Living and Dying in ¾ Time

WASHINGTON — Whenever I take my young researchers on celebrity interviews, I give them the Warning: No matter how well you hit it off, don’t feel bad if you ever run into the stars again and they act as though they don’t know you. That’s usually how it goes. Think of them as elusive, shimmering creatures from another planet.

One of the few exceptions to this rule was Jimmy Buffett.

I don’t think I ever met anyone as warm. He had no airs. One night, Carl Hulse, our chief Washington correspondent, and I were out at dinner with him here — he loved to pump us for the latest info — and an inebriated woman interrupted him and declared, “You’re not Jimmy Buffett!” With that euphoric smile that could light up an arena, he pulled out his driver’s license for her.

Maybe he liked reporters because he started as a journalist, writing for Billboard magazine. He thought of himself as a writer — not only of songs but also of best-selling books; he was one of just a few to scale both the fiction and nonfiction lists at The Times. It was more than that, though. He was blessed with an irresistible Southern, devil-may-care charm. Usually, joie de vivre is a sign you’re not paying attention. But with Jimmy, it was ensorcelling. I went with him to Walter Reed medical center when he sang for wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. He was able to transport them to a beach with no cares. During the Covid years, he did “cabin fever Zooms” with health care workers from across the country who were Parrotheads.

We both loved pirates, mermaids, jukeboxes and the glamorous era of Pan Am flight attendants, and we built a friendship on those mythical objects. When I asked him when his birthday was, so I could send him a Pan Am sweatshirt I’d found, he replied: “I’ll give you a hint. Same day as the baby in the manger, but I was not born in a manger. I was born in Pascagoula.” As he was dying, said his brother-in-law, the writer Tom McGuane, he was talking about going home to Pascagoula, Miss.

A selfie of Jimmy Buffett with Maureen Dowd.

His druggie past was not something to emulate, although he said he had no regrets. As he sang in “He Went to Paris,” “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I had a good life all the way.” But in one sense at least, he was a model for how to live: Build your life around what you love. When he was a young scalawag, he found the Life Aquatic and conjured his art from it, making Key West the capital of Margaritaville. He didn’t waste away there; he spun a billion-dollar empire out of a shaker of salt. What could be more American than that?

In the end, having packed a thousand lifetimes into one, he was a model for how to die.

“Well, I have learned one thing from my latest in a series of the ever-appearing speed bumps of life — 75 is NOT the new 50,” he emailed me. “Thinking younger doesn’t quite do it. You still have to do the hard work of, as the Toby Keith song says, ‘Don’t let the old man in.’ And that is my job now, the way I see it.”

Some stars are such natural performers, they don’t look as though they’re working very hard. Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe never won Oscars. Jimmy was not garlanded with awards. He sent me his thoughts on that last April, on the occasion of “Margaritaville” being enshrined as “culturally significant” in the Library of Congress, sharing what he had told Howard Cohen, a Miami Herald reporter.

Jimmy loved the Library of Congress and visited it often back in the days when he was working on a musical, “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” with Herman Wouk, holed up at Wouk’s house in Georgetown. (The musical had a brief run in Miami in 1997.)

“I have always loved books, reading and libraries, a gift from my mother,” Jimmy said. “The Library of Congress is a monumental treasure you don’t have to dig up; you just walk in the door of American history. ‘Margaritaville’ in the Library of Congress. I just have to giggle, but with pride. I haven’t received many awards in my profession, but I am OK with that. I think the best reward for a performer is to please the audience.”

He offered the story of how he came to write his biggest hit: “I started writing it on a napkin in a Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas, with a friend who was driving me to the airport, to fly home to Key West. On the drive down the Keys, there was a fender bender on the Seven Mile Bridge, west of Marathon, and I was stuck, overlooking Pigeon Key. I sat on the bridge for about an hour and finished the song there. That night, I played it for the first time at my job at Crazy Ophelia’s on Duval Street. The small crowd in the bar asked me to play it again. And I did. So, I guess it is a pretty good three-minute song that has stood the test of time.”

He was well-read but unpretentious. When I told him I was getting my master’s in English at Columbia University, he dryly asked, “Did ‘y’all’ ever make it into the English books?” One of his favorite signoffs was “Let’s ketchup soon.” I wrote to tell him about a course at Columbia on grammar and syntax called The Comma Sutra. “I need it, and maybe one on semicolons,” he replied. “Would that then be semicolonography? JB.”

A passionate Democrat — I met him through Caroline Kennedy — Jimmy despised Donald Trump but made sure his shows were “an oasis” for fans of any political stripe.

Privately, he referred to the Trump era as “the Big Cheeto Follies” and told me he hoped I was “having fun sticking pins into the Trump voodoo doll.” Watching “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix during the pandemic, Jimmy noted — with an octopus emoji — that the inquisitive cephalopod in the film was “way smarter than Trump.”

Jimmy asked if the Trump impeachment for demanding a quid pro quo from Ukraine would be “the rotten piece of bait that finally hooks this sleazy bottom feeder? I hope so. Smart people seem to learn from their mistakes and move on. Something the bottom feeder never got.”

When Trump trundled back into the arena in 2022, Jimmy recoiled: “He never figured out that no show lasts forever, and it looks like this will be the last season, thank God.” Always the optimist.

Credit…Associated Press

He wrote happily about “Uncle Joe”: “Looks like I am welcome back at this White House. I have known Joe a long time, and his favorite song is ‘Come Monday.’ I am honored. OK, sun’s up, and the wind is down. Off to surf. JB.”

His texts and emails came from many locales in paradise — St. Barth’s, Sag Harbor, Palm Beach, Paris and Cojímar, a small fishing village in Cuba.

But in the last couple of years, he often wrote from less exotic places, Boston and Houston, where he was being treated for an aggressive form of skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma. (Was there a price for trademarking the sun? Even so, I bet he wouldn’t have changed a thing.) He stayed upbeat on the “juice,” as he called his infusions to treat the cancer, and spoke proudly about his “all-female doctor team dedicated to keeping the old man out” on the road. He would say he had to “go into the pits for some adjustments” and reassure me that he was getting “weller.” He called it an irritation, a Southern fingernail on an English chalkboard.

He said he was burrowing in at his Sag Harbor house with his wife, Janie, and his kids and dogs. His younger sister, Laurie, who also was battling cancer, came around. He loved having his band members over to play music, calling it “therapeutic to me.” He talked about binging on “The White Lotus” and sent the titles of new songs he was working on that were so Jimmy: “Conch Fritters and Red Wine,” “Fish Porn” and “My Gummy Just Kicked In,” which featured a turn by his Hamptons pal Paul McCartney.

Jimmy urged me to keep after the bad guys. “Keep trolling out there; as a longtime fisherman, I can say with some authority, you never know what is going to wind up on the end of your rod. Fins up and see you soon.”

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