For the 25th Year: Art Buchwald Heads Back to Auction Block
By C.K. WOLFSON
There are no similar versions of himself; he is that singular, that irreverent, blunt, kind-hearted. Mischievous to an inch of trouble. Without intention, without seeming to care, he is a finger-in-the-socket current of unpredictability and compassion that, when added to almost any existing whole, changes its entire composition.
For the past 24 years of serving as auctioneer for Community Services' Possible Dreams Auction, syndicated columnist Art Buchwald, by virtue of heart and personality, has made it his own. "Anything for Art," has been the anthem. A survivor of depression and a massive stroke, he has resolutely helped raise more than $4 million by goading, teasing and in-your-face demanding that celebrities in various fields contribute and participate in extravagant experiences for auction.
"He works this thing. The minute he lands on this Island our telephones start ringing and we're flooded with more dreams," says auction co-chairman Kerry Scott. Co-chairman Amy Eisenlohr calls him the heart, soul and funny bone of the auction.
Ms. Scott recounts being at daRosa's to proofread the program just before printing it. "The phone rings for the fourteenth time. It's Art Buchwald. ‘Anyone want to take a call from Art Buchwald?' Nobody moves a muscle." She says they knew they would have to change the program again. "Art said, ‘Hold the presses. I got a hot item'. First year seasonal resident Mike Nichols, who had not been asked to contribute, just called Art and said, ‘What are we? Chopped liver?' "
Anything for Art, Ms. Scott explains. "Here's the deal: When Art says, I want you to call someone like Bob Kraft of the Patriots, if I call the office they say, ‘Possible Dreams? I don't know of it.' If I say it's the Art Buchwald auction, they say, ‘Oh, of course.'"
So, this year for the right price, Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols will serve you lunch; Vernon Jordan will golf with you; Marc Brown, creator of Arthur, will visit a school of your choice; Olga Hirshhorn will guide you through the Hirshhorn Museum; Carly Simon will sing to you (and after you sign a legal document of confidentiality, tell you who she wrote You're So Vain about).
"You know, it's fun to have the feeling that when I get up there with Art there's a little bit of magic in the air," Ms. Simon says, confirming her continued support. "He always catches me in town, stops me in the street. Some people will ask you to do them a favor and they'll weigh in heavily with guilt. Art is extremely direct and straightforward. His perseverance is astonishing. He doesn't have guilt. He's just so cute, so adorable. He says ‘I know you can think of something,' and over the years I've thought of a lot of things, including signed guitars and auctioning my piano."
Mr. Buchwald smiles impishly. He has proven he can convince people to bid outrageous sums. "I have the chutzpah to get money out of people, and do it in such a way that they don't feel bad about it." He knows the more he pokes and prods, the more fun everyone has.
Originally the bidding was encouraged in small increments, $50 and $100. He quickly revised his strategy. "As the years went by I said, why am I wasting my time? So I started doing $500 and $1000 increments, and I noticed the same people were bidding anyway. The idea is to keep going fast."
"How can you say no to Art Buchwald?" Mrs. Hirshhorn asks. This year he told her he'd like to interview her, and instructed her to bid generously on his offer to interview someone for a professional family history video. "And you know what I suddenly thought?" She laughs, "He's probably telling that to all the ladies: ‘I'd like to interview you.' It's just like Art."
Mr. Buchwald is pleased. "I feel that I'm a very lucky person," he says. "I also like to be on the stage. I'm not shy. All my life I've been on the stage. That was one way to deal with my childhood. So that was the right combination."
The 77-year-old, Pulitzer-prize winning columnist is talking over a lunch of soup and salad which he's having in his spacious Vineyard Haven family room. He speaks in headlines, clipped and abrupt, a soft, expressive growl with a New York accent.
"I just feel that it's my duty," he says between swallows. "People are hurting, and if I can do anything to stop the hurt, I feel important. And all of us who can do something about the hurt should do it." He has made contributing to worthy causes, "a very big part of my life."
