He was, of course, the best writer of obits ever. “No one does obits like Bill,” said his wife, Pat — and it was certainly true.
One of my favorite obits is the one about his friend David Niven. I like one line in particular: “If ever there was a man who winked at the homely girl, it was David.” I’d cite that line to Bill once in a while. He would agree: Yes, a nice line — and, of course, true.
Bill had the ability to write his obits immediately: even if the subject was his mother or wife. He was almost unbelievably professional. I am not quite like that.
And I’m not really ready to write about Bill. But I’m going to do so anyway — just a few lines. Just to make a contribution.
When he wrote about people — not necessarily after they’d passed — he liked to write about “the first time”: the first time he met them. I will follow suit.
It was at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington (I’m pretty sure). Long, long lunch. One of the most beautiful and stimulating experiences of my life. I had just gotten engaged to be married; he had just lost a brother-in-law. We talked about marriage, family, vicissitudes, the meaning of life — so marvelous.
Afterward, he wrote me one of the best letters I have received. I lost it. I think it happened during my move from Washington to New York, when I went to work for National Review. And this letter is one of the few material things I really miss.
But, of course, it was not really material. And I don’t really miss it. I have the thoughts, and the spirit, in my head.
When I met Bill, it was not like I was really meeting him. He was meeting me; but I wasn’t really meeting him. Because I knew him so well. Knew him so well through his books, all of which I had read, and through his television program, Firing Line. And he was the same, pretty much.
He was my friend long, long before I met him — one of my best friends, I’d say. He was my friend through his books. I simply drank them in, and they comforted me, educated me, thrilled me. I would tell him this frequently.
It was so, so weird — and so, so wonderful — to be able to know him. But, as I’d tell him, I always knew him.
Has your idol (if I may use that silly word) ever become one of your best friends? And are you able to retain your admiration — even increase it? As I said: weird.
People have often asked me, “What’s the most surprising thing about Bill Buckley?” I usually answer: “He is so very smart.” Why is that surprising? Everyone knows it, right?
Not really: They know that he is a wonderful, wonderful stylist — maybe the most dazzling stylist any of us has ever seen. Stylish in his writing, stylish in his person and living. But he was wicked, wicked smart — even in things that were not supposed to be his fields. He could think well, reason well. He was curious — he liked to learn new things. He never stopped. He was a constant inquirer.
And he knew a hell of a lot. Plus, he had a great memory, even though he complained about it, and constantly praised mine by comparison.
On a sheer gray-matter scale: He was really, really smart. Not merely stylish.
But, of course, his greatest gift was in appreciating and loving.
It should go without saying that he had much to do with my becoming a conservative, and much to do with how I’m living today. But I will say it anyway. His influences on me are probably immeasurable. He simply seeps into your bloodstream.
It’s not that Bill taught me what to think; it’s that he did so much to teach me how to think. And, to Bill, the distinction was absolutely critical.
I was not much use to him on his sailboat. I could follow orders, pretty well. But mainly he’d want me to sit there and talk to him. “Say something interesting!” he’d say. “Say something controversial!” It was a pleasure to comply.
Was there ever a better smile — a smile that lit up several counties around it? Never has wattage been higher. David Pryce-Jones once remarked on this. When you have been smiled at by Bill Buckley: You have been well and truly smiled at.
And the Buckley voice — despite Leontyne Price, Kathleen Ferrier, Jussi Bjoerling, and some others — was probably my favorite. I must have drunk in thousands of hours of it, all over the world: but particularly in Stamford, on lazy weekends (or as lazy as Bill ever became).
(As you know, Bill lived in Stamford, Conn., on Long Island Sound. Also in a maisonette on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.)
Sometimes we listened to music together, played on the hi-fi (as Bill would call whatever the device was). We would not speak, or barely speak. Just listen, and sort of commune: with the music, with each other, and with higher things. Those wordless sessions were some of my most prized.
Occasionally, he’d send me a disc and say, “You must hear this!” At other times, he’d send me something and say, “Me no like. You?”
I’d go to Salzburg, and he — feeling somewhat left out — would say, “Say hello to music for me!”
