He has lampooned politicians, chased goats through the mountains of Yugoslavia and engaged in lawyer-to-lawyer combat with a movie studio.
Now, humorist Art Buchwald is joining the celebrity confession circuit.
In “Leaving Home"--his first serious book--the 68-year-old newspaper columnist reveals the dark forces behind his comic vision: a mother who was sent to a sanitarium shortly after his birth (and whom he never visited in the 35 years she lived there before her death); a childhood foray into “hell and damnation” Christianity; two bouts with severe depression as an adult.
He also admits to shoplifting from a Woolworth store at age 11 and tormenting a poodle.
“It’s unfinished business,” a barefoot Buchwald says during a recent book-tour interview in his suite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “Putting it down on paper . . . has freed me from all of these demons.”
In some ways, it’s hard to imagine the cigar-puffing, smiling Buchwald as a man plagued by demons. His twice-weekly humor column is syndicated in about 550 newspapers (including The Times), he hangs out with a pantheon of Washington and Hollywood glitterati, and he seems to have a comic perspective on almost everything.
As featured speaker at USC graduation ceremonies last spring, for example, he advised future doctors to “get as much malpractice insurance as you possibly can (because) for every student finishing medical school today, there are two students graduating from the law school dying to sue you.”
But Buchwald says the humor is a mask.
In the autobiography, which has received favorable reviews, he tries to take that mask off.
Before, when someone asked about his mother, “I lied. I said she died when I was born.” In the book, he reveals that she was institutionalized for severe chronic depression and paranoia--and that he never saw her.
“When I was a child, they would not let me visit,” he writes. “When I grew up, I didn’t want to. I preferred the mother I had invented to the one I would find in the hospital.”
He also saw little of his father. “Pop,” an Austrian-born drape installer struggling to make a living in the Depression, shuffled young Buchwald and his three sisters off to a series of orphanages and foster homes before reuniting the family 15 years later.
One of the first stops was a Seventh-day Adventist boardinghouse. Buchwald, whose family was Jewish, says the talk of demons and the strict dietary rules there caused nightmares even years after he left.
In psychoanalysis as an adult, he concluded that “somebody had been messing around with my head during those early years and they left footprints on my brain. . . . To this day, I can’t eat fish with scales on them. . . . There is still a tiny Seventh-day Adventist inside of me screaming to get out every time I make a pass at a tuna sandwich.”
About age 7, bumped from one foster family to the next and feeling lonely and confused, Buchwald decided: “This stinks. I’m going to become a humorist.” He adopted the role of class clown and set about doing everything he could to make people laugh.
Question: Until now, you’ve done almost nothing but humor--29 books, thousands of columns. What was it like writing this?
Answer: It became much more than just a book. It was therapy, catharsis and an educational experience. I found out I’d spent my whole life believing things that weren’t necessarily accurate. My sisters’ memories of certain events are entirely different from mine.
Q: How do you feel about the book now that it’s done?
A: Pretty good. A humorist has to be taken seriously before he’s considered a real writer. This is the first thing people have taken me seriously on. . . . I’m prouder of this book than (of) anything else I’ve written because I think it’s the most honest stuff I’ve ever done.
Q: How long do you plan to continue the humor column, then?
A: I’ll keep going for some time. . . . (But) I’ve reached the stage where I don’t need any of this to make a living anymore. And once that happens, you become a lot freer to do what you want. One of the liberating things about writing the book is that now, every once in a while, very rarely, I’ll write a serious column.
Q: Do you wish you had done this book earlier?
A: I don’t think I would have been able to, psychologically. I don’t think I would have been ready to expose myself.
Some of the book’s revelations seem suitable for afternoon talk shows. Buchwald tells of losing his virginity at 15 to a hotel chambermaid and describes after-school masturbation sessions with a friend.
He also discloses that he was hospitalized twice for depression--in 1963 and 1987--and that he felt suicidal both times, but he avoids detail.
“It was triggered by something happening in my life, but I didn’t want to go into it,” he explains.
Buchwald, who says he still sees a psychiatrist on occasion, likens the depression episodes to “speeded-up therapy. . . . You never completely get past it, but once you go through it and come out of it, you’re a much better person and a much better writer.”
Such true confessions apparently have struck a chord with readers.
“So many people are fearful of talking about their lives,” Buchwald says. “Something like this gives them permission to tell their own stories. One woman said she gave the book to her father and when he finished it, he told her (for the first time), ‘I was an orphan, too.’ ”
He says several hundred letters have piled up in his Washington office since the book came out in mid-January. Many share experiences similar to the woman and her orphan father.
But not all of “Leaving Home” is so grim.
Once Buchwald runs away to join the Marines, which he considers the best foster family he ever had, the tone turns more optimistic. The corps gets “full credit for straightening me out,” he writes.
After World War II, he attended USC (where he now offers a scholarship to the “most irreverent” journalism student) and then headed for France, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. The book ends with Buchwald hired as food and wine critic for the European edition of the New York Herald-Tribune.
Naturally, there’s a sequel in the works. It will cover his 14 years in Paris, where he won note for such reporting stunts as Yugoslavian goat chasing and a three-week limousine trip behind the Iron Curtain to show communists what a “bloated, plutocratic capitalist really looked like.”
For Buchwald, humor became “salvation,” the antidote to an unhappy childhood.
“People ask what I am really trying to do with humor,” he writes. “The answer is, ‘I’m getting even.’ . . . For me, being funny is the best revenge.”
Q: Do you think humor has changed in recent years?
A: My standard answer to that is, I couldn’t care less. I know what I do and it’s accepted pretty well. . . . And one of the reasons I’m in such good shape is (that) there’s very little competition. Dave Barry writes once a week, and there’s Erma Bombeck, but it’s not like in other sections of the newspaper where young sportswriters are coming up trying to push the old sportswriters out the window. There’s none of that in humor columns. . . . And I think it’s because editors don’t encourage humor.
Q: Why? Are they afraid?
A: I wish it were only that. I think they simply don’t understand it.
Q: What’s your impression of newer comics and humorists?
A: I don’t understand a lot of the humor of the young, and I guess I shouldn’t at my age. . . . I took my grandchildren to see (“Wayne’s World”) and I didn’t get it. They understood it, so I guess some people find that funny. All I do is fight to keep what I do funny.
Q: How do you see your work? What do you think you’ve accomplished?
A: I think people feel better reading one of my columns than they do reading about nuclear waste in Tennessee.
Q: Any plans to write for Hollywood again? (In 1990, a judge ruled that Paramount Pictures had stolen Buchwald’s idea for what became the Eddie Murphy film “Coming to America,” and later awarded Buchwald and a partner $900,000. Paramount has appealed the ruling.)
Q: Do you have any taboo subjects?
A: AIDS. I tend to be very gun-shy about anything to do with death. I’ll probably write about the (recent) earthquake, but I won’t do it soon.
Yet Buchwald admits to something of a fascination with death. “For a humorist, I think (about it) a lot,” he writes.
Perhaps more so lately. Separated from his wife, Ann, and contemplating his own mortality, Buchwald clearly seems anxious to come to terms with his past and sum up his life and work with “Leaving Home” and its sequel: “I like a little tennis and I like to play chess, but now that time is running out in terms of things I want to do, I’m pretty much at the computer.”