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Friday, March 31, 2006 | Art Buchwald, whose writing has helped Americans laugh through seriously unfunny times, says from a Washington hospice that he’d be just as happy to know now what the papers are going to write about him after he dies.
There will be reams of unembarrassed affection and appreciation. Art is not simply a funny writer and speaker, he is one whose deeply ingrained wit grew by need out of his childhood in orphanages. Its roots were in sorrow and fear.
Art doesn’t simply spurt jokes and wisecracks. They are the armor of a man who learned to survive by thinking funny thoughts.
He has come quietly, but often, to San Diego to visit friends. He and Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel were soulmates. The brightest dinner parties the Geisels gave were those when Art and Ted sat across the table from each other, sparring in bursts of wit that slower minds might still be dissecting in their cars on their way home. In later, lonelier years, his transcontinental friendship with La Jolla’s Barbara Woodbury has been a revitalizing link for Art.
Back in the shameless years when no journalist was expected to decline a free jet ride, Art and I were invited by Pan Am on its inaugural flight service to Tahiti. We thought to inquire of Pan Am’s Willis Player if there might also be a seat available for the man who wrote “Tales of the South Pacific.”
There was, of course, and it was James Michener’s first return to those islands since he wrote the classic bestseller that led to the Broadway show and his fame.
We were scheduled to land at Papeete after breakfast. At first light, Art roused me in his best conspiratorial style and pointed to the rear of the plane. “Let’s go see what Michener is doing back there all alone,” he said.
Michener was there in his own trance to watch the sun rise over that glittering sea and its islands. It was the only time I ever saw tears well up in his eyes. He said, “I’m so glad to come back after all this time and realize I wasn’t a damned liar!”
That evening around the fireplace after dinner, Art proposed a get-acquainted game for our little media group. “Let’s all put down on a piece of paper how much we each get paid to make a speech,” he said.
Art didn’t win that game. Walter Cronkite did.
Art proposed and presided over other diversions along the way. He never tired of laughing. When a particularly elegant young Tahitian woman joined us one evening at dinner, Art rose, pronounced her Miss Tahiti, and invited her to join our tour group. It helped that Art had learned French during his Paris correspondent years.
She came along.
For the rest of our tour, Art tried out all his jokes first on the lovely Tahitian in French. She seemed baffled by them, but, like the rest of us, she found Art an irresistible force. It would not entirely surprise me if she turns up in Art’s hospital room to sing a Tahitian farewell.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article stated that Buchwald was under intensive care at a hospital. He is not.