- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

Death is no laughing matter unless, of course, you’re Art Buchwald, who not only cheated the Grim Reaper earlier this year but lived to joke about it at the Washington Home and Community Hospice’s annual gala Saturday night.

“If you stay in hospice long enough, you became a poster boy for them … a symbol of death,” Mr. Buchwald told the black-tie crowd of 350 guests at the Mayflower Hotel.

Mr. Buchwald, 81, was handed a death sentence by doctors in early 2006 when, suffering from kidney failure, he refused dialysis. He checked into the hospice thinking he had no more than three weeks to live, but that wasn’t the end of the story. He ended up staying five months — well after Medicare stopped paying, he noted with mock irritation.

“You’re supposed to die there with dignity,” the tuxedoed humorist and Pulitzer Prize winner said from the wheelchair where he now sits after a leg was amputated last year. “It didn’t work out that way for me … I survived.”

While at hospice, he received a steady stream of well-known visitors, including Jack Valenti, Ethel Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, all of whom were present at the jazz-laced gala. Other well-wishers Saturday included Choral Arts Society Director Norman Scribner, Robert and Mary Haft, and Chris and Lorraine Wallace.

“He was holding court in his ‘salon’ [the hospice living room],” said Chris Turner, a hospice nurse who attended the event along with at least seven of Mr. Buchwald’s caretakers there. “He had everyone laughing. And if you didn’t laugh, he got upset.”

Always irreverent, Mr. Buchwald often told political jokes; including the time he offered to get visitor and friend Donald Rumsfeld a room at hospice should the defense secretary lose his job.

“Apparently, he called hospice this past week and said, ‘I guess I’ll need a room.’ ”

Angela Sauve, the Washington Home and Community Hospice’s marketing and development director, reported that the staff also got a kick out of Mr. Buchwald’s not exactly healthy eating habits.

“He would order McDonald’s hamburgers and milkshakes, all the time,” Ms. Sauve said with a laugh.

Event planners were delighted that Mr. Buchwald’s time with them had brought much-needed attention to their facility. “You have been a gift to the Washington Home and Community Hospice,” gala chairwoman Teresa Clare told the celebrity patient after noting that the event had raised approximately $250,000 for the cause.

Mr. Buchwald left in June — only about 13 percent of patients leave hospice care alive — for his summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, where he wrote “Too Soon to Say Goodbye,” a memoir that deals with the hospice experience. The book came out last week and includes an outline of his dream demise: death while playing tennis on center court against Andre Agassi, Luciano Pavarotti singing at the funeral and the ashes to be sprinkled on top of all of Donald Trump’s New York City buildings.

“Why not?” he joked. After all, “Everything is going my way right now.”

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