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.
‐I’d pump him for stories, about anybody and everybody: Nabokov, Hoover (Herbert), and, maybe especially, Reagan. He had a wonderful repertoire of Reagan stories. I liked the one about walking on the rocks along the Sound — this was at Bill’s Stamford home. Bill had this game, where you walked on these rocks and saw how many times you had to put your hand down, to steady yourself. (The path was far from smooth or easy.)
The first time he did it, Reagan, so graceful and athletic, had to put his hand down very few times: three, I think. Bill was impressed.
And, once, Reagan took great umbrage when it was suggested by someone that he had divorced. “I never divorced anyone,” he bristled. “She divorced me!”
‐I loved taking walks with Bill, and took many of them, in various parts of the world — especially in Stamford. He would not necessarily like to talk about politics or policy or history or anything intellectual. He liked to appreciate: “Isn’t the sky lovely?” “Isn’t that an interesting garden?” “Isn’t it amazing how squirrels scurry?”
‐In one of his books, Overdrive, he referred to “the most beautiful pool this side of Pompeii” — and this beauty happened to be inside his home. He took a fair amount of grief for this remark. People thought it was arrogant; Bill said that he was just appreciating the work of the artisan — he himself had been lucky enough to be able to pay for it.
We’d go somewhere, see a pool, and I’d say, “Not the most beautiful pool this side of Pompeii.”
Never went to Pompeii with him, incidentally.
‐Certain lines were always quoted at him. He said that, rather than be governed by the Harvard faculty, he would prefer to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book. (I once said a lot of those names would be Arab, given “al-.”) Asked what he would first do if elected mayor of New York, he replied, “Demand a recount.” And, when he was eight or so, he wrote the King of England, demanding that he pay his war debt.
He would wince slightly when he heard these lines! He would recall Rachmaninoff, whose Prelude in C-sharp minor was once immensely popular. Rachmaninoff was always being asked to play it, and he wearied of it. Of his famous, hackneyed remarks, Bill would say: “My Prelude in C-sharp minor.”
‐Once, we were in a Mexican restaurant (New York). As we were coming in, Mr. T. and his entourage were going out. (You remember Mr. T.: muscles, mohawk, gold medallions, “I pity da foo’.”) Mr. B. and Mr. T. brushed up against each other. I thought, “Two American legends.”
‐Mario Cuomo was a guest at dinner one night. Cuomo was talking about how important it was for an elected official to stand against popular opinion. Take capital punishment. He said, “I was in Albany for three terms, opposing the death penalty, and survived.” Said Bill, quick as a flash, “As did the condemned.”
‐We were in Grenada, at the airport. The young woman behind the counter said, “Are you famous?” Bill said, “Yes, I am.” The young woman said, “Why?” Bill said, “I’m a rock-and-roll star.” The supervisor behind her said, “He’s a writer.” Bill shot a mock-indignant look.
‐We were at the University of Mississippi, where Bill was taping his last Firing Line debate. A university official said to Bill, “You’d better zip up.” (He had left his fly undone.) Bill said, “You have to zip up here at Ole Miss?” I said — “What a conservative place!”
‐He went down in a submersible, to visit the wreckage of the Titanic. On the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour — or whatever it was then called — Charlayne Hunter-Gault said, “Some people say what you’ve done is grave-robbing. Why isn’t it grave-robbing?” Bill, tired, annoyed, and blinking into the lights, said, “Because it isn’t robbing graves?”
‐On an NR cruise, I once heard him say this: “All I want in life is for my printer to work.” I have since copied it. “All I want in life is . . .” — fill in your immediate need or irritation.
‐Also on a cruise — maybe the same one — I heard Bill smile to his wife, “I finished my book this morning.” I thought he meant something he was reading; it quickly occurred to me that he meant the latest book he was writing.
‐He told us, “Before you die, kids, visit the Azores” — the most enchanting place. He circumnavigated the globe several times. And he said that the nicest people were Nova Scotians and New Zealanders. “Where are the most beautiful women?” I asked. Bill thought a second — taking the question seriously — and said, “Brazil.”
‐Two Decembers ago, someone said, “Did you have a good Christmas?” Bill said, “No, I had pneumonia.”
The wit and timing were unmatchable.
‐My favorite books? I like them all — and love most of them. I guess my favorite nonfiction book is The Unmaking of a Mayor, probably the most dazzling book about American politics I know. My favorite novel is sure: Stained Glass, the second in the Blackford Oakes series. Favorite collection: probably Right Reason, or the language one: Buckley: The Right Word. Also Inveighing We Will Go. Also The Jeweler’s Eye.
Also all of them.
Favorite essay? The most popular — or certainly the most anthologized — is “Why Don’t We Complain?” But “An Evening with Jack Paar” is boffo — just a virtuosic, scintillating piece of writing. (You will find it in Rumbles Left and Right.) The Playboy interview is phenomenal. Amazing.
‐He was greatly, greatly flexible in his writing. What I mean is this: He is thought of as a fancy writer, a user of big words. But he also knew what Shakespeare knew: There is a time to write fancy, or sophisticated; and there’s a time to write plain, low. You simply go by ear — if you have the ear.
I like a point that someone once made about Bill’s writing — I can’t remember who made the point, otherwise I’d credit him. He said, “Buckley will use the word stochastic, but he will also use the word Wow!” And middling writers never use either.
‐I loved to hear him speak Spanish — especially in Spanish-speaking countries. I myself do not speak Spanish. But I knew someone who does, perfectly, and she said that Bill’s Spanish was much like his English: the same cadences, idiosyncrasies, and so on. That, I could hear.
