Steinbeck fan letters and invitation to the world’s most famous wedding ‹ Literary Hub
Image courtesy of Diana Walker
Legendary comedian Art Buchwald would always say that the fourteen years he and his wife Ann spent together in Paris were “the scene of our happiest times”. Part of the thrill was the extraordinary circle of friends and acquaintances they kept company with. Art has played chess with Humphrey Bogart, played gin rummy with Ben Bradlee, and traveled the Left Bank with Orson Welles and Peter Ustinov.
They mingled with Ingrid Bergman; Audrey Hepburn; Lena Horne; Mike Todd and his beautiful young wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor; and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Ann and Art had a bizarre evening with the Windsors when the Duke played recordings of “German patriotic songs” and sang with great delight. “He was a stupid man,” Buchwald later wrote, “and I have always believed that England [owed] Wallis [Simpson] . . . for making him renounce the crown.
Art thought the Duchess, however, was “a very sharp woman and knew what was going on”. Knowing that he was a restaurant critic for the Grandstand, the Duchess once asked her to let them know about “any new restaurant [in Paris] you think we would like, but not with garlic, please.
They spent evenings with writers Janet Flanner and James Thurber of The New Yorker. (Buchwald once asked Thurber, who was nearly blind from a childhood injury, what it felt like to lose his sight. In typical Thurber fashion, the comedian replied, “It is better now. For a long time, images of Herbert Hoover were the only thing that kept coming back to me.”
One evening, the Buchwalds attended a dinner with British novelist and biographer Nancy Mitford, who was “one of the most un-American people” art had ever encountered in Europe. “I once asked her which American she disliked the most,” Buchwald later recalled. “She replied, ‘Abraham Lincoln. I hate Abraham Lincoln. When I read the book The day Lincoln was shot, I was so afraid that he would go to the wrong theater. What was the name of that handsome man who shot her, John Wilkes Booth? Yes I love it.
Other evenings, Ann and Art dined and shared gossip with the likes of novelist W. Somerset Maugham (whom Art called “one of my all-time favorite Brits”), or legendary journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Lippmann, or with novelist John Steinbeck and his wife Elaine.
Art had long been an admirer of Steinbeck’s work, especially The Grapes of Wrath. In 1946, while still a student at USC, Buchwald got a job as a fruit picker on a northern California farm in hopes of gaining enough experience to write his own version of the chef- of Steinbeck’s work. His planned adventure, however, quickly turned into a frightening misadventure. Guarded by men with shotguns during the day when out in the fields, then herded into filthy dormitories at night; it was a terrifying experience for Buchwald. Although he eventually escaped, he never forgot the terror he felt during the entire ordeal, later writing that he had nightmares of it for the rest of his life.
Now, the opportunity to spend time with Steinbeck in Paris was a dream come true for Buchwald. And soon, much to his delight, the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning novelist became an admirer of Art’s charm and unique humor:
JULY 27, 1953
[New York] Dear Art:
I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time how much I appreciate your parts that we get in the Trib here. You get into good humorous form, and you’re pretty much the only man alive who states our ridiculous times in proper, good-humored terms. You evolve very quickly and it is a pleasure to read you. And it’s also in the real solid tradition of American humor. Both the deadliest and the most insinuating.
Although the Herald Tribune was one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world, its Paris offices at 21 rue de Berri were distinguished by their “scruffy” appearance. The entire set “couldn’t have been better designed by a movie set director”, Buchwald once joked:
The floors sagged and when the presses turned, the whole building shook. . . . The elevator creaked in pain. The limited space given to me could have gotten the Grandstand in trouble with the Geneva Convention. The reporters’ desks were from the Clemenceau period and the lighting was designed by Thomas Edison.
Ben Bradlee, the head of the Paris office of Newsweek magazine, which shared space with the Grandstand, remembered the offices as “wonderfully shabby” and “grungy”. During the cold months, the lack of heat was always a problem, forcing reporters to sometimes wear gloves while typing. Buchwald’s “cluttered” typewriter and desk “faced a blind window that opened into a soot-covered air duct.” In such cramped quarters, his habit of chain-smoking cigars and laughing out loud at his own columns was a constant source of annoyance to his editors and fellow reporters.
