News & Politics

Art Buchwald Remembered

Art Buchwald, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, passed away late Wednesday night with family members by his side. The Washingtonian Lifestyle Editor Leslie Milk fondly remembers her first interview at the magazine with the columnist when he wa

My Home Towns
Art Buchwald

(From the inaugural issue of The Washingtonian, October 1965.)

ART BUCHWALD, the internationally-known satirist, reported Parisian goings-on for years as a columnist for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune. This article is based on a taped interview with Mr. Buchwald. The tape was edited by Kenneth T. Ripley, a colleague from Mr. Buchwald's days in Paris, who is conceded by many Parisians to know more about Paris and its restaurants than Parisians do themselves. Between them, they have spent a total of 26 years in the City of Light. Both are now residents of Washington.

The main difference between living in Paris and Washington, as far as I am concerned, is that when I lived in Paris, I always knew I was protected by my passport and the American government. No matter what happened to me, I could always count on the backing of the United States 6th Fleet or the United States Air Force Fighter Command . . . It said so in my passport.

But living in Washington is entirely different. The Americans don't care what happens to you here, and it's not very safe here either. Perhaps if they issued us passports for living in Washington, we'd all feel more secure.

I like Washington, but I do miss the Paris restaurants. I keep running into people here who ask me if I remember having dinner with them in Paris 15 years ago, and then they recite the menu right down to what the waiter said about the size of the tip. (This was before the waiters got Top Value stamps for smiling at Americans.) Well, I don't miss it that badly because the food in people's homes is good here, and you take a lot of pains when you entertain in your own home, too. Washingtonians eat pretty well, I think, and there are a few good restaurants when you want to take somebody out. But there are none that will cause nostalgia and there are many I'll take pains to forget. I don't complain because when I left Paris, I knew that one of the things I would have to give up was French food. And I have given it up–completely. I can't find it!

I have trouble finding a lot of things in Washington, but most of all I have trouble finding my way around the city. In the first three months I was here I spent most of my time in the National Press Club without ever leaving it, except to go up to the Capitol once or twice. And I've continued this thing about not going anywhere. In Paris you wanted to get out and do different things, like finding new eating places and new kinds of entertainment. You walked, or you rode the Metro, and you learned the city. There was a wonderful official guidebook, which Washington doesn't have, which would lead you around with no trouble in the daytime. And there was one I wrote myself called Paris After Dark. Washington doesn't have one of these either, as no one wants the distinction of writing the thinnest book ever published. Anyway, with those two in your pocket in Paris you could find anything, from the office of the "League Against Alcoholism," which is a very obscure office, indeed, where you can see a frightening wooden model of a drinking man's liver, to the stage door of the Folies Bergeres, which gets a somewhat bigger play.

In Washington, except for the monuments, you don't have any great desire to find anything. I think it's easier not to go anywhere here. A big thing in the Washingtonians' favor is that their homes are so nice. They aren't forced to go out, as Parisians often are, because their houses are freezing in winter and suffocating in summer, and because, in most cases, the furniture is more comfortable in the corner cafe.

I use taxicabs between my house and my office and I don't go much of anywhere else. I find the Washington cab driver a pretty good cab driver as opposed to those in Paris, or anywhere else for that matter. I find him a fairly nice, accommodating guy. He will talk civilly to you, he'll wait for you, he'll deliver packages. If you expected a Paris cab driver to do any of these things, he would probably go out of his way to push you out of his cab at the zoo.

I am frequently asked how the girls in Washington compare with those in Paris. I'm going to make a clean breast of it right now. I think it all depends on where, and in what circumstances, you see them! In Paris, you have the sidewalk cafes like Fouquet's, which was my favorite, and 1,349 others by actual count, where girl-watchers congregate to compare notes and play simple games. The game we played went like this. The guy who was sitting on one side of the table had all the girls coming down the street, and the guy on the other side of the table had all the girls coming up the street, and we would grade them according to points–3, 2, 1. This was a great game and we would add up the points at the end and have serious arguments as to whether a girl was a three-pointer, or two-pointer, or a one-pointer.

