Thursday, March 5, 2009
Letters from Art
We are cleaning out the attic, and I have been plowing through boxes and boxes of clippings and correspondence dating back to the mid-1960s and the beginning of my newspaper career. Some of it is worth saving, especially the letters exchanged with prominent writers of the time. One such is the great syndicated satirist Art Buchwald, who died in 2007. Two letters from him written in 1983 show not only the breadth of his wit but also the depth of his humanity.
The occasion was a review I had written of a book of essays by Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker humorist. I don't recall the exact words, but they were something along the lines of "If I didn't know better, I'd call Trillin the intellectual's Art Buchwald."
Naturally Trillin's publisher wrested out of context the last four words for the New York Times ad that appeared a few days after the review. " 'The intellectual's Art Buchwald' -- Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times."
The following week this letter arrived from Buchwald:
"I was very hurt when you described Calvin Trillin as 'the intellectual's Art Buchwald.' Just because he went to Yale and I went to the University of Southern California is no reason for you to put me down. I didn't have a very good education because my family was poor and I couldn't afford remedial English.
"Sometime early in my newspaper career a voice said to me: 'Intellectuals suck," and I decided to appeal to hard hats and middle America.
"You have hurt my standing with Washington brain trusters. Ever since your review people say, 'Don't talk to Buchwald. He isn't one of our kind.'
"The next time I see Trillin I'm going to punch him in the nose.
"cc: Calvin Trillin"
Of course I hastened to send Buchwald a copy of the review with the quote in proper context, and a few days later this arrived:
"Thanks for your nice note. I'm glad we cleared the matter up. Death to all book advertising people, and a pox on those who misquote book critics. I will let Trillin live, but if it happens on his next book my people will take care of him.
"Hope to see you soon.
A year or so later I ran into Trillin at a literary party while in the company of Tracy Kidder, who brought up the incident. Trillin not only remembered the ad -- he and Buchwald were good friends -- but thought the whole thing very funny.
Naturally I'm saving that correspondence. It's a treasure.