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March 05, 2007

Visit With Art

    By Sharon Waxman

    WASHINGTON, June 15, 2006 -- Art Buchwald isn’t dying, as it turns out. “Do you think he scammed us?” asks my editor at the Times. I say I’m not sure, but I better go find out, and make an appointment to visit Art at the hospice in Washington DC.

    Since I wrote about Art’s imminent death in The Times in March – he was scheduled to die within weeks because he’d declined to submit to the rigors of kidney dialysis -- we’ve become friends. Why isn’t he dead? Nobody seems to know. Unexpectedly, one kidney is working fine, and he doesn’t appear likely to die soon. That’s all I can tell you on that score.

    But it’s funny. I knew Art a little bit when I wrote the piece, having met him last summer. After it was published we began to talk every week, about all kinds of things. He tells me about his high-class visitors. I tell him about my work.

    I call from the airport. What do you want for lunch? “A roast beef sandwich,” he says. Then there’s a pause. Worried about his health? Apparently not. “McDonalds,” he finally says. I stop on the way, and get him a Big Mac, fries and Coke. I get a Filet-o-Fish.

   At the hospice, Art is sitting in the sun-room, with his correspondence piled around him, a painting sent by an admirer and a few photographs. He is wearing a striped polo shirt and shorts. Short shorts, black ones. His phantom leg, amputated below the knee last January, waggles in the void. He doesn’t seem to care.

    Art, who is 80, continues to file his syndicated column twice a week and entertain a steady, if diminished, stream of celebrity visitors. One result of his previously-imminent death was he got a book contract, which is about going into a hospice to die but then not. It’s called “Too Soon to Die,” His column has changed too; he’s no longer writing humorous meditations on the end of life, and has gone back to news-related satire. He recently wrote, for example, about Ann Coulter losing her broomstick.

    Talk turns to the summer. My family is going to Switzerland, to the home of a wealthy friend of my husband in the Alps. Art brightens: St. Moritz is absolutely beautiful in the summer, he says. I’ve been there too. Art was there in the 60s, I was there in the 90s. He hung out at The Palace, the famed hotel perched above the St. Moritz lake, with the Greek tycoon Stavros Niarkos and assorted princes. Art didn’t ski (exercise has never figured much in his life), but he did play chess with the bluebloods all evening. One prince used to bellyache about having to pay $15 a day for his dog. Art told him that seemed reasonable. Yes, said the nobleman, but the dog’s been dead for nine years.

    Art has been sitting in a chair since the amputation last January. He figured if he was going to die, there was no point in learning how to walk. Now that he’s going to live, he has been fitted with a wooden prosthetic leg. He’s leaving in early July to Martha’s Vineyard, where he has a house, and he has to learn to walk again. I ask if he’s ready to face the challenges of physical therapy. He gives me a look that says: none of your damn business.

    Instead he says he plans to use the leg as a selling point with women – as in: I’ve got a brand new, sexy wooden leg. Apparently it worked for Al Capp, the cartoonist. One time during the Vietnam War, Art recalls, he was on a USO tour with Al Capp and George Plimpton, the writer. Capp had a wooden leg, and successfully used it to snare women.

    At one performance, there was a beautiful redhead. “Stacked,” Art recalled. After about an hour, Al Capp disappeared with her behind a stage berm. Fast-forward 25 years, to a Democratic convention in the 1980s. Art is surprised to be accosted by an attractive red-haired woman. “Don’t you remember me?”she asks. “We had an affair in Vietnam.” Art says,”No, that was Al Capp.” “No,” she insists, “it was you.” Art calls his friend George Plimpton on the phone, and asks him to tell the woman that it was indeed Al Capp with whom she had an affair. She takes the phone, talks to George Plimpton for several minutes, then hangs up. She looks at Art and says: “It was you.”

    This story is recounted in slow, deadpan fashion. With an eyebrow cocked to look for the laugh.

    In Art’s room, the wall is practically covered with photos, drawings and cards. Cartoonist Mike Lukovich has sent a cartoon – obviously from when Art was dying – saying “I’ll miss you.” There are photos of his kids, blown-up shots of the grandkids. Photo with Ethel Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, and two other women he doesn’t identify. I see Ben Bradlee. New photos, old photos. A journalist interviewing him in his hospice bed.

    Even if it hasn’t been a scam, Art’s definitely been milking the dying thing. Geoffrey Cowan, the dean of USC’s journalism school, called up to ask if there was anything he could do for Art. (USC is his alma mater.) “Yes, I have a dying wish,” Art said. “I have two young women I’d like you to get admitted to USC.” Cowan doesn’t promise anything, but the two women both get in. Art is very proud of this. I accuse him of shameless guilting people into things, like when he told me his dying wish was that I seek professional therapy because, in his view, I needed it. I haven’t gone yet, which I think is fair, because he hasn’t died yet.

    We open the mail; a stranger has sent him a CD of her favorite music. “Music to drive to the Vineyard to,” she writes enthusiastically. There’s a picture of him and Carly Simon on the cover.

    Important people still come to visit. A senior member of the Bush administration, who Art would rather I not name, has been to visit twice. Ok, it’s Donald Rumsfeld, chief defender of the war in Iraq. They’re old tennis buddies. Art often criticizes the administration in his columns. How can he sit around and make small talk? “I’ve known him forever,” says Art. “And besides, he asked to see me, I didn’t ask to see him.”

    After two hours, Art is tired and is starting to fall asleep. We take a picture on his Razor cellphone. I leave, so he can rest before the arrival of his physical therapist. He calls her Ann Coulter or, alternately, the torturer.