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Keeping his wit about him

Published Oct. 6, 2005


A Memoir

By Art Buchwald

G.P. Putnam's Sons, $22.95

Reviewed by Mary Evertz

If it were not for a very sad childhood, America probably wouldn't have one of its funniest men.

Art Buchwald, the Pulitzer-Prize winning humorist and prolific author, used the funny side of life and a wild imagination as a protective shield in his early years. It not only was his salvation, it also set him on his life's course.

For 40 years the satirist has been zinging heads of state and the system. His column, distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, appears in 550 newspapers worldwide. He has also written 29 books and a Broadway play. Younger fans know him because of the publicity surrounding the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America, a Buchwald idea that Paramount Pictures pirated and ultimately paid for after a long and costly court battle. But that's another story.

In Leaving Home, A Memoir, Buchwald talks about his childhood and young adulthood. The title is ironic: Actually Buchwald never had a real childhood home. He and his three older sisters were shuttled from institution to institution and from one foster home to another. "How do you become a humorist? I always reply: Well first you have to become a foster child," Buchwald told me when he was in the Tampa Bay area in December to speak at Eckerd College. "I must have been 6 or 7 years old and terribly lonely and confused, when I said something like, "This stinks. I'm going to become a humorist.' "

Buchwald's early years are reminiscent of the childhood story of another famous Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist _ Russell Baker who regaled reading audiences more than a decade ago with his bestselling Growing Up (Congdon and Weed Inc., $15). Buchwald acknowledges consulting with his good friend Baker in the introduction to the book. "What do you do if you're discussing someone who was mean to you in your childhood and that person is still alive?" asks Buchwald. Baker's reply: "Change his name."

Afflicted with severe depression, Buchwald's mother spent most of her life in mental institutions. The father, unable to care for his four offspring, placed them in orphanages and foster homes. Buchwald never met his mother, though she lived until he was in his 30s. "When I was a child they did not let me visit her. When I was an adult, I did not want to," he writes. "I preferred the mother I had invented to the one I would find in the hospital. The denial has been a very heavy burden to carry around all these years, and to this day I still haven't figured it out."

He adds: "During the various stages of my life, I often wondered if I was responsible for her illness and incarceration. After all, she was taken away at my birth, so who else could be blamed? As with many children who never knew their mothers, I have been on a life-long search for someone to replace her. The search has taken more time than my work, and although I know that I will never find a surrogate, I can't seem to stop looking."

Buchwald, himself has spent years in therapy and has had two clinical depressions that were so severe he considered suicide. Ever the humorist, Buchwald points out that even his shrink was different: " He stretched out on his couch and the patient sat in the chair."

Of his father he says: "Pop's was one of the millions of hard-luck stories of the Thirties. He was responsible for four kids, at the mercy of the Jewish Social Services, flat broke. The only good side of his economic woes was that his firm, the Aetna Curtain Co., was not worth passing on to the next generation. If it had been I would have ended up in the curtain business. I cringe when I imagine a sign on a window _ Aetna & Son. The son would have been me."

Buchwald writes that his father, who died in 1972, keeps popping up in strange places. "Recently, I was in Bergdorf Goodman and asked a matronly lady for change to make a telephone call. She said, "I'm going to give it to you, not because you're a big shot, but because your father made my drapes for me. They're still hanging in my bedroom.'


Buchwald takes his readers on a nostalgia trip similar to Woody Allen's movie Radio Days in an era when youngsters could take the subway to the city for a nickel and roam the streets of New York. He used the loft where his dad operated his business as a base for his excursions, which included going to the Biltmore Hotel to stare at all the college girls who were being picked up by their Ivy League dates. "I fell in love with every one of them."

He started his writing career in his father's loft. "He had a typewriter. I was about 10 or 11 and I decided to write a book." It was about a boy born to a very rich family in France who was kidnapped at birth by a terrible nanny and brought to the United States, where he was sold to a family with three wicked daughters. The family finally found the boy, put the nanny in jail and sent the wicked sisters South to pick cotton."

At 17, having lied about his age, Buchwald joined the Marines. He served three years in the Pacific during World War II. "Once a Marine, always a Marine," Buchwald said, adding that the corps was the best foster home he ever had. "I was a lost soul and the Marines straightened me up just at the right time. They made me shine my shoes, they made me proud of myself and they made me feel 19 feet tall."

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, Buchwald, who didn't have a high school diploma, was able to enroll at the University of Southern California as a non-degree-seeking student. While there he found he could use the same monies to pursue further study in Paris. His adventures in Paris were "crazy and insane," but he shares the stories of how he became a correspondent for Variety and joined the staff of the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune, where he made his name with his column Paris After Dark.

Despite Buchwald's hardships, be assured this book is no pity party. The humorist has taken the lemons he was handed, made lemonade and profited. Buchwald fans will delight in their hero's journey, and those who know little about him are bound to marvel at what he has accomplished on his own.

Mary Evertz is a Times staff writer.