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Ben Bradlee on Losing Art Buchwald

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

America has finally said goodbye to Art Buchwald. The humorist died late yesterday. He was 81. For the past four decades, he delighted readers with his political and cultural satire in his regular column and in numerous books. You've probably heard about Buchwald in the news recently. He was in the spotlight for not dying and having a good time doing it since last summer when he refused dialysis for his failing kidneys.

Doctors expected him to die quickly when he stopped treatment. But Buchwald hung on. He turned his hospice in D.C. into a non-stop party with a steady stream of Washington notables.

I, too, visited Art Buchwald last summer and found him in a great mood.

ART BUCHWALD: I'm feeling pretty good apparently, because I was intending to go to heaven and now it turns out I'm going to Martha's Vineyard.

NORRIS: Buchwald found humor in everything, even though his early years were anything but funny. His mother died when he was a child, and he bounced through a series of foster homes. Humor, he said, helped him survive.

Here he is on NPR in 1994.

BUCHWALD: I found waves of love - whatever I wanted - from making people laugh. That was one thing. Two, I felt I could do it quite well, and I'm constantly, constantly, automatically thinking of funny things. But they're satiric, they're not jokes.

For example, two days ago, I'm in New York. WOR - it's a radio station. And I went in there and I said can I go to the men's room. So they gave me a key, that you had to have a key to go in the men's room. But I could walk into the studio. It wasn't locked. And I say they locked the men's room and they opened the studio? And I thought to myself, now that's funny.

NORRIS: Ben Bradlee is the former executive editor of the Washington Post. And for decades, he was Art Buchwald's friend and sounding board. Ben, I'm so glad you're with us.

BEN BRADLEE: Thank you for asking me.

NORRIS: You know, humor is really hard work, and yet, year after year, column after column, Art Buchwald made it look so easy. Was it really that easy for him or was that part of his gift - is that he could just make it look easy?

BRADLEE: Well, we used to tell him that it was easy for him. But I doubt that it was. But he was very disciplined. He had his column done by noon. He would have - in the first three paragraphs - and it wasn't a joke, but it made you smile. It was an observation and then he'd just elaborate that for another 300 or 400 words and he had his column, done by noon, ready to have lunch with somebody.

NORRIS: Even going back and reading about him, he seemed to really enjoy poking fun -

BRADLEE: Gently. Gently.

NORRIS: At powerful people, even going back to - when he was living in Paris and sort of poking fun at President Eisenhower during his trip to Paris.

BRADLEE: Yup. I think he liked that, and obviously in the beginning, he loved the idea that he's, you know, little Art Buchwald could poke fun at the president of the United States. That's kind of heady wine there for a while. But he was not full of himself in any way. And he didn't - he had no conceit at all.

NORRIS: Was he the person that everyone wanted to sit next to at the dinner party?

BRADLEE: Oh, I don't - I think my wife would say no. I mean I think he probably liked to talk about himself more than the normal tolerance that people have for us guys talking about ourselves anyway.

NORRIS: Well, before I let you go, you know, many people read Art Buchwald but not everyone actually see him in that trademark smile. How would you describe that?

BRADLEE: Well the phrase half-cocked grin comes to mind. It seems to me his lips and jaw - it was a grin and his eyes were twinkling. I don't think of him roaring with laughter at all. But he smiled a lot. And he saw things through a prism where humor was very important.

NORRIS: And it was a smile that was contagious.

BRADLEE: A very contagious smile.

NORRIS: Ben, thanks so much. All the best to you.

BRADLEE: Okay, see you later.

NORRIS: Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor at the Washington Post, talking about his friend, Art Buchwald.

In his last book, "Too Soon to Say Goodbye," Buchwald said he hoped no head of state or Nobel Prize winner would die on the same day he did. He called for the sprinkling of his ashes over every Trump building in New York. Oh yes. And he wanted a memorial service at Carnegie Hall. All watches, he said, would be confiscated at the door, so no one could check the time during the service. Art Buchwald died yesterday. He was 81.

Here he is just once more, last June during our conversation in his hospice room.

BUCHWALD: So once you do it when you come toward the end of your life, particularly if you're older, is you say, was it a good life? Did I do something for people to remember me? You do your own evaluation of who you are, why you're here and everything. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.