Van Galbraith was no ordinary mortal. To begin with, he did not know the meaning of the word “fear”; trepidation was simply not in his vocabulary. We first met 40 years ago, when he drove me up into the Swiss mountains to Bill Buckley’s domain in Rougemont. Unfamiliar with driving on icy, snowbound roads, he bounced off the snow banks between road and precipice at least six times — without betraying the least sense of alarm. I recognized then that this was no ordinary man, and we became fast friends for the rest of his days.
He headed my very short list of people I would have “gone into the jungle with.” Maybe he should not have got us there in the first place, but you felt you could always rely on him to get you out — and it would have been fun. Apart from his courage, not least through years of fighting cancer, his great assets were his unquenchable optimism, and a formidable sense of humor (often Rabelaisian). He could be, and often was, the funniest raconteur you could ever meet; perhaps because of that droll, button-like nose (gained apparently in American football) one began to laugh with him almost before he ended the story.
Van suffered tragedies in his life, such as the death of their beloved five-year old daughter Julie, here in England, and his long illness must have caused him more pain and physical diminution than any of us could ever quite grasp. Yet he never “winced nor cried aloud” — in the words of W. E. Henley — or gave way to despond. To me, as a Brit, he was — on one level — always the epitome of the “All -American Boy.” When he took up skiing, those many years ago, he charged at the snow as if it was the opposing football line, crashing through fences and into monumental holes. Gradually he became the most graceful and accomplished — and, of course, fearless — of skiers. He was even more competent as a sailor; we skied and sailed together, over many years and in many seas, where it was always a joy to be with him — and the wonderful Bootsie, his beloved wife.
But there was much more to Van. He had an acute mind, and total political dedication to what he construed the Right Way (invariably spelled with a capital R.). We disagreed powerfully on many issues, notably — in recent years — on the Middle East. But never once did he lose his temper in argument; nor did he ever lose that unquenchable optimism, day by day, that it was “all going to be alright.” We were going to come out of the jungle in one piece.
As Reagan’s ambassador in Paris (where we saw him often, and where Bootsie, with her artistry, transformed the embassy into a place of charm and joy) Van distinguished himself more by force of personality, possibly, than by diplomatic craft. He told President Mitterrand — in his excellent French — exactly what he thought of his “Commie” ministers; so much so that it took ten years for him to receive the statutory Légion d’Honneur — from Chirac. When it did come, as a lifelong Francophile, Van wore it with pride — and a smile.
Van was a great father; all my three daughters adored him — not least for that Rabelaisian sense of humor. To be with him and Bootsie there was never a dull moment. She surely paralleled him as an out-of-the-ordinary human being (Bootsie must have been the only American ambassadress also to be simultaneously into tap dancing, physics, and UFOs), and sustained him lovingly through all the last tough years.
Somebody once described Van, Bill Buckley, and myself as “the Three Musketeers.” It flatters me far too much; yet I rejoice in it hugely. Sheelin, and I, will miss him horribly — but no one will miss him more than Bill. However long his death had seemed inevitable, it leaves a gaping hole in our world. And what a courageous, uncomplaining battle he fought against the depredations of cancer! It was surely a total reflection of the man.
W. E. Henley
OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow’d.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
— Alistair Horne is author of A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, among other books.