It's a big part of his life that, after Monday, will come to an end. While Mr. Buchwald will continue to participate in the fund-raising auction, he is stepping down as the event's main auctioneer. "It's time," he simply states. Call him auctioneer emeritus.
His friend Mike Wallace, usually unable to attend the auction, will be introducing him on Monday. "Artie and I have been friends forever. I mean really forever," the 60 Minutes television journalist says, adding that he, Mr. Buchwald and Mr. Styron, all close friends and Vineyard neighbors, having suffered clinical depression in the mid-1980s, are known to each other as The Blues Brothers.
"He's a caring and loyal friend, and there is no, I repeat, no malice in him," Mr. Wallace continues. "He's one of the most generous men I've ever known in my life - and I mean generous with his soul."
Rose Styron laughs. "He prepares us for months to come, and goes over in detail what it is we should do. Then we're always totally surprised when he gets up and introduces it and has some other take that either exaggerates or roasts you."
Anything for Art. Mrs. Hirshhorn admits, "He makes me do such dumb things - like telling everybody how old I am." She laughs. "And each year I say I'm not going to do that. It's crazy. So I get up there and I say all these dumb things. But it really means so much to Art. He really wants that auction to be a success and it's catching. Especially this one. I'm very happy to be a part of this one."
Clifford's creator, Norman Bridwell, who began 24 years ago with Mr. Buchwald: "He does his remarkable job of auctioning, and I just sit there and look at him. You never know what his spur of the moment observations are going to be."
Like the time Mr. Buchwald announced that Mr. Bridwell would draw caricatures of the people who won the bid - "Which I can't do," Mr. Bridwell laughs.
There are many memories.
"The thing I remember most about it is the tiers of people from the balconies all waving American flags and shouting down, calling out Art's name and my name. It feels kind of as if you're in an arena and you're going for the gold," Ms. Simon says.
Bill Styron remembers being introduced by Mr. Buchwald as an important writer whose books should be greatly valued. Mr. Styron responded by telling the crowd about the time he was asked to sign an old first edition that someone bought for one dollar at a street sale. Mr. Styron opened it, and saw that it had already been inscribed by him on the flyleaf, "To my dear friends, Art and Ann Buchwald."
And Mr. Wallace adds, "Twenty years ago Artie and I would auction ourselves for a doubles [tennis] match. Artie was an interesting partner. He lobbed everything, that was the only shot he had. And then of course, he cheated. So frequently, we won. Artie succeeded in confusing the opposition."
Like his trademark auction hats. "At the beginning I say, this hat is not for sale," Mr. Buchwald explains. "Henry Kissinger gave me this hat (he changes the name each year) - and I go on and on. And at the end I say, Okay, I will give it for sale." He giggles. "I lied. It wasn't Kissinger's hat."
At least one of his close friends, "the most trusted man in America," knowing Mr. Buchwald's habit of exaggeration, refuses to believe he's stepping down as auctioneer.
"I'm expecting him to be right up on that platform as he's been all these years," declares Walter Cronkite. "So I'm not going to waste any tears."
For many years, Mr. Cronkite's contribution of an afternoon sail of his Wyntje brought the high bid, $7,000 in 1996. No longer sailing, he will be hosting a lunch for the winning bidder.
"Buchwald's been a friend of Betsy's and mine for many, many years. He's done a wonderful job for the auction. It bears his stamp and I can't imagine him not being there next year." Based on his past experience, he cautions everyone to assume Art Buchwald is kidding. "If he's not there on the platform next year, then I'll shed a tear. But I'm not until then. I would prefer not to believe it."
And for whatever memories his friends and fans have, Mr. Buchwald has hundreds more.
High points? He answers, "They're all high points."
He believes deeply in the cause of Community Services. Many of his friends have, at different times, solicited help from its agencies. And he is proud of the Possible Dreams auction and his participation in it.
"It's being on the Vineyard that makes a difference," he says. "The Island is home. Our friends are here. More so than in Washington."
Lunch is over. When the comment is made that he seems to be taking this turning point in stride, he fairly shouts his response. "What am I going to do? Look. I am 77 years old. I've been working for 52 years. So I take everything in stride."