Politics & Policy

Remembering Priscilla Buckley

A great lady leaves us.

Longtime National Review managing editor and confidante to the late William F. Buckley Jr., Priscilla Buckley, died at age 90 last weekend. NR friends and family pay tribute (and see more from Rick Brookhiser, Jack Fowler, and Mona Charen.)

LINDA BRIDGES

Priscilla Buckley, as many people have already remarked, was a great lady. She was also a tough broad. And in that nexus lies her strongly individual character as a serious professional journalist who was a very feminine woman in an often bitterly feminist age.

#ad#Unlike her Smith College classmate Betty Friedan, she worked very well with men, whether they were hierarchically her superiors, her equals, or her subordinates. (She also, unlike some women who work well with men, worked very well with women, whether hierarchically ditto or not.)

And she also, like another great lady of her generation, Margaret Thatcher, did it with a very traditional tenue. Priscilla wore pants for skiing and hunting and golf, but she never wore them to the office: wool suits in the winter, cotton dresses in the summer. She could have passed for a Park Avenue matron, with her carefully coiffed hair dyed that slightly bluish grey (her hair had gone grey in her thirties) and her carefully manicured fingernails. But those fingers beat a mean tattoo on, first, her old Royal, and then a succession of computers.

In her years as managing editor, she ran a tight ship, but also a very happy one. I remember our food writer, Nika Hazelton, coming in one day to have lunch with Priscilla, and arriving just as laughter was breaking out in three different corners of the editorial department. Nika drew herself up to her full height and declaimed, “Priscilla, what is this unseemly hilarity? When do your people ever get any work done?” But we did. She would never have permitted anything else.

— Linda Bridges is co-editor of Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus.

ED CAPANO

Priscilla Buckley (Pitts) was, indeed, one of nature’s noblewomen. A truly magnificent example of one of Our Lord’s finer creations — brilliant, kind, gentle, warm, adventurous, and athletic (a scratch golfer), with a marvelous sense of humor that emanated from a constant smile and a pair of crystal blue eyes. She loved to laugh. My long tenure at NR enabled me to enjoy her company more than most, and whenever you were in her company you enjoyed it. Her editing skills were legendary, as evidenced by the list of people she taught, many of whom ply the trade she taught them in the nation’s major newspapers, magazines, and electronic media. She will be deeply missed by all who knew her and by many who knew of her. We can take consolation in that our great loss is offset by heaven’s great gain, where I know she will be praying for us. 

— Ed Capano is the former publisher of National Review.

#page#MONA CHAREN

The “War on Women.” “The Year of the Woman.” “Sisterhood is beautiful.” “Woman power.” The Left thinks it owns femininity — or if not femininity, then the assertive, confident, authoritative style of womanhood supposedly embodied by the likes of Nancy Pelosi.

Maybe one of the reasons my head was never turned by that kind of appeal was that I had the privilege to know (in addition to my mother who had earned a Ph. D. before feminism supposedly paved the way) Priscilla Buckley: foreign correspondent, editor, spy, golfer, hunter, raconteur, patriot, and wonderful friend. For decades, as she presided over National Review and its often fractious and eccentric cast of characters, Priscilla demonstrated what it meant to be a professional woman with tremendous skills, and also a most gracious and delightful lady.

#ad#Did I say golfer? I don’t mean the weekend, casual type. In one of her charming memoirs she records playing hooky from the CIA and sneaking off to enter a major tournament in Washington, D.C. Her absence might never have been noticed by her boss, except that she won!

As she golfed, so she wrote. Her books should be assigned in English classes for grace, precision, and liveliness. She was my dear friend, mentor, and inspiration. It is no exaggeration to say that Priscilla was everything a woman, a person, should be. RIP.

— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

ED FEULNER

Priscilla and I served together for seven years on President Reagan’s U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. We met monthly in Washington, and we travelled to Guantanamo (before its current fame), to Berlin (before the Wall came down), to China (before it was popular), and elsewhere. Her insights, her unfailing good humor, and her ability to talk with kings and commoners alike, was an inspiration to all of us. Mostly, her unwavering commitment to the principles of the free society and to the republic kept us all on the straight and narrow.

— Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

WILLIAM F. GAVIN

In 1960, when I was a college student, at Jersey City State College, she picked out my unsolicited satirical article from the slush pile, read it, liked it, and sent me a brief letter saying she would publish it. My first sale (I think the going NR rate was $25). You have no idea — or maybe you do — what that letter meant to me. My dream had come true. I was soon to be a published writer. True, not yet an “author.” But a writer for National Review, which had by then become my school away from school. And I owed it all to Priscilla, a woman I had never met.

