After many and legendary years at 150 East 35th Street, National Review moved to 215 Lexington Avenue. That was at the end of 1996. Two years later, I came along. (I don’t mean that I was born but that I arrived at NR.) Never will I forget my first phone call with Jack Fowler. He was then the associate publisher, I believe, and would rise to the rank of capo. In a classic Bronx voice, he said, “Jay, welcome aboard and all that stuff.” (I have switched his original language to “stuff.”) He had me at hello, so to speak.
Now we are moving once more, to 19 West 44th Street. (Have I mentioned that this is Manhattan in New York City?) In preparation for our move, we are sorting through and clearing out old stuff, some of which has not been touched in many years. I came upon a file of letters and notes — even printed-out emails. They come from the famous and infamous. The soon-to-be famous, and the soon-to-be infamous. From a range of types.
He contributed to our millennial issue, published in January 2000. Another great writer, Czeslaw Milosz, sent his regrets (from Krakow). Overburdened with “many duties,” he said. We did have a Nobel laureate in that issue, however — Saul Bellow. (Milosz won the prize for literature in 1980, Bellow in 1976.) I have no surviving correspondence from Bellow, I’m sorry to say.
Mark Helprin should win the Nobel prize. What would the committee say to a note he sent in 2002? For reasons I could explain, he is talking about Chubby Checker, of “Let’s do the twist” fame. “When I was 15 or 16,” Helprin writes, “I was walking in midtown and passed the Peppermint Lounge. I looked into the window and saw Mr. Checker doing the twist. Thus began the decline of a great nation (France).” Honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure what that means, but I think it’s funny. At the bottom of his note, instead of signing his name, Mark draws an animal. What kind? I’m not sure, but it, too, is funny.
Also in 1999, David Pryce-Jones writes about a profile I had done of Condoleezza Rice, who was advising the governor of Texas, George W. Bush, on foreign policy. In those days, incidentally, P-J was faxing letters he had written with a fountain pen. Beautiful writing it is, too (in both senses). Anyway, he says, “She’s a good reason to vote for W. and would be better than that grounded old coast-guard vessel M. Albright, née Korbelová.” In a peculiar twist of history — not Chubby Checker’s kind — Madeleine Albright learned about the world from her father, Josef Korbel, and so did Condoleezza Rice, who was a student of his at the University of Denver. In another letter, P-J appreciates my appreciation of a piece of his: “It makes all the trouble of writing (a form of madness, really) worthwhile.”
Naturally, writers write about writing, especially when writing to one another. Here is Colin Walters, that wonderful Englishman, in a note from 1998: “Your complimentary words have made for a rare moment of real sunshine. As you must know by now, this is a competitive and sometimes vicious business we are in, and even at the best of times it feels too much like putting messages in bottles, tossing them into the sea, and never hearing back.” In 2001, NR published an article by Bernard Lewis, the dean of Middle East scholars. He writes, “I have received a fair amount of ‘positive feedback’” — I love those quotation marks — “and am glad to learn that some has also reached you. Generally, people who like an article write to the author, those who dislike it to the editor.” So, so true — although now, instead of writing letters to the editor, they “comment” or tweet.
Naturally, writers write about writing, especially when writing to one another.
In 1999, I had a back-and-forth with James L. Buckley concerning the verbs “entitle” and “title”: Do you entitle a book or title one? JLB was arguing for the former, I for the latter. He said that his way had perhaps become archaic, “but as I myself am archaic, I feel more comfortable with it.” (Please note that, in 2017, Jim is still writing.) On another occasion, he set me straight on some matter of family history, which had been imparted to me by a famous — very famous — sibling of his. “In correcting the record,” he begins, “I do not intend to cast a shadow over brother Bill’s reputation for absolute accuracy.” A nice, brotherly zinger.
Speaking of Buckley brothers, I have letters from Reid, too — who begins one of them, “I often don’t get around to reading my NRs until topicality has long passed; on the other hand, I relish them.”
Norman Podhoretz was a brother of Bill’s, in a sense. N. Pod. begins one note to me, “Yes, the pity of it, as Othello says to Iago in Shakespeare, though not, I believe, in Verdi.” That is very Podhoretzian. Another note, he begins, “I could quote you some Robert Burns, but I’m too lazy.” That is not Podhoretzian at all. He makes up for it a few sentences later by adapting Burns, to wit, “An excerpt’s an excerpt for a’ that.”
From Jeffrey Hart, that immensely learned professor of English and NR figure, there are long, learned letters. One of them starts out, “You are even more correct than you could know in associating me with Columbia rather than Dartmouth. But that has been a ‘complex fate,’ to use a Henry James phrase. And it leads me to some Proustian reflections on things past, and they will be at Proustian length, I must tell you.” I’ve never minded. What a writer, what a mind, he is.
