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Comedy and the Corps: The Early Life of Art Buchwald

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Editors note: this post explores one of our LC colleagues’ favorite VHP collections. Watch this space for upcoming blog posts written by AFC and VHP staff about their own favorite VHP collections, part of our newest Experiencing War web feature. Focusing on collections that have a personal resonance for staff, the online exhibit will launch in early December. 
Black and white photo of man looking at camera.  Man is standing against wall with heights and has numbers under him.
Buchwald’s Marine enlistment photograph, 1942.
Box 219, Art Buchwald Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress collects the personal papers of individuals who made significant impacts on American history, society, and culture. While the goal of acquiring personal collections is typically to document the specific accomplishments and contributions of an individual, sometimes the most interesting aspect of these collections is the backstory – who were these remarkable people outside of their achievements? What influenced their paths in life? In my work as an archivist, I find collections that document a person’s whole life often offer a richer and deeper understanding of their accomplishments and personality. The Art Buchwald Papers is one such collection that clearly illustrates how important knowing the backstory is to a fuller understanding of the person.

For more than four decades, Art Buchwald was known as America’s funnyman. At the height of his storied career as a humorist, he was a staple for newspaper readers across the country, with columns appearing in some 500 papers. Many Americans still remember him for his shrewd political commentary, witty Washington Post columns, and familiarity with Washington, D.C.’s social and political elite. But the details of his early life, which so shaped the writer and entertainer he would later become, are less widely known.

Collections preserved by the Library bring Buchwald’s complete story to light.  His personal papers, held by the Manuscript Division, and an oral history interview, held by the Veterans History Project, tell the story of Buchwald’s difficult upbringing and his eventual rise to fame. Acquired by the Manuscript Division in 2017, Buchwald’s personal papers comprise some 100 linear feet of correspondence, family papers, manuscript drafts, plays, photographs, audiovisual material, digital files, and memorabilia, and provide an intimate look into Buchwald’s personal and professional life. In his 2005 Veterans History Project interview, Buchwald further elaborates on his childhood and his decision to run away from his troubled past and enlist in the United States Marine Corps. Taken together, these two collections trace Buchwald’s journey from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, to boot camp at Parris Island, to the cafés of Paris, France, and finally, to the pages of the Washington Post.

Black and white photo of baby and blanket.
Buchwald baby photograph, circa 1926.
Box 205, Art Buchwald Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Buchwald was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1925, the youngest of the four children of Helen and Joseph Buchwald.  His mother struggled with mental health issues and was institutionalized shortly after Buchwald was born. Buchwald never saw her again. Buchwald’s father, Joseph, was unable to support his son and three daughters after the Great Depression hit.  He sent Art to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York, New York. From there, Buchwald spent his youth shuttling between foster homes.

Early on, Buchwald learned that, through humor, he could endear himself to others. He also learned to express himself through writing. A social worker visiting Buchwald at his foster home around 1934 noted that his “course in journalism seems exceptionally well suited to him, since he has been writing articles and stories for quite a long time.”

Typed pages of report.
Social worker’s case report, circa 1934.
Box 205, Art Buchwald Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Eventually reunited with his father and sisters in the later years of his adolescence, Buchwald still struggled to find a sense of place and purpose. He described in his Veterans History Project interview how at 17 he “hated everything,” and decided to run away to North Carolina and join the military. After seeing the 1942 film To the Shores of Tripoli, Buchwald determined that the Marine Corps soldiers were “the best-looking and had the best uniforms and were the toughest” (audio interview 00:05:01). Because he was underage in 1942, he bribed a vagrant with a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey to pose as his father and sign his enlistment papers.

Buchwald completed boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, and was assigned to the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing. Shortly after, he deployed to Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands where he cleaned aircraft guns and made a “lousy ordnance man” (audio interview 00:10:04). A terrible soldier by his own description, Buchwald contributed to his unit largely by entertaining his peers through his antics and writing. While deployed, Buchwald wrote for and edited the outfit’s newspaper, The U-Man Comedy. Buchwald described the paper as “gossip” (audio interview 00:10:30), but faithfully saw to its upkeep for the duration of his deployment.

The U-Man Comedy is just one of many examples of Buchwald’s early forays into newspaper writing found in his personal papers. After he was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1945, Buchwald enrolled in the University of Southern California through the G.I. Bill. Though he received mostly poor marks on his academic writing assignments, he made great progress in establishing himself as a playwright and writer. While at USC, Buchwald debuted his first play, No Love Atoll, in a 1948 Varsity Show, served as an editor for the college’s magazine, WAMPUS, and wrote articles for the campus newspaper, The Daily Trojan.

Typed writing assignment with red ink corrections and grade of C-.
Example of Buchwald’s college writing assignments, University of Southern California, circa 1946.
Box 220, Art Buchwald Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Later in 1948, Buchwald learned he could attend classes through the GI Bill in Paris, France, and moved abroad. Once in Paris, however, he abandoned his coursework in favor of establishing himself as a professional writer. For a brief period in 1948, he worked as a stringer for Variety magazine, though his sights were set on the New York Herald Tribune (European edition). In 1949, Buchwald noticed the Tribune had no nightlife column, so he pitched himself as a food critic to the paper’s editors. When asked about his qualifications, Buchwald stated he had experience as a food tester for the Marine Corps. Buchwald got the job. His column, Paris After Dark, quickly became a mainstay and won him international fame. His early fans included the novelist John Steinbeck, who praised Buchwald’s column and skill as a writer in a handwritten letter to Buchwald in 1953.

In 1962, Buchwald moved back to the United States. By then he was well established in the world of journalism. He entered the next phase of his career as a syndicated columnist, a role he fulfilled until his death in 2007.

As Buchwald reflected on his life, he credited his military service for setting him on a path to success. In his Veterans History Project interview, Buchwald described how the Marine Corps “straightened me out. I was a lot of trouble. I was 17 years old. I hated school. I hated everything. And all of a sudden, they just beat me up… so that part was really, really good. And I have always been happy with that” (audio interview 00:17:30). Buchwald went on to describe the Marine Corps as “his father” saying, “it was everything. I didn’t have a father before that” (audio interview 00:19:52).

Analysis of the Buchwald collections in the Manuscript Division and Veterans History Project provide significant insight into the early life and trials of Art Buchwald. These collections reveal how Buchwald realized the power humor and writing afforded him as young person and how he worked to refine his craft throughout his life. Buchwald solidified his place in American memory through his comedy and wit. The Library of Congress preserves his written words and his voice for generations of Americans to come.

The full audio interview with Art Buchwald is part of the Veterans History Project archives; listen to it here: // 

The Art Buchwald Papers are open to research in the Manuscript Division Reading Room. The catalog record and finding aid are available here: //

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