This gave the most perfect reason to stare at the girls and discuss them. In Washington you don't have this opportunity. You have a few sidewalk cafes, but there aren't enough of them, and you don't have the same facilities for girl-watching, and you would probably be considered a sex maniac if you took advantage of those you do have and went into detail about the girls going by.

I'm not saying, mind you, that Government girls don't stack up very well in comparison with Parisiennes. I'm just saying that you can't stare at them long enough to make a solid judgment. Girl-watching does require time. None of the Government girls look good rushing through a cafeteria, but they might look like five million new francs in Maxim's.

But to get back to the sidewalk cafes. It's the way the girls walk and everything, and you don't get the same chance to check them out here. If girls know they are being watched, they walk differently and more leisurely, maybe, with a certain air about them, and this adds to the excitement.

Washington girls have another handicap of which they are probably not aware. It is placed upon them by whoever enforces the blue laws, and the name of this handicap is Sunday. In Paris the girls make the most of Sunday. There are the races, for example. Longchamps is one of the most beautiful race tracks in the world and it is right in the city, and you find very pretty girls out there on a Sunday afternoon–thousands of them–and it is much more fun to watch the girls than it is to watch the horses. The girls are all dressed up in little things they may have copied from Dior or Balmain, but they are chic and cool and lovely, and you must admit it's easier to look chic and cool and lovely that way than it is bending over a barbecue pit in your kid sister's slacks, sharing the men's admiration with a two-inch steak. Also, a girl may look better sipping a Dubonnet in the shade at the track than she does drinking a warm bourbon she poured for herself in the backyard.

But as I say, all this is no fault of the Washington girls. I go out to Laurel Race Track occasionally on week days, and it compares very favorably with the Paris tracks. It's a little harder to reach, but the restaurant is good and it's comfortable out there and fancy enough to suit any two-dollar horse player. One thing about Laurel is that you can see the horses. Over at Longchamps they have a big area of trees which the horses run behind and you never knew what was going on behind those trees. But in Paris you don't care, because you are busy watching the girls. If your horse was first when you went behind the trees and last when they came out you didn't get excited, because some blonde in the grandstand had given you a big smile and they could have changed jockeys out there in the trees for all you cared. Washington girls work on week-days and can't go to the races. On Sundays, when they could go, there aren't any races, which seems slightly unfair to all of us.

Speaking of Sundays, tourists wither away in Washington on Sundays, which is too bad because many of them are foreign visitors and they are absolutely lost walking the empty streets and peeking into windows of restaurants which are closed, and waiting for somebody to speak to them. They could starve, you know, and it hurts our image when they go home.

American tourists are different. The way they dress, it's probably a good thing they can't find anything to do on Sunday, because they are frightening enough just sitting still. A French woman from the provinces who goes to Paris to see the sights puts on her best clothes and looks smart and sophisticated, and you can't tell her from a Parisienne, which is just what she wants. But an American woman who brings the kids for a tour of the White House feels that she has to wear shorts and hair-curlers and very little else and she'd get arrested if she were at home in Akron, and laughed out of town in Paris.

Male tourists don't do much better, either. Washington probably has the worst-dressed, or undressed, tourists in the world. I don't know why this is, unless it's because it's a hotter town than Paris, but if people who work here can look like people touring Paris, it seems as if the tourists might manage it.

When you are living in Paris you do have an advantage in that you can run over to London or down to Italy or over to Switzerland in a matter of an hour, and find yourself in the midst of a new and different culture. This adds spice to life. But you go an hour away from Washington in any direction and you shouldn't have left home. After all, how many Holiday Inns can you look at?

Among things I miss in Washington are the weekly lottery and the off-track betting. Both are legal in Paris and they are attractions this country might eventually consider. The drawing of numbers in the lottery took place on Thursdays and the results were printed in the newspapers. Tickets didn't cost very much and you bought them from a widow or a blind man who would bless you, so you were ahead even if your number didn't come up. It was great to know once a week that you might get rich. Once a week, I think, we in Washington should have some sort of hope to carry us through Thursday and into the long weekend.