‐He had a funny dilemma in French. Because of a French governess (or something), he could speak accentless French. But he could not really speak French — he had lost it along the way. And this posed a problem when speaking with French people: Because the pronunciation was excellent, they assumed he could speak French fluently. And when he was not forthcoming — they got annoyed, even thinking that he was having them on.
So, when asking for the location of a toilet or something, he would affect an American accent.
‐He would sometimes say something in French to me, when he wanted to be conspiratorial. It felt kind of CIA-ish — but only one of us had been in the Agency.
‐I loved his phone manners: When he was done, he was done. He’d convey the information, or receive the information, and say, “Okay, bless you” — and he was gone.
I wish I could get away with same. I almost can — am getting bolder.
‐He was a big, tall man, and surprisingly strong — I mean, really strong. When he was old and feeble, I saw him lift a heavy table, sitting down — remarkable. His muscles strained. He may have spent much of his life on a seat, writing, but he was damn strong — physically strong.
‐One day, we were to meet for lunch at Paone’s, his usual restaurant. On his way down in the car, he called me and said, “Let’s not do that, as we always do. Let’s do something offbeat” — find something offbeat.
So I did: a barbecue joint attached to a jazz club. We had a wonderful time — the manager delighted in giving him a tour.
I often think of that: “Let’s do something offbeat.” Important not to stay in a rut.
Although, I would frequently comment to him, “A routine is underrated — it gets a bad press.” He would agree wholeheartedly. A routine has its uses, and Bill depended on one, in a way.
‐Bill described several people as his “best friend,” and I remember two in particular: Harry Elmlark, his erstwhile agent, and James Burnham. Bill had thousands of friends, of all ages, and many types. He was a universalist: He would embrace almost anybody; and the world would embrace him back.
Because people felt so close to Bill, he could let them down. Or rather, they could feel let down by him. People expected a great, great deal from him — and were sometimes disappointed in him. That was a price Bill paid for his greatness, and his generosity. To some, he could never give enough. And it was always foolish to be disappointed.
He was a man, not an angel. Actually, he was an angel: a man/angel.
‐He was so very, very proud of his son Christopher, and Christo’s literary success. (That’s what he called him: “Christo.”) I remember when Christopher’s book Thank You for Smoking was made into a movie. Bill had never had such a thing happen to a book of his. (By the way, he turned his novel Stained Glass into a play.) But he was tickled pink about Christopher.
‐He once gave me a quite valuable and singular gift, saying, “Now, Jay, I don’t want you to treat this as a holy object.” He had a knack for choosing the right words that was positively supernatural.
‐After Pat parted, he was both emotional and stoic. I’d written him, “If I can do anything for you, just crook your finger.” I had a note from him: “My finger is crooked.” He wanted to go off the beaten path, again — avoid the usual haunts. We went to a burger joint, way up in the Bronx. He had been introduced to it, years before, by his friend the pianist Rosalyn Tureck, who lived nearby.
Why didn’t she live in Manhattan? “Money: She couldn’t afford it.”
‐He once asked whether I thought his absence at some large gathering would be okay. I assured him it would: The world would have to get along without him, sometimes; his presence could not always be obligatory. “But who will be clever?” he said.
An echoing question: Who will be clever?
‐Toward the end, I tried to tell him — again — how much he meant to me. I said, “I have dedicated my book to you. What more can I say?” He smiled, big.
‐At the beginning of these notes, I spoke of the first time I met him. How about the last time? Was not very long ago. He was suffering, of course, “enfeebled,” as he said. He would speak of his “enfeeblement,” or his “infirmity.” But you could see through the infirmity to the real Bill Buckley: warm, vibrant, amusing, brilliant — loving. A star, and the most humane one there ever was.
He had acquired a new spaniel, a young thing. As this animal was whipping and yapping about, Bill said, “He’s all puppy.” I loved that remark: He’s all puppy.
I said, “Remember what Reagan said?” There were rumors about his younger son. And he said, “We had him checked out, and he’s all man.” (A groaner of a line, which got the former governor in some trouble.)
Bill had also been reading Arthur Schlesinger’s diaries — loved them. Was enthralled by them. Said they were absolutely absorbing and delightful, despite the two references to Bill, both of which were mean.
He spoke of writing a big piece on the diaries — something like 20,000 words. Maybe for the New York Review or The Atlantic.
And he recalled something from long ago: His mother was living in Camden, S.C. And she was visited by the leading lady in town. The leading lady in town had just interviewed a maid, who introduced herself as “Mrs. Sullivan.” The leading lady was aghast: Imagine this woman, wanting to be called “Mrs.” somebody!
Bill said how horrible and wrong this was. His face looked injured, at such a lousy time, racially.
‐Much more than “special events,” I’ll miss the daily things: the phone calls, the visits, the jaunts, the e-mails with thousands of exclamation marks. And the praise he would administer: “Vitamin P,” Thomas Mann called it. He never neglected to praise (along with the occasional rebuke).
His daily presence was his greatest gift. And, of course, we have it still, in myriad ways.
‐Someone close to him said, “A great light has gone out. He lit up life, for everyone around him.” True. He was like a perpetual meteor shower. Or one of those displays in Alaska you hear about.
But his light cannot go out, any more than the qualities he represented can expire. Plus, we have his books, and our memories, which replenish themselves.
‐I said I would give a few notes, just a few. And I have. Trust me, I have barely scratched the surface. What else to say, now? Nothing, really. I loved him, and am grateful to know him. What an honor, a privilege. He was the most awesome friend imaginable. You can only thank God.