Living It Up with National Review:
A Memoir, by Priscilla L. Buckley (Spence, 247 pp., $27.95)
During all those years when Bill Buckley was editor-in-chief of National Review and was simultaneously writing his thrice-weekly column, preparing for and taping his weekly Firing Line, and traveling the length and breadth of the country on the lecture circuit, somebody had to be in charge back at 150 East 35th Street. Well, that somebody has finally written down the story of those days, a story that until now had mostly been part of the oral tradition, told to entranced young staffers over lunches and at the ritual Wednesday evening Editorial Drinks.
Not that Priscilla Buckley was always to be found at the office. As she tells us early on in this new memoir, the deal she struck with her brother before agreeing to become managing editor included six weeks’ vacation a year — this in lieu of the kind of salary her skills could have commanded, but NR couldn’t afford. And so this story of office life, and of the events of those often turbulent years — especially the out-of-control Sixties — is interleaved with accounts of the author’s travels at home and abroad.
Full-disclosure time: This is not an arm’s-length review. Priscilla Buckley befriended me when I arrived at NR as a summer assistant, taught me my craft, and introduced me to moules ravigote, the Peter Wimsey novels, and eau de vie de framboise. I in turn was one of many who urged Priscilla to put it all in print. Then again, the very memory of those Wednesday evenings set up for me a high standard for this book: Would the stories on the page have the same élan as they did when spoken impromptu by such a vivid personality?
The answer, I thankfully report, is: Yes. Living It Up with National Review is a splendid account of a life of journalism, politics, adventure, friendship, and faith. It is not always delightful; there are dark patches throughout: hurtful office disputes, some of them ending in ruptured friendships, as with Willi Schlamm and Willmoore Kendall; the pain of losing two sisters much too young, Maureen at age 31, Aloïse at 48; the difficulties, professional and emotional, of coping with the upheavals of the 1960s. But mostly it’s delightful.
As Priscilla recounted at the end of her first volume of memoirs, String of Pearls, she had decided by the fall of 1955 that it was time to leave the newsroom at United Press in Paris and come home. She had learned things and met people she otherwise never would have experienced, and she adored — still does adore — Paris. But the hours were killing and the pay low. More important, her father had been very ill, and France was a long way away from the Buckley family homes in South Carolina and Connecticut — especially in those days before the passenger jet had been perfected. But Priscilla would not wind up spending a lot of time at her father’s side. Brother Bill needed her terribly, and she responded to his call, with her parents’ blessing.
And so she joined the fledgling enterprise, to which Bill had already recruited their buoyant younger sister Maureen. While Bill attempted to keep peace among the “brilliant, but highly combustible” senior editors, Priscilla recounts, she set out to investigate some of the issues riling folks on the Right. (You couldn’t yet speak of a conservative movement, although National Review was fast becoming the center around which the movement would coalesce.) One of her first signed articles brought on not a few CMSs (cancel-my-subscription letters). It was titled “Siberia, U.S.A.,” and in it she examined — and found wanting — the theory that the federal government had a plot “to get rid of political dissenters and critics on the right, particularly those who favored the Bricker Amendment, by deporting them to Alaska.” One of the CMSs conjectured that “Miss Buckley had remained in France too long, and acquired socialistic notions.”
She loved investigative reporting, but NR soon needed her more in another capacity. Suzanne La Follette, the magazine’s founding managing editor, was approaching retirement. And so Priscilla took over the reins. This meant constant interruptions in her own writing to make decisions about length and placement of articles, to pass judgment on editorial art, to smooth authors’ ruffled feathers. But it also meant the fun of watching 23-year-old Maureen tame unruly subscribers. Maureen warned one lady that if she canceled one more time, “she was out for good. The lady did not take the warning seriously, and, after her next CMS, it took her three months of increasingly humble and contrite notes to get back in. Her final letter started: ‘I surrender, dear. Maureen, please, please resubscribe me. I promise to be good.’”
Priscilla also enjoyed observing the omnicompetence of Jim McFadden. He had walked into NR’s offices, age 26, after being discharged from the army, and told WFB he wanted nothing more than to work for NR. He would prefer to be a writer or an editor, he said, “‘but if those jobs are filled I’ll do any job you give me, Mr. Buckley, and I’ll do it well.’” McFadden made good on that promise. After straightening out the chaotic circulation department, he set to work writing promotional material that “enticed readers to try this new, intellectually abrasive product, a conservative journal of opinion, if you please.”
Meanwhile, Priscilla was becoming the doyenne of an unusual educational establishment. Jim Burnham, her longtime officemate, walked in one morning and heard her side of a phone conversation, evidently with the mother of a young man who would be arriving in a few days as a summer assistant. As she explains to Burnham after hanging up, the boy has never been in New York, and his mother, “hearing all those stories about violence in our fair city, is worried. I have been reassuring her.” That evening at dinner, Burnham delightedly recounts this to WFB, concluding: “Bill, you and I think we are putting out a magazine, but what we actually have is Miss Buckley’s finishing school for young ladies and gentlemen of conservative persuasion.”
But life at National Review is only half of Priscilla Buckley’s story. The other half takes her around the world: from an epic battle between dove hunters and game wardens in South Carolina to a humbling, exalting safari in Kenya; from a serene canal trip in northern Wales to a hair-raising (and -soaking) whitewater raft trip through the Grand Canyon; from the haunted beauty of Angkor Wat to a Moscow where from St. Basil’s Cathedral you could watch the goose-stepping guards at Lenin’s tomb, and shiver at the thought that the infamous Lubyanka was just a couple of streets away.
“It turns out to be a bracing week,” Priscilla writes of her and sister Jane’s decision to bring a hot-air balloon to Sharon, Connecticut. “Jane, and the famous retired racing driver John Fitch, a Le Mans veteran, land in a sandpit thirty-six miles down wind from Sharon, having been airborne just a little over an hour, as the result of a miscalculation of the strength of the prevailing winds. John, who knows about things like stresses, is terrified. Jane, whose grasp of physics is minimal, thinks it a lark.”
On a rainy day in Bayeux, at the end of a luxurious barge trip down the Seine, “We duck into the simple fisherman’s church near the market place, enticed by a full-throated organ. A bride and groom are plighting their troth on this vigil of the great Feast of Corpus Christi. We pause to light a candle in memory of missing friends, and hurry back to the Normandie and our farewell dinner.”
In 1962, Priscilla visits Angkor Wat and the other wonders left behind in 1434 when the Khmer king moved his capital south, to Phnom Penh. A dozen years later, she writes, “a new brand of Khmers, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, . . . overran the Angkor ruins. . . . It was rumored that the Khmer Rouge, in their mad lust to destroy every vestige of previous civilizations in Cambodia, had dynamited Angkor Wat.” That did not happen, but there was “tremendous damage.” As of 1970, “nine hundred trained men worked at the Angkor ruins under French direction. By 1981 only five of them were known to be alive. The painstaking records of eighty years of clearing, reconstruction, dike-building, and restoration . . . all had been wantonly destroyed.”
Through her 35 years at National Review, Priscilla Buckley played a quiet but critical role in molding the modern conservative movement. And, as Ronald Reagan put it at NR’s 30th-anniversary celebration, “she has come through all this with a reputation unchallenged for journalistic skill and professionalism, as well as the sweetest disposition on the Eastern Seaboard.” Living It Up with National Review demonstrates that, as usual, President Reagan had it right.