Politics & Policy

“The Sacred Elixir of Life”

Bill's large life.

Spacious, how incomparably spacious, was that life. I am happy in the thought that it happened. I don’t mean, of course, just the literary output — which makes some of the most prolific Victorians look lazy — though that was part of it, or the television work, the lectures, the sailing, the music, the conversation, the remembered and unremembered acts of generosity, “of kindness and of love.” No, it was the whole that made him different: He lived largely.

I saw him once, in 1984, in Kennedy airport, and at a college commencement in the ’90s, but only in 2000 did I meet him, at his house in Stamford. I wrote it all down; possibly a concrete account is more valuable than abstractions:

August 5, 2000

Went to the Buckleys’ for lunch yesterday. Turned into the gates of Wallacks’ Point; a sharp right; the second house on the left. Lawn, flagpole, W.F.B.’s garage-study. I approached the terrace, which seemed to be the place to go. W.F.B. appeared, waved, came down the steps, shook my hand on the lawn. “Good to see you,” he said, in a low, quiet voice, a sort of cultivated mumble. He wore a blue polo shirt, old preppie khakis, top-siders. He was tall but a little bent, with gray hair hanging in slightly unkempt wisps and eyes of an extraordinarily bright blueness — he looked like a New England Yankee, I thought, but with gleaming Celtic eyes. He led me onto the terrace. “Would I like a Bloody Mary?” Yes. Views of the Sound and sailboats, classical music playing somewhere. We went into the house and into a parlor of some kind; he mixed the drinks. He explained to me who was around — Mrs. Buckley and a young relation helping him research a book. Did I know someone, a classical-music person, who lived in Pound Ridge (where I then lived)? No? Not surprising, he said; she was mostly, or always, in Oxford now. We talked of George Bush’s speech at the convention in Philadelphia the night before. “Wasn’t that good?” he said. I said that I had seen the speech replayed with a graph superimposed showing the waxing and waning of a focus-group’s enthusiasm for the future president’s words. “End of the world,” he said softly. I called him Mr. Buckley. “Bill, please,” he said.

In person the richness of his culture was more evident even than on television; you felt, in the perfect courtesy and gentlemanlike graciousness, the luxuries of an expansive aristocratic leisure, and were puzzled as to how he could have achieved it, given that he was one of the busiest men of his age. Of course he explained a little of the secret in the art form he invented to tell his own story, or selected chunks of it. Books like Overdrive, Airborne, Atlantic High, and Racing Through Paradise defy the genres, and in them he is still magnificently alive.

We went back (to continue the story of the lunch) to the terrace. Would I like to sit in the sun or the shade? We settled on the shade. We talked about schools; how Osborn “Oz” Elliott said that Columbia gave its students much the best education of the American schools with which he was familiar; what was political sentiment like at Groton; Whittaker Chambers. “Was he here?” I asked. “Yes, many times — well, four or five at least.” We speculated about why Chambers, as a young, disaffected radical working in the New York Public Library, carried books away without properly checking them out. To “indulge himself,” Bill thought. Conversation passed to publicity for books — the “eternal question,” Bill said, “does it help?” “It must,” he finally said, but Whittaker, he added, could never bring himself to do it. Random House, he said, printed 100,000 copies of Witness, but though it was a best-seller, some of the copies were remaindered — part of the problem being the excerpt in The Saturday Evening Post.

We sat down to lunch and were joined by Mrs. Buckley. Salad, pasta, a touch of the ancien régime in the cigarettes on the table.

He seemed so appreciative of anything that he found interesting or stimulating, but though his graciousness did not permit him to show it, I thought I could see, in his eyes, a slight disappointment when one’s talk failed to rise above the merely pedestrian. He must however have been used to being disappointed in this way. He could have held his own (or so I fancy) in conversation with Falstaff or Churchill or Dr. Johnson; ordinary talk must at times have been a little wearisome. But a conservative, of course, does not expect to be always living on an extraordinary plane, as utopian romantics do.

When I last saw him for any length of time I was writing a book on the 1860s, and the conversation turning to Mary Chesnut, he said that his family’s house in Camden had once been hers. He went inside and retrieved the old scrapbooks. I was struck by the difference between his father’s study, as it appeared in the photographs — not a paper out of place — and his own cluttered smithy. As we went into lunch I saw, near the door, a picture of Bill as a boy — a different face, but the same gleaming eyes. His mother and father saw the genius in him, and encouraged it.

After giving my wife and me a couple of books from the study, he took us to see his sailboat. We followed him as he drove his minivan through the streets of southern Stamford. How incongruous it seemed to me, the coarse, chaotic culture of the streets, and Bill, who, like the old Burgundy in Waugh’s novel, was “serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place” than its coarser spirits new, that “mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than” theirs.

Was there a contradiction between the markets Bill defended so brilliantly, though they tend sometimes to coarseness, and the civilization he upheld so serenely, though it withers at the touch of a profane hand?

I don’t think so. All civilizations have their coarsenesses; the great point of a free one — the kind Bill did so much to preserve — is that it allows one to cultivate virtues that rise above coarseness, as Bill did, and allows one, too, to be splendidly eccentric, as Bill was. At all events we came to the marina, and Bill pointed to his boat. “There’s my girl,” he said.

Philosophy, it said, is good for one thing — it teaches us how to die. Bill was philosophical — or better, religious — about death. His gleaming eyes, when I last saw him, seemed, at times, to look beyond you; it reminded me of what Robert E. Lee said of his own gaze in his last years: “My interest in Time and its concerns is daily fading away, and I am trying to keep my eyes and thoughts fixed on those eternal shores to which I am fast hastening.” Bill knew that he, too, was hastening towards those shores, as, of course, are we all. Not for him the megalomaniac egotism of Stalin, preposterously trying to bargain with the creator he had denied. Bill thought deeply about death; how else could he have achieved such a surpassing mastery of the obituary notice, that form which, in his hands, was not only a minor art, but also a means of understanding the value of life, even though it is lived in the shadow of death?

“If they ever listen (which must be a question),” his friend Louis Auchincloss wrote to him when Overdrive appeared and was misunderstood by the critics, “you will teach them not to take the sacred elixir of life and splash it all over the roadside, as they are too prone to do.”

Bill taught us much about what Auchincloss called “the sacred elixir of life.” In the last lines of his elegy of his wife, he taught us, too, something about how to die. He spoke then of the condolence he received from “a confirmed nonbeliever,” who for once would have liked to be mistaken, and hoped that, “for you, this is not goodbye, but hasta luego.” Bill said: “No alternative thought would make continuing in life, for me, tolerable.”

– Michael Knox Beran’s most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published in August.


The Latest