Everywhere I go, people say to me, “Bill Buckley changed the world. And he changed my life.” This is so common as to be expected — nearly routine. I would often report back to Bill. He’d smile.
I confess — and this is egotistical — I loved being out with him. Out in public with him. You were the recipient of reflected glory. I’d take him to a restaurant, and the maitre d’ would be wide-eyed. He would never look at me the same way again.
I’d take Bill to concerts and operas. Always, people rushed up to him, to tell him how much he meant to them, how much they loved him. Once, we were at the Metropolitan Opera. There was maybe 40 feet between where we collected our tickets and where we gave them to an usher. Three people — independently — went up to him and said, “You’re my hero.”
He would twinkle at them.
People felt they had kind of a stake in him. I remember one evening when Bill left at intermission, tired and ready for bed. I was on the street with him, putting him in a cab. After the cab pulled away, a stranger came up to me and said, “Is he all right?”
He was so very famous. Everywhere we went, people knew him, recognized him, called out to him. Will people be that famous again — other than presidents and the biggest pop-culture stars? Bill was on TV, every week, when relatively few people were on TV. Now, everyone and his brother is on TV. TV is a billion stations, not four or five.
Bill was one of the great consolers of all time. When you were down, there was hardly anyone who was more encouraging, more inspiring. He was great when you were up — co-celebrating your triumphs. And he was even better when you were down.
When he criticized you, you really felt it. It stung. I once said to him, “Bill, it’s no fair. You are a victim of injustice. You can’t behave normally — criticize normally. We love you so much that, when you do it, we’re apt to need three months of therapy.” He’d laugh.
He always claimed that he had diverse and not-overlapping audiences: an audience for the magazine, an audience for his syndicated column, an audience for the television show, an audience for the spy novels, an audience for the sailing books — etc. I think he was right.
When I was moving to New York, to work at NR, I told a soprano friend of mine in Washington what I was doing. She did not know what National Review was. I said, “Oh, it’s a conservative opinion journal, founded in the mid-1950s by William F. Buckley Jr.” She got a confused look on her face: “Not the spy novelist.”
Bill told me a story. For many winters, he was in Gstaad (or nearby), writing, skiing, otherwise recreating. And he patronized one ski shop in particular — to have equipment repaired and so on. One winter, he returned to Gstaad, and the owner of the ski shop greeted him excitedly. “Mr. Buckley, Mr. Buckley! I took a vacation in America, and I saw you on television. You are a very important man. I thought you just skied!”
I liked being on platforms with him. I was often the moderator; sometimes he was the moderator, and I was a panelist. Once, we did kind of a mock Firing Line — where he asked me questions. This was a New Criterion event. It meant something to me, in part because I had never been a guest on Firing Line itself.
I regarded it as almost a makeup session!
Isn’t that terribly egotistical? But Bill often wrote in confessional mode — and I am doing the same, in these notes.
Couple of years ago, we did a Q&A together — I was the Q-er — at a university. In the green room, he was slightly apprehensive about how it would go. I said it would go fine — I had the questions, they would be easy. He would knock the whole evening out of the park. Yeah, said Bill: “but there’s nothing like the security of a prepared text.”
So, so true. I think of that every time I go out to give a speech without a prepared text.
Early in his career, he simply winged it — spoke extemporaneously. Then he spoke with notes, an outline. Then he wrote down every word, including “Ladies and gentlemen” and “Thank you and good night.”
I know just what he means.
Couple of years ago, he gave a final speech — the final speech, I believe — at Yale. It was a bit of a jest, a jeu d’esprit. (In fact, I think that’s how he described it.) A few days before, he read the speech out to me, at his home in Manhattan. He was feeling poorly, but the oratorical splendor returned, right there in the drawing room. He was very musical.
Then we went to Swifty’s, for dinner. He ate heartily. He usually ate heartily — tucked into his food like a teenager, rather than picking like a delicate senior citizen.
A word about Bill and money. He was very, very generous — also a little careless, in a charming way. I remember once we were at a talk by Bob Conquest. And they were selling Bob’s new book, in the lobby. Bill bought a couple for us — I think the total was $42 or something. Bill whipped out three twenties, kind of sprinkled them on the cashier, and simply ambled off. He was ready to be about his business. The change was not a thought in his head.