper, Islander Tania Stobie, brings out plates of chicken salad.

Son Joel and his smiling wife Tamara fold laundry in the kitchen. Long-time assistant Cathy Crary, who came from Virginia to add her caring touch, signals that she's going out. "Love ya," Buchwald growls, and over her shoulder she calls back, "Love you, too." Two grandchildren, three-year-old Corbin and 21-month-old Tate, run naked back and forth across the lawn in perfect demonstration of the word frolic.

The phone rings and it's NPR trying to arrange an interview; rings again and it's the wife of a network mogul wishing him well; rings again and it's the reporter from the New York Times, wanting to know if he's dying. "You can't refer to me as the late Art Buchwald," he instructs.

Lunch over, guests departed, Mr. Buchwald announces that he's tired, but before settling into the chair to begin his daily nap, he offers: "I thought I had accomplished everything I wanted, but here I am, so there are still things to do. But I'm relaxed. I'm sitting on this lovely porch and people come in and see me like I'm the Pope."

Without changing his tone or inflection, he continues, "It's as if someone else wrote the script. I didn't expect it. I expected to die - particularly because I made the decision not to go on with dialysis. I didn't expect the attention. But it came, and I am happy."