Art Buchwald: On the Vineyard, still
We were used to seeing him appear on the Island, grinning like Lewis Carroll's mischievous Cheshire Cat, offering observations, entertainment and, with a consummate respect for irreverence, gristly bits of truth, seasoned with humor to make them digestible. And like the Cheshire Cat, he is gone.
Author, playwright, humanitarian, and a Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnist, Art Buchwald, 81, died of kidney failure on Jan. 16. The last six months of his life were dedicated to the full-hearted demonstration of the continuity between life and death, and he spent that time celebrating both in a manner that inspired.
A person of fierce conviction and remarkable intelligence, Buchwald had a way of squeezing 10 minutes out of every five. While he basked in the limelight of his celebrity ("My only fear is that I'll die on a day when someone more famous dies"), he made it his business to wring every ounce of joy out of each day, despite his having a stone hard childhood, a bout of clinical depression in the 1960s, manic depression in 1987, and a massive stroke in 2000. More than his profession, laughter was his mechanism for survival, and his mission. Do him a small favor, and without flourish you'd most likely receive some sort of non-negotiable gift.
Home was the Island: being with his children Joel, Connie, and Jennifer; watching from his porch as grandchildren Corbin and Tate cavorted barefoot in the backyard; having Shirley Tilton prepare the buffets for his full-house parties. It suited Buchwald's strong sense of family and extended family, his need for affiliation and, much like Buchwald himself, the extravagance of its random thoughtfulness.
From his first visit in 1966, he loved the intimacy of the Vineyard; lunches at the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club; strolls along Main St.; holding court from his Vineyard Haven porch, issuing declarations in his raspy growl; and having his drop-in-anytime friends, the Wallaces, Hackneys, Styrons, close by along "Writers' Row," as they called their section of Main Street. The group often played tennis, then gathered in the evenings at Buchwald's house to watch "The Sopranos," or other television shows.
The trio of Mike Wallace, William Styron, and Buchwald had a special bond, calling themselves "The Blues Brothers," each having suffered from depression. And the bond will be extended: Buchwald will be buried next to his former wife, Ann McGarry Buchwald, in the West Chop cemetery, where he convinced his closest Island friends to buy plots too.
One of the memories the late Bill Styron enjoyed recalling was the late-night incident when Buchwald backed his car over the Styrons' vegetable garden. The chaos that ensued had Styron yelling, and dinner guest Katharine Graham running out of the house to hide until the commotion subsided. Buchwald's recourse was to sneak back to the house before dawn to post the sign: "Corn killers will be shot on sight," and later to berate the garden in a column that referred to the garden's melons as "little green tennis balls."
Of Buchwald's wide circle of notables, Rose Styron remembers, "Somehow all of them made their way to the Vineyard, to Artie's Mecca."
While he associated with entertainment, publishing, and political royalty, he was no less personable with the chefs and waitresses in the town eateries he regularly frequented. Vineyard Haven postal worker Mark Splaine remembered asking Buchwald to autograph a book for his mother while he went to retrieve his accumulated mail, "and when I got back he was still writing."
Always very accessible (his phone number has long been listed in The Island Book), he befriended those working year-rounders whose paths he danced across, flirting, advising, challenging. Contributing.
"An amazing generous soul," said storyteller Susan Kline, an auctioneer with Buchwald at Martha's Vineyard Community Services' Possible Dreams fund-raiser. "He inspired people," she added.
Jan Hatchard, Community Services director of development, noted his 27 years as auctioneer and motivator of the auction, resulting in millions of dollars in contributions: "Working with Art has been one of the great privileges of my life. He taught us all to laugh at ourselves, and to look at life from many viewpoints, but always with a healthy sense of humor."
Lucy Hackney commented, "He was so ensconced in this community. He noticed people and their lives. He made it possible for people to feel at ease when they talked to him, so they could talk without embarrassment."
Buchwald accepted a request to read from his 1994 memoir, "Leaving Home," to a small group of Windemere residents. He spent an hour sitting in front of the first floor parrot cage, listening to them talk about their lives as well as sharing events of his own.
It was never a performance; Buchwald was utterly honest, and as combustible and direct as a heat-seeking missile. No matter who was driving, Art Buchwald was steering. This was the man who, by virtue of the strength of his intention and personality, went to Paris, started writing a food column, and became an international celebrity. He brooked
no nonsense or pretension, forgave no insult, but with steadfast exuberance, made himself accessible to good causes and people.
And he is gone. But, like the broad grin the Cheshire Cat left suspended in air after it vanished, Art Buchwald's smile remains here. We are its keepers, wearing it when we pass his yellow mailbox on Main Street, when we think of the Possible Dreams auction, when we read of some bit of bureaucratic nonsense and imagine one of his quips, when we witness a gesture of thoughtfulness that makes us glad.
CK Wolfson is associate supplements editor at The Times.