I used to wonder what the old, uh, ferrets of the newspaper business were talking about when they grew all wistful and blubbery about "the passing of an era." With the death of Art Buchwald, I no longer wonder. From at least the 1950s, he exemplified the brighter side of our business.
He died Wednesday at age 81. In June, he checked out of a hospice where he said he had grown tired of waiting to die from kidney failure.
I didn't meet him until 2000, after he had suffered a stroke but had recovered well enough to resume writing his column. That was a lucky break for me because it gave me the opportunity to personally tell him during a conference of newspaper editors how much I appreciated him. Reading the greats like Buchwald in high school made me want to be a columnist. Long before there was "The Daily Show" or "Saturday Night Live," Buchwald was like Mad magazine, feeding my generation's adolescent need to poke fun at the pompous and powerful.
He was a humor columnist, which can be the toughest job in the newspaper field. Buchwald usually delivered, and he never stopped trying, right to the end and beyond. Fortune gave him enough time to turn out not only a farewell column but also a farewell book, "Too Soon to Say Goodbye," published a few weeks ago.
All of this followed a legendary career that included a 1982 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. That was more than 30 years after he talked his way into a nightlife column-writing job at the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune. He partied around Paris with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lena Horne, William Styron, James Jones, Grace Kelly and other swells of literature, politics and show business. Not bad for a poor kid from an orphanage who started both high school and college, yet somehow never managed to finish either one. Those were the days.
At his best, his humor columns offered a prose version of an editorial cartoon, a parallel universe of caricatures. There was Horace Mud, president of the Smear and Dirty Production Co., which specialized in political "smear commercials."
There was Peter Stone, who broke "the six-minute Louvre," the long-standing record for the world's quickest tour by any tourist through the great Paris art museum, "while thousands cheered."
As it happens for many of us who have to be carried out feet-first from the column-writing trade, critics said Buchwald was not as funny in his final days as he used to be.
Maybe, but audiences have changed too. Buchwald and Mad magazine have been overwhelmed by a flood of edgy humorists, some of whom have axes to grind. When the new media wannabes can't come up with true wit, they sometimes turn nasty. "I am Big!" declared actress Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in the film "Sunset Boulevard." "It's the pictures that got small!" Buchwald was big too. It's the political humor that got mean.
Buchwald didn't seem to mind. It was all grist for his imagination. "You can't make up anything anymore," he once said. "The world itself is a satire. All you're doing is recording it."
In his final days, his most meaningful story proved to be him. Doctors told him his kidneys had failed. He tried dialysis and didn't like it. He checked into a hospice. A parade of celebrity friends and well-wishers streamed through. He gave interviews. He wrote the last of his more than 30 books. "I don't know if this is true or not, but I think some people, not many, are starting to wonder why I'm still around," he writes diarylike in his book. "In fact, a few are sending me get-well cards."
After several months, he checked out of the hospice, to spend his final days in Martha's Vineyard, which he said was the closest place he knew to heaven on Earth. "I don't know how long I'll be around on Martha's Vineyard," he writes. "But if nothing else, I know I made an awful lot of people happy."
Yes, he did. Buchwald's grand party is over. It is fortunate that at least some of us had a chance to tell him what a good time we had.