“HEY, BUDDY,” the familiar voice boomed as I entered the spacious, cheerful visiting room of the Washington Hospice Center.
“Have you found any more money in Paramount’s books?” my host inquired with his trademark impish grin.
Thus began my remarkable reunion with an old friend whom I had represented between 1988 and 1995 in his successful lawsuit against Paramount Pictures for misappropriating his story to make the Eddie Murphy hit comedy “Coming to America.”
Propped up in a comfortable chair with his right leg, amputated below the knee, resting on an ottoman, Art Buchwald was holding court in his new salon. It was early March of last year, and I had rushed down to Washington, D.C., from Wilmington, Del., where I was trying a case. Sipping a bottle of sparkling water, Art was surrounded by one of his two daughters, his son and daughter-in-law and two boisterous young grandchildren.
Two weeks earlier and, over the protests of loved ones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist had voluntarily rejected any further kidney dialysis and checked himself into the hospice to die — as he had lived his life — on his own terms. A steady stream of celebrities and friends, including Tom Brokaw, Mike Wallace, Joe Califano, Donald Rumsfeld and Ethel Kennedy, had been visiting America’s most beloved living humorist to say their goodbyes.
“The best visits are when they bring me food,” Art told me. “Did you know that they deliver here from McDonald’s?”
SOMEONE WITH FAILING KIDNEYS and off dialysis is not supposed to live for very long. In fact, by the time I arrived, Art should have died. At a minimum, I had expected to find a jaundiced echo of one of the liveliest raconteurs and quickest wits who ever graced the fine restaurants and chic parlors of Paris and Washington, D.C.
Instead, I spent an extraordinary hour reminiscing, jousting and laughing with an octogenarian who had not lost a beat — indeed, he seemed sharper, happier and more serene than I ever remembered him. Art’s legendary satirical talent — reflected in more than 8,000 columns, 35 books, a novel and a Broadway play — was in rare form. he asked about my wife, Dawn (“too good for you”); my co-counsel on his historic case, Zazi Pope (“the brains of your operation”); and my latest diet (“Dying is the only one that works”).
His eyes sparkling, Art served up vintage one-liners about his favorite politicians: President Bush (“I’ll miss him — he’s always good for a column”), Governor Arnold (“I asked him for a pardon”) and Dick Cheney (“He scares me”). The “Wit of Washington,” whose syndicated column ran three times a week in more than 500 newspapers for decades, regaled me with his satiric take on the foibles of Tom “the Hammer” DeLay, the intrigues over the K Street Project and “Scooter” Libby’s prosecution.
But the ex-Marine sergeant who lied about his age to enlist in WWII turned serious about the war in Iraq, concerned about “what a mess” America had made and how “we get out without losing more young men and women.”
Then he was back wisecracking.
“Did you have any problem parking?” he asked.
“In fact, I did,” I replied.
“Dying is easy — parking is impossible,” he shot back, pleased with himself.
As a grandchild jumped up on his lap, Art transitioned to one of his favorite subjects: women.
“So how is my girlfriend?”
I instantly knew the incurable flirt was talking about Dawn. My wife and he became instant pals when they met in the mid-1990s.
“Terrific,” I replied. “She wants you to take her to lunch again at the El Padrino Room.”
The grin on his face widened as he recalled sitting with a beautiful, intelligent blond lawyer at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and pretending to woo her as her husband watched in mock jealousy. “She’s safe now that I have to hop around on one leg.”
When I asked him how he was feeling, he surprised me:
“Terrific!” he exclaimed. “I get a little tired, but I never felt better.”
Art Buchwald was having a ball — “the best time of my life,” he would later write in “Too Soon to Say Goodbye,” his poignant account of entering the hospice to die and the medical miracle that followed. As Dennis McDougal remarked about Art and his victory lap, “There are people who teach us how to live and people who teach us how to die. Art did both.”
It was time for Art to go to bed. I walked over and gave him a long bear hug and kissed him on the top of his head, dotted with wisps of white hair. As I choked up and he beamed, we said our goodbyes.
LEAVING THE HOSPICE, I imagined returning soon to the nation’s capital for Art’s memorial service.
But days passed into weeks, weeks into months. Art Buchwald was still alive, alert and writing his columns again. It was the best writing of his career, facing death in the eye with humor, wit and dignity. At the hospice, he became known as the Man Who Would Not Die.
I called him several times over the next nine months. On a long phone call, he flirted and joked with my wife, prompting her to ask me, “Is he faking dying?”
Art told me that he needed me to represent him again.
“What’s the problem?” I wanted to know.
“It’s Medicare — they are cutting me off from hospice care.”
“Because I won’t die.”
A few days ago, Art died peacefully at home surrounded by his family. I lost a treasured friend. America lost an iconic humorist.
(Pierce O’Donnell is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who represented Art Buchwald and Alain Bernheim in their plagiarism lawsuit against Paramount Pictures over the use of Buchwald’s story in making the movie “Coming to America.” With Dennis McDougal, O’Donnell co-authored a bestselling account of the case, “Fatal Subtraction: How Hollywood Really Does Business.”)