On Sunday mornings in Paris there were long lines at the cafes where they were taking bets on the horses for the afternoon races.  You met the most interesting people in those lines. I always found that the least difficulty an American had in France was in a betting line, or at the track, where everybody was your friend. The French had a feeling for you, whether you were an American or any other nationality. The love that horse players have for each other goes beyond nationality, and there's warmth where they meet which you don't find anywhere else. So, when Washingtonians go to France, I suggest that they go straight out to a Paris race track, where it's eight-to-one they will find international good will in operation. If they can't get over before November, they can have the same rewarding experience right here at Laurel when people from all over gather for the Washington International.

A lot of people gripe about Paris, but I can't understand why. I don't see how they would be treated much better in Washington than they would in Paris. They have concierges in Paris who will do anything for you. They are really like servants. In Washington you have to do everything yourself. The hotel concierge in Paris is a very friendly guy in a spic and span uniform who works for tips and can get you anything you want.

But there is another kind of concierge who is usually either an old man or an old woman who gets a free apartment right by the front door in exchange for cleaning the hallways and harassing all the tenants in the building.

They are very tough on children and if you have a few kids they are always yelling at them. Sometimes, when they get really mad at you, they tell the mailman that you don't live there anymore. They have the power of life or death over everybody who lives in an apartment in Paris; they are noted for this, and they live up to their reputations. You rarely run into a decent concierge and when you do, the landlord is a jerk, so you can't win either way. Anyway, we don't have this kind of concierge in the United States and I think that's probably very good. If we did, they would probably be working for J. Edgar Hoover.

But don't get me wrong. I like Washington but I won't knock Paris. The real difference between them is that Paris is the capital of the world and Washington is only the capital of the United States.

Buchwald Talks About His Trade

Paris has a romantic aura to it that no other city has. Consequently, as an American journalist you could write about the romantic aspects of Paris–or even the less romantic aspects of Paris which could always be made to sound romantic.

In Washington you are dealing with things that people are more aware of, so you can do more satire than feature writing. In fact, I make no attempt in Washington to do any feature writing. I couldn't do too much satire in Europe except on the American tourist because people didn't have a frame of reference on what I was writing. If I made a reference to the Place de la Concorde, a tourist might know where the Place de la Concorde was but you would have to assume that the average reader didn't. So I had to be very careful while in Europe. Here I think it is much easier in that respect. Another thing is that I only had one or two wickets to play on in Paris–the innocent abroad and the American tourist. And this was true when i travelled around Europe. It was wonderful but it was on the lever of: Aren't they strange people compared to us?

In America I am making fun of our own foibles, which to me is a lot of fun because it's a little harder to do. But I like to step on toes and I never got as much entertainment stepping on French toes as I do stepping on American toes. Funny enough, the French were never too shaken up by anything I wrote probably because I didn't have as big an audience there. It was translated at times into French but nobody really got too excited about it. But when you start dealing with the problems of America, people pet shaken up; you get people mad, and that kind of delights me.

It's interesting to note that while people might get sore at what I say in the Government, I don't get too much flack from anybody, personally; I do get it in a roundabout way. But I find, surprisingly, that the Government is so big now that no matter who you take on everybody agrees with you because they don't think it means them. You find that even over at the White House, when I take on the White House, there's a tendency on the part of everyone to think I'm not talking about them. I don't know if that goes for the Big Boss, because I've never gotten any reaction from him at all; but everybody else besides the Great God really thinks it's funny, or at least they say they think it is. So it's kind of interesting to see everybody refuse to take the rap for whatever I say.

In Washington you find that people are always trying to get you into the Establishment by giving you awards. which I think is very dangerous. In America, if you start attacking, the very people you are attacking want you to be one of them and it's really tough to stay away from them and to stay clean.

I am sometimes asked about my contacts, but I never had any at the Quai d'Orsay and I don't have any here. I never needed them. I make everything up and I invent everything. Therefore, when I quote people, they are my quotes and they can't say  got it wrong because I wrote it in the first place. So no one has ever accused me of misquoting them.