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Columnist Art Buchwald dead at 81

Story Highlights

• Art Buchwald died Wednesday of kidney failure
• Kidney problems followed a stroke in 2000
• Friends say the columnist died peacefully
• Buchwald wrote columns of political satire for decades
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Art Buchwald, who took humorous jabs at Washington politicians in syndicated columns for decades, has died, a close friend said Thursday. He was 81.

Buchwald died late Wednesday, said CNN anchor Kyra Phillips. Buchwald was her mentor for 18 years, and she became a close friend of the family. The unofficial cause of death, she said, was kidney failure.

She said Buchwald's son and daughter-in-law were at his side, "holding his hand. He passed away peacefully." (Watch Phillips' last visit with her longtime friend, Art Buchwald Video)

"In the last few weeks, he knew it was his time," she said. "He said his good-byes to everybody."

That included his colleagues at the Washington Post, which published his columns after he moved to Washington in the 1960s.

Buchwald suffered a stroke in 2000, and was plagued by kidney and circulation problems, which led doctors to amputate one of his legs below the knee.

He checked into a Washington hospice February 7 after he chose to quit life-prolonging kidney dialysis. His last treatment was February 1. However, Phillips said Thursday that he continued to make hospital visits because of minor infections from the amputation.

He planned his funeral when he went to the hospice.

"I went to the hospice to die," he told Phillips in November. But he defied the odds, and in July he was flown to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, to spend the summer.

"I had two decisions. Continue dialysis and that's boring to do three times a week, and I don't know where that's going, or I can just enjoy life and see where it takes me," he told writer Suzette Martinez Standring, who spent two days with him in late February.

He resumed writing, including a book about his near-death experience.

"The last year he had the opportunity for a victory lap and I think he was really grateful for it," his son, Joel Buchwald, told The Associated Press. "He had an opportunity to write his book about his experience and he went out the way he wanted to go, on his own terms." (Watch Buchwald's dramatic life recalled by Jeff Greenfield Video)

An American in Paris

Buchwald launched his career as a columnist in 1949 in Paris, where he wrote about the light side of Paris nightlife in the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune. He returned to the United States around 1962 and moved to Washington, where he began writing columns filled with political satire for The Washington Post.

Some of Buchwald's observations:

  • During the Watergate scandal, Buchwald explained that the sound in the 18 1/2-minute gap in the White House tapes actually was Nixon humming.
  • "Just when you think there's nothing to write about, Nixon says, 'I am not a crook.' Jimmy Carter says, 'I have lusted after women in my heart.' President Reagan says, 'I have just taken a urinalysis test, and I am not on dope.'"
  • "Have you ever seen a candidate talking to a rich person on television?"
  • "Every time you think television has hit its lowest ebb, a new program comes along to make you wonder where you thought the ebb was."
  • Pulitzer Prize for commentary

    Buchwald won a Pulitzer Prize for outstanding commentary in 1982, and in 1986 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He began writing columns, later syndicated, for The Washington Post in the late 1960s.

    The humorist authored dozens of books, including two memoirs, "Leaving Home" (1993) and "I'll Always Have Paris" (1996). He also wrote "Paris After Dark" (1950), "Son of the Great Society" (1961), "Washington Is Leaking" (1976) and "While Reagan Slept" (1983).

    Buchwald and producer Alain Bernheim filed a lawsuit in 1988 against Paramount Pictures, contending the company used Buchwald's script idea as the basis for the Eddie Murphy movie "Coming to America," without giving them credit or profits. Buchwald won the case.

    He was born on October 20, 1925, in Mount Vernon, New York, where he and his two sisters spent their youths in foster homes, according to The Washington Post. His mother was committed to an asylum soon after he was born. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 17 and served in World War II.

    He had a son, Joel, and two daughters, Conchita and Jennifer.

    Birthday party at the French Embassy

    Despite his ill health, Buchwald enjoyed his friends and social events, and celebrated his 80th birthday in 2005 at the French Embassy in Washington.

    According to Standring, Buchwald hosted a parade of celebrity visitors after he went home from the hospice, including several members of the Kennedy family, and he still loved to joke with people.

    Standring visited Buchwald to present him with the 2006 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, calling him the "patron saint of political satire."

    According to Buchwald's assistant, Cathy Crary, her boss wrote three columns a week until about 1995, and penned two weekly until January.

    Buchwald, she said, always has been humble and accessible.

    Listed in the phone book

    "He's listed in the phone directory and always has been. People see his name and can't believe it's the real Art Buchwald, but that's how he is," Crary said.

    "Buchwald doesn't see himself as courageous, nor does he feel shored up by supernatural spiritual strength," Shandring said. "To fade away naturally is the decision he made when faced with the alternative of being hooked up to a dialysis machine three times a week, for five hours at a stretch for the rest of his life."

    Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.


    story.buchwald.gi.jpg

    Art Buchwald died Wednesday of kidney failure, according to a family friend.

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