And to help publish each edition of the journal, there was an odd assortment of staff on hand. According to Buchwald, the French composers in the composition room (none of whom spoke a word of English) were singing the communist anthem “L’Internationale” every twenty minutes and, to make matters worse, the mail clerk was almost blind, and the receptionist on the phone almost deaf.
Despite the small size and misery of 21 rue de Berri, Buchwald liked to be a Tribe man. His weekly columns were now read and discussed almost everywhere, and his readership kept growing. By 1955, his reputation had grown so much that a bogus Buchwald column titled “The Cat Prowls Again?” makes an appearance in the opening scene of the Alfred Hitchcock film To catch a thief, a romantic thriller about a retired jewel thief named John Robie, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
By 1955, his reputation had grown so much that a bogus Buchwald column titled “The Cat Prowls Again?” makes an appearance in the opening scene of the Alfred Hitchcock film To catch a thief.
After just seven years in Paris, Buchwald had become a journalistic celebrity, prompting American radio personality Fred Allen to remark that Art’s column had surely “raised the stature of the ink”.
The key to Buchwald’s style of humor was to “treat light subjects seriously and serious subjects lightly”, he once said. This formula was fully visible in two of his greatest satirical hits in Europe. The first was an offbeat and whimsical account of one of the most commented on marriages of the 20th century; the second a comedic roast of a powerful but unwitting presidential aide who was no match for Buchwald’s treatment.
In the spring of 1956, a fairy tale about a royal romance takes Art Buchwald and his friend Ben Bradlee on the road to Monaco. Earlier that year, American actress Grace Kelly announced her engagement to Prince Rainier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand Grimaldi of Monaco, generating a larger-than-life romance covered in news and headlines across the country. whole world.
A few days before the royal wedding, Buchwald, Bradlee and Crosby Noyes from The Washington Star left Paris and rushed to Monaco to cover the ceremony, despite the fact that neither of them had an invitation. Leaving Paris by overnight train, the “Three Musketeers” (as Bradlee dubbed them) headed south, hoping their ingenuity would land them some kind of scoop at the wedding. When they finally arrived at the Monte Carlo station, there was no taxi in sight.
After a bit of scrambling, Bradlee spotted a small taxi and waved it down, but he immediately realized that the portly third musketeer, Buchwald, would never get into the taxi. “There’s no more room, Artie!” Bradlee shouted. Putting all honor aside, Bradlee and Noyes jumped off and ditched Buchwald, both laughing as they headed back to their hotel. However, as in most cases throughout Buchwald’s life, he would have the final say. After checking into the hotel, Art sat down at his typewriter and, as Bradlee described it, “pulled a rabbit out of his hat, with what I’ve always believed to be the best chronicle that he ever wrote”.
After checking into the hotel, Art sat down at his typewriter and, as Bradlee described it, “pulled a rabbit out of his hat, with what I’ve always believed to be the best chronicle that he ever wrote”.
In a document filed with the Grandstand later that day, titled “The Great Grimaldi Feud”, Buchwald wrote a parody column claiming that the reason he had been “snubbed” and not received a wedding invitation was that the Buchwald and Rainier families- Grimaldi had been feuding since the thirteenth century, and that the bitterness of the rivalry had prevented him from being invited. “The reason for the quarrel is lost somewhere in the cobwebs of history,” Buchwald wrote facetiously. “You will not find a page in the history of Monaco where a Buchwald has not offended a Grimaldi or a Grimaldi has not offended a Buchwald.”
A year earlier, Buchwald wrote, he had tried to calm the feuds between the two families by persuading his aunt Molly to invite Prince Rainier to attend his cousin Joseph’s wedding to a “nice girl from Flatbush”. But her proud and defiant aunt would have none of that. “No Grimaldi!” she says to art.
Now stuck in Monaco without an invitation to the royal wedding, Buchwald playfully declared he was the latest victim of the seven-century feud. Unfortunately, he said with feigned amusement, “the Grimaldis still had some for the Buchwalds.”
Art’s column was a stroke of genius. The next morning, shortly after the daily edition of Paris Herald Tribune reached the Royal Palace, an invitation to one of the most magical weddings of the century was hand-delivered to Buchwald at his hotel.
Extract of FUNNY BUSINESS: The Legendary Life and Political Satire of Art Buchwald © 2022 by Michael Hill. Published by Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher.