In 1988 I took a leave of absence from my duties as a White House speechwriter to spend February and March in Switzerland with William F. Buckley Jr., helping him pull together the materials for On the Firing Line, the book based on his PBS television program. WFB and I worked in the Château de Rougemont, the residence he rented each winter. Originally a monastery — an Englishman had turned it into a home in the middle of the 19th century — the Château comprised a ground floor with a vast kitchen and the enormous, dungeon-like room in which WFB and I worked; a state or main floor with a formal sitting room, a library, and a dining room that seated 20; an upper floor with countless guest bedrooms; and, on the top floor, quarters for half a dozen servants. Grandeur, sumptuousness, splendor — those were the words I’d have produced if you’d asked me to free associate. Yet when Mrs. William F. Buckley Jr. arrived one afternoon from New York, she strode into the library, noticed me in a corner, then flung her fur onto a sofa, performed a slow turn, and said, “This heap.”
That was Pat. She was theatrical, witty — and exacting. The next day, flowers appeared in every room, the food was suddenly so much better that even I could tell the difference, and guests began to appear — guests who would visit the Château for lunch, drinks, or dinner each day until the Buckleys returned to New York. Dr. and Mrs. John Kenneth Galbraith. WFB’s sisters, Priscilla and Jane. The king and queen of Greece. Mr. and Mrs. Roger Moore. Taki. Mr. and Mrs. James Clavell. Van Galbraith. Baron and Baronne Lambert. Dick Clurman. Valentino. They had nothing in common but their esteem for WFB — and the delight they displayed in Pat’s company.
How many magazine evenings on Park Avenue, weekend luncheons at Wallacks Point, or formal dinners in hotel ballrooms did Pat oversee, attending to the menus, planning the seating, and then making certain the guests enjoyed themselves — and that they rose to her standards? I saw her flirt with Henry Kissinger, charm Ronald Reagan, and dress down a German prince who had insulted one of her friends. (The prince made amends by sending Pat and her friend such enormous arrangements of flowers that even Pat had to approve.) How many times did she pack WFB’s bags before he departed for speaking tours? Or assemble hampers of food and wine for his overnight sails? “Ducky,” I heard her say to WFB, who was running late for a taping of Firing Line, “I simply will not permit you to leave looking like that.” She produced a brush and a can of hairspray, then did her best to subdue her husband’s cowlick.
Because, of course, it was all for him. The attention she lavished on decorating their homes, the exquisite sense of fashion with which she dressed, the entertainments, the humor, the provocative conversation, the endless and fascinating parade of guests — Pat provided WFB with color and drama and ceaseless stimulation and fun. When one week in Switzerland WFB fell ill — so ill that for the first time in more than a decade he failed to file a column — Pat nursed him herself, taking his temperature, giving him his flu medicine, taking him broth. In sickness and in health, she adored her husband.
When we Robinsons visited the Buckleys at Wallacks Point last summer, Pat insisted on our bringing all five children. Entering the dining room, we discovered that Pat had added a cushion to the chair in which our four-year old would sit, and that she had instructed Julian, her longtime chef, to prepare a side dish of French fries, but that she had relaxed her standards in no other way whatsoever. Fresh flowers, starched napkins, silver cutlery, delicate china, three full courses. Before dessert, Pat gave our children the same lesson she had given me at the Château de Rougemont almost two decades before. “Pay attention,” she said. “I’m going to show you how to use a finger bowl.”
– Peter Robinson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, among other books.