The winter after my senior year in college, Bill Buckley invited me to Gstaad, Switzerland, to help him on a novel called Spytime: The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton. Our program there followed much of what he had been doing each year. For a little over a month, he and his wife Pat and a small staff took over a chalet in the ski area, in a village called Rougemont. Somewhere in Switzerland, Bill had stored a crate of old dictionaries, videocassettes of Brideshead Revisited, abstract paintings, and leopard-print throws. In the days before his arrival, the staff used these items to convert the chalet into another Buckley office and home. And each year, Bill brought along a young college graduate to be his writing assistant. He put us up in an inn just down the hill.
I first got to know Bill, a bit, as the undergraduate editor of The Dartmouth Review. Jeffrey Hart showed him a piece I had written — I think it was a review of the movie Kids — and Bill wrote back approvingly. That translated into an internship at NR, then an editorial job. But I had really met him only a handful of times when he called me into his office and asked me if I liked to ski. I said, “Yes, Mr. Buckley, I do.” He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Call me Bill.” The invitation to Switzerland came the next day.
“There is never a good time for a busy man to take a vacation,” Bill once said. “And since there is never a good time, he might as well take it whenever he wants.” But Bill never vacationed, even on vacation. He never took weekends off, most likely because his greatest fear was boredom.
So Bill gave himself the assignment of writing a book each year during his stay in Gstaad. The winter I was there, it wasn’t one of his Blackford Oakes novels, but it was a Cold War thriller. The book was a fictionalized first-person story as told by James Angleton, the real-life head of U.S. counterintelligence. Angleton’s archenemy, in our book as in real life, was Kim Philby, the famous double agent from the British secret service. Philby had been recruited by the Communists as one of the Cambridge Five and defected in 1963 to the Soviet Union, where he was awarded the Order of Lenin. For Angleton, Philby was the spy who got away, and our novel hinted that it drove Angleton insane.
So in Gstaad, while everyone else went on holiday, we made a novel. Bill woke up at 4:30 every morning. I drove up to the chalet, overlooking the mountain face of the Videmanette, at 7:30. Bill always lent his four-wheel-drive Peugeot to his young assistants. He handed me the keys our first day at the top of the hill and gave me a quiz about the route to get his morning newspaper. I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t drive stick. So I learned on the road from my hotel to the chalet, and promptly burned out the clutch.
We worked for several hours together every morning, our desks catty-corner to each other. The Goldberg Variations — the Glenn Gould recordings — played in the background as Bill typed. If Bill wanted to set a scene in Beirut in the 1960s, he’d ask me to come up with the details. Then we went to lunch in one of the hamlets dotting the resort, or in the private restaurant atop the Wasserngrat called the Eagle Club. Here we’d discuss what should happen next in the plot. How about we hide a gun in the camera? Let’s kill off so-and-so. He had very little sense of where his book would go. Then we would ski for a few hours. Then we would return for the afternoon session.
Buckley had it in him to write 1,500 words a day — after a month, you have a novel. But those 1,500 words needed a second pair of eyes, and that’s where I came in. In his first drafts, character names changed. Dates were all wrong. I helped fix those in the afternoon sessions. Then at 7 p.m., Julian, his cook, brought in a kir — white wine with a drop of crème de cassis — for each of us. We’d pull out the Dutch cigars and discuss the day’s progress.