WASHINGTON—The room was filled with towers of storage boxes, stacks of documents and carefully curated artifacts: posters, photographs and typewritten letters; the prosthetic leg he wore at the end of his life; the program from his funeral, with his owlish grin on the cover. Historians eagerly pored over folders filled with his papers, hunting for records to highlight a long and prolific career.
Art Buchwald would have loved this.
“Look at this great pic of him with Eunice Kennedy Shriver,” said Barbara Bair, a historian in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.
“Here’s one with Mike Wallace,” said Ryan Reft, who specializes in modern United States history, as he sifted through a stack of photographs.
In the basement of the home in Northwest Washington where the legendary American humorist lived his final years with his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, the historians gathered a few standout items: a social worker’s character evaluation of Buchwald from his early years in foster care; a column he wrote about the war in Iraq, and inscribed to Colin Powell; a fan letter from John Steinbeck. They selected a screenplay, a book manuscript, and transcripts of speeches he’d given about the perils of drug addiction and the need to destigmatize mental illness.
Buchwald’s son, Joel Buchwald, watched from the periphery, clutching a video camera in his hand. He wanted to chronicle what was, in a sense, a second and final goodbye—the departure of nearly 200 boxes of his father’s prized belongings from the family home, nearly 11 years after his death in 2007.
“This is the end of an era,” he said, and smiled. “He’s the center of attention again, and that was always big for him.”
Buchwald soared to the heights of Washington’s A-list social scene in the 1960s, a cigar-puffing, sharp-witted icon renowned for skewering the posh, pompous and powerful. At his peak, his humor column for The Washington Post was syndicated in more than 500 newspapers. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1982; in the years that followed, Buchwald continued to write prolifically about politics and culture, his own grueling bouts with severe clinical depression, and—toward the very end—his views on mortality and the meaning of life.
“I have no idea where I’m going, but here’s the real question: What am I doing here in the first place?” he wrote in one of his last columns.
But he seemed to have settled on an answer to that question by the time he recorded his own video obituary, published by the New York Times after he died.
“I was put on earth to make people laugh,” he said. “If you can make people laugh, you get all the love you want.”
“How many times did you make me laugh this summer? And also Caroline and John,” Jackie Kennedy wrote in delicate, looping script on an undated sheet of note paper embossed with a shimmering gold clamshell. The message is one of many from the former first lady in the reams of letters Buchwald held on to; he grew close to the Kennedy family after he and his wife, Ann McGarry Buchwald, moved to Washington in 1963 with their three adopted children.
“As a person who has rarely shied away from the press, I have been the subject of countless articles and stories. . . . Never have I been more flattered than to find myself the subject of an Art Buchwald column,” wrote Donald Trump in 1988. (Buchwald had playfully mocked Trump’s propensity to make copious purchases and promptly name them after himself: “How does Trump Disney World sound to you?”)
Making people laugh was a way for Buchwald to know that he mattered, that he would be remembered.
“What are you gonna leave behind, buddy?” veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace once asked Buchwald, his longtime friend.
His answer was a single, shouted word: “Joy!”
Joy, certainly—and copious evidence of it, stashed in towers of dilapidated boxes in the attic of his son’s home.
“It was a big, huge mess,” Joel said. “When your parent dies and leaves you all this, what do you do with it?”
Joel’s wife, Tamara Buchwald, finally tackled the mountain of records seven years after Buchwald died. It took her three more to organize it all. The effort was tedious, but also touching; she was struck most, she says, by early love notes to his wife—who died in 1994, after the couple had separated—and the richness of Buchwald’s correspondence with his friends. It reminded her of how his phone was always ringing off the hook during the years he lived in their home.
Joel and Tamara weren’t sure what to do with all of his belongings, but they knew they didn’t want them to stay in their house forever. They contacted an auction house in New York, and the Library of Congress—which collects the papers of many prominent political and cultural figures—soon got in touch to discuss an acquisition.
“We want things that are, ideally, about the person’s entire life, so it’s not necessarily just what they’re most famous for,” Bair said. “We want people who use these records to be able to find out who a person is, who they loved, who their family members were, who their close networks of friends were—to really see an essential truth about this person.”
An essential truth about Art Buchwald: He spent his life trying to fill the absence left by his mother.
He was born in New York in 1925, the son of Joseph Buchwald, a curtainmaker, and Helen Klineberger, who suffered from chronic, debilitating depression. She was institutionalized soon after Buchwald was born, and he never saw her again. This ultimately became his choice; when he was older, he couldn’t bring himself to visit her.
“I preferred the mother I had invented to the one I would find in the hospital,” he wrote in his 1993 memoir, “Leaving Home.”
He masked his sorrow with a keen wit, a survival skill that carried him through life: through a turbulent childhood spent in foster homes, and his service as a teenage Marine in the Pacific theater during World War II; through his young adulthood as a student at the University of Southern California and, later, as a college dropout bound for Paris, where he talked his way into a plum job covering nightlife and dining for the New York Herald Tribune’s European edition.
Through it all, “he was always searching for his mother, searching for love,” Joel said. But Buchwald craved attention and affirmation on a grand scale, which meant his own family often came second.”Because of who he was, his career, his status—he didn’t have a lot of time,” Joel said. “It wasn’t until I was older that he and I really began a conversation.”
Buchwald was never shy about soliciting praise, laboring over letters and sending his friends thoughtfully inscribed books and clipped copies of his columns.
“Thank you for not letting me miss the fun,” first lady Lady Bird Johnson wrote to him in June 1964, thanking him for mailing her a copy of a column; her note included an invitation to join her for margaritas.
“Reading your most apt columns in the Times is one of my regular morning activities, and it always amazed me that you can sustain your high tone of humor,” wrote Adam West of “Batman” fame, in 1966.
“If I send you another fifty dollars, will you write me another letter as funny as the one I just got?” comedian Carol Burnett wrote in October 1989.
Once Buchwald’s boxes have been thoroughly inventoried and processed by the Library of Congress over the coming months, the collection will made be publicly available—a trove awaiting discovery by academics, students, journalists and would-be biographers.
Bair expects there may be particular interest in the collection now, as comedians and satirists are once again at the forefront of political commentary. One of Buchwald’s Watergate-era columns, mocking Nixon’s indignant statements during the burgeoning scandal, had a moment of viral resurgence recently as many of President Trump’s critics drew comparisons to his tweets about the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
During a visit with Joel and Tamara over Father’s Day in 2000, Buchwald suffered a sudden stroke, and spent weeks in a coma. After undergoing rehab, he returned to their home in Washington for good.
His health continued to gradually decline after his stroke; his kidneys began to fail, and after his right leg was amputated in December 2005, Buchwald decided he was ready to depart the mortal coil. He kept writing his columns after checking himself into hospice care.
But then: “He suddenly got what he wanted—he got a lot of attention,” Joel said. “He dictated a book. Diane Rehm did a show with him. Maria Shriver flew in to visit him. The newspaper, the radio, the networks were paying attention—all of a sudden, he was back on top.”
He wound up leaving hospice in July 2006; his family took him for one final summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. He was, he wrote, “having the time of my life.”
He didn’t want it to end, but he worried about what people might think if he chose to fight to stay alive after he’d made a point of refusing dialysis and entering hospice. By the time he’d changed his mind about medical treatment, there were few options left. He died at home in Washington on Jan. 17, 2007, surrounded by his family, holding fast to his sense of humor to the end.
“I don’t know how well I’ve done while I was here,” Buchwald wrote in his final column, published two days after he died, “but I’d like to think some of my printed works will persevere—at least for three years.”