In 2002, we published a piece by Stephen Ambrose, the best-selling historian. He asked me to send him a copy of that issue. “I live in a small fishing village with no National Reviews.” That was on the Mississippi coast, I believe. Another best-selling historian, in London, declined to review a book we had sent him. In a faxed letter — with artistic handwriting, by that writer-artist — Paul Johnson says, “I would have to write a totally negative review, which I hate doing. So please excuse me on this one.” Before closing, he notes, “I have decided that Brahms’s Intermezzo in B-flat minor, Op. 117, No. 2, is the finest short piece of piano music I know.”
Speaking of music, I was glad to discover — glad to fish out — a letter from George Malko, whose father I had written about. He was Nicolai Malko, an important Russian conductor who lived from 1883 to 1961. Re-reading his son’s letter brought back another world — Shostakovich, Stalin, and talented refugees circling the globe. (Nicolai Malko worked in cities as far-flung as Grand Rapids and Sydney.)
If you ever need a letter of recommendation, I recommend that you get one from Harold Bloom, the renowned literary critic. If he likes and approves of you, you will have a powerful advocate. In 2001, he recommended his student and assistant Emmy Chang (who indeed came to us). Bloom writes, “She is a remarkable literary editor: erudite, independent, energetic, and devoted.” He goes on to say, “Since I am a dinosaur, a Truman Democrat in his early seventies, my only disputes with Emmy have been political, since she is a realistic conservative, and a traditionalist, which I find culturally refreshing.”
I kept a letter from Caspar W. Weinberger, Reagan’s secretary of defense (and Nixon’s HEW secretary, and budget director). He signs it “Cap.” I loved that. I had never met him — and never would meet him — but I got the “Cap.” Conversely, I did not get the “Zbig” — but I do have some letters from Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national-security adviser. In one of them, he issues a fair reminder to us Reagan nuts: “The nature of ‘victory’ in the Cold War is a very broad subject, and other presidents (going all the way back to Truman) deserve a share of the historical accolades.”
Speaking of Reagan: We planned an issue about him — a memorial issue — well before he died. One of the people we asked to contribute was Milton Friedman. He writes,
I believe I am not the right person for you. I am roughly the same age as Mr. Reagan and so far as I know not in any better physical shape but fortunate in that I do not have Alzheimer’s disease. Even if I were to write it beforehand, were I to predecease him, you would not want to use it, so I think you are much better off going to someone much younger.
I appreciate your asking. I am a great admirer of President Reagan and would be more than willing to pay him honor, but I believe the actuarial tables suggest that it is a risky proposition.
Friedman wrote that letter in 2000. As it happened, Reagan died in 2004, Friedman in 2006. While we’re on the subject of presidents: I smile at a note from George W. Bush, penned in his bold, no-nonsense hand. He asks me to give “un abrazo,” an embrace, to a Cuban dissident we both admire (Juan Carlos González Leiva). Bush adds, “We must never forget the horrors of Cuba.”
In 2011 came a note from Eugene D. Genovese, the singular historian. It had a mysterious P.S.: “The word on the street is that NR will endorse Obama’s re-election. È vero?” (“Is it true?”) No, non era vero. Era pazzo. (No, it wasn’t true. It was crazy.)
And you will be interested in a line from Senator Mitch McConnell, which I publish now with permission. (I have not sought permission from anybody else. Those who are living are welcome to sue. But me, personally, please, not the magazine.) In 2013, McConnell was Senate minority leader, soon to be majority leader. Some of the Right was on his back as a squish. He says, “As someone who has spent most of his career being decried as a right-wing lunatic, it’s been something of an out-of-body experience to be condemned in some quarters as an establishment moderate.” This sentence seems ripped from this morning’s headlines.
I will leave you with some words from William A. Rusher, who was our publisher for many years. In 2000, he wrote me from San Francisco, where he was retired. After agreeing with an article of mine, bemoaning President Clinton and the America that had embraced him, he says, “But please give some thought to balancing such gloomy comments with some upbeat stuff, by way of contrast. One old geezer out here told me not long ago that he no longer reads NR because it’s so unrelievedly gloomy. Glints of humor, and a general tone of optimism, are indispensable.”
Amen. The other Bill — William F. Buckley Jr., our founder and friend — would agree. Hang on, why have I included no WFB here? Where are his notes and asides (to coin a phrase)? Oh, that would take an article by itself, plus a book or two.
— Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review and a book fellow of the National Review Institute. This piece originally appeared in the October 2, 2017, issue of National Review.