Art Buchwald's Alive Again

Art Buchwald
GETTY IMAGES/Evan Agostini

Earlier this year, humorist and columnist Art Buchwald, 81, went into a Washington D.C. hospice with every intention to die. His kidneys were failing and he refused dialysis, a horribly painful process that he had undergone before.

"I had kidney problems," Buchwald told Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver. "And I lost a leg — one had nothing to with the other. And so they wanted me to do dialysis. I said, 'no way,' I didn't want to do it. I had 12 sessions and I hated it. So I said, 'This is not the way to live.'"

"So I said: 'I'm going to go. I had a good life. And I'm 80 years old and I might as well end it."

Buchwald decided to spend his final days in the Community Hospice of Washington. He was told he had about three weeks and word soon spread. He prepared himself and his friends for his death and over the following weeks, many people, including Senator John Glenn, Jack Valenti, Ethel Kennedy and Donald Rumsfeld stopped visited him to say goodbye. Brass from the Marine Corps, in which Buchwald had served, also stopped by.

"I loved every minute of it," he said. "If I had my dialysis, no one would have known I was sick. Or I had a kidney problem, and nobody would come visit me. Since I didn't take dialysis, everybody wanted to come and see me. And it was one of those things where 'You gotta see Artie." So pretty soon people in television and newspapers and on the radio all said, 'Hey, Buchwald's dying in a hospice. Go over there. It could be a good story.'"

Two weeks in hospice extended to two months and Buchwald's doctor told him that, inexplicably, his kidneys stopped failing.

At Buchwald's 81st birthday, he was surrounded by family and famous friends famous like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. It was also the a celebration for the launch of his book, "Too Soon To Say Goodbye."

Calling himself "a born-again columnist" Buchwald restarted his newspaper column while in hospice. He even turned his near-death experience into his book, and has set out on a publicity tour.

"I asked them what they were gonna do if I died," Buchwald remarked. "They said, 'We'll have someone else finish the book,'" he said.

A Storied Career

In September the French Ambassador presented him the Legion of Honor for the stories he wrote about France during the 15 years he lived there. Buchwald's career really started in Paris when he talked himself into a job at what was then the New York Herald Tribune (later the International Herald Tribune).

"I snowed them," he said, "I told them I was the food taster for the Marine Corps and they hired me for $25 a week to write about restaurants and do reviews at the beginning."

He even wrote a piece about seeing Elvis Presley, when he was in the Army in Germany and came on leave to Paris. Buchwald took him out for the night.

"I took out Elvis Presley and the funny thing is everyone I've ever said that to says, 'You took out Elvis Presley?'" Buchwald said. "I said 'Yes, I took out Elvis Presley!'"

In 1962 with Camelot in full swing, Buchwald packed up his wife and three kids and set up in shop in Washington. He began a syndicated column, featured in The Washington Post, and took up partying with the likes of Ted, Ethel and Bobby Kennedy while poking fun at Democrats and Republicans alike, in nine different administrations — not to mention skewering Congress, too.

"They're not as good as the administration, but they're always good for copy because they lie, they cheat, they have lobbyists," he said. "They have everything that's perfect for a humorist."

Buchwald's take on Washington won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. And it was with great sorrow that his friends and fans saw him give up his column and go into the hospice: the idea of his passing best expressed in a song written for him by his friend Carly Simon with the title "Too Soon To Say Goodbye."

When Buchwald realized he wasn't going to die he went back to work and started to find humor in everything again.

"No one knows what to say to someone who is dying," he said, laughing. "Here are some of the remarks I heard: 'You look great!' 'You look really great!'"

Buchwald says that the profound experience of facing death actually made him think about the amazing adventures he'd had, the fascinating people he'd met, the great friends he'd grown to love — and made him realize how lucky he was.

"If I go tomorrow," he said, "I still will feel I had a good life."