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive and conservative (even if you weren’t quite certain yet what that meant)/ But to be young — and have your first piece published in the best magazine in the world — was very heaven!” (What Wordsworth would have written had he known better).

Twelve years later I went to work with the sainted junior senator from New York. God bless Jim in this, his latest trial. And God bless Priscilla who was there when NR was still a dream and, through the decades, helped to make it what it is today. Pioneer! O pioneer!

— William F. Gavin is author of Speechwright and a former assistant to Senator James L. Buckley.

#page#CHARLES KESLER

Priscilla went sailing, cruising, barging, ballooning, and golfing many times, but I accompanied her on her first whitewater-rafting trip.

It was the summer of 1976. I was a cub reporter and editorialist for the Charleston Daily Mail, the largest newspaper in West Virginia, earning some money to help pay for my junior year at Harvard. Bill Buckley and I were already friends, very unequal friends to be sure, having met three years before when I interviewed him for my high school newspaper. We corresponded regularly, and I visited him in Stamford one or two weekends every semester. I hatched a plan to reciprocate his hospitality by inviting him to join me in a rafting trip down the New River, through the steep, lush canyons of south-central West Virginia near my home town. In my youthful naiveté I invited his wife Pat, too.

#ad#He accepted immediately, scanned his calendar for a date, and gently broke the news that Pat didn’t do that kind of thing but he’d like to bring his sister Pitts along for the fun. I picked them up at the Charleston airport one humid July evening, commencing my friendship with Priscilla in the best possible way: on an adventure. By the time we got home, we were conspiring over the next day’s trip like old hands.

Did I mention the Buckleys were staying with my mother and me? For Oak Hill (population: 4,711), this was a major event, like a royal visit. It was a big event for the Keslers, too, but Priscilla and Bill couldn’t have been more gracious. A quick round of snacks and drinks and then to bed, because we had an early morning the next day.

You put into the river at 7:30, and emerge from it around 4:30. In between you bounce between rapids of gradually increasing intensity, finishing the day with a crescendo of several class fours and fives, the biggest navigable whitewater on an eastern river. In those days only one company ran the river, Wildwater Unlimited, and it used big double-hulled rubber rafts, which had to be paddled to get safely around the rocks and through the rapids. I sat near the prow, Bill directly behind me, and Priscilla serenely on one of the raft’s crossbars, away from the crashing waves.

What fun! Paddling away, I was once or twice knocked off my perch by a particularly big jolt — to Bill’s glee. I pointed out that but for me, that wave would have swamped him! Priscilla smiled that Buckley smile, the Queen of the Nile at the center of the raft, though not above a hearty word of encouragement now and then to us Ben Hurs at the oars.

The expedition ended with dinner that evening at Chez Kesler. My mother cooked a wonderful country meal. Bill expressed his special admiration for the pinto beans. Said Pitts merrily, “Bill, those are green beans.” She was right, of course, but alchemical miracles were routine in those happy days in the Buckleys’ company.

Priscilla later tackled the rapids on the Colorado River, and edited my fledgling copy for the magazine, but our friendship began Huck Finn–style, drifting down the murky waters of the New River.

— Charles Kesler is professor of government and director of the Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ

Talented, brilliant, accomplished people don’t always go out of their way to be kind. Priscilla Buckley — much like her beloved brother Bill — did. Grace was not only her style, but her way of life.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

FR. GERALD MURRAY

The news that Priscilla Buckley has gone to the Lord brings to my mind fond memories of this most gracious lady. She was a true Christian gentlewoman. I was with Priscilla on a number of occasions over the years and was always impressed by her cheerfulness and joy. It is impossible to think of the NR I grew up reading without Priscilla Buckley’s towering presence. The Catholic ethos that inspired the Buckley children to take up the good fight to our benefit defines Priscilla’s life work. May God give her the eternal reward she strived for in her very fruitful life. Requiescat in pace.

— Fr. Gerald Murray is the pastor of St. Vincent De Paul Church, New York, N.Y.

#page#JOHN O’SULLIVAN

Priscilla entered my life in the nicest way. She sent me a rejection note that made me feel I was a rising journalistic star destined to achieve great things, including writing for National Review. But not yet. She must have sent such many such letters to recipients who, instead of being crushed, felt inspired and almost successful as I did. In part this was because Priscilla was good at persuading people to face the facts — this piece isn’t good enough — without making them feel that the the facts were immutable and that the piece would never be good enough.

Indeed, she worked tirelessly with younger journalists to make their work better. As one of the few graduates of the school of practical journalism — UPI in fact — she could explain clearly, and helpfully how to make all future pieces better by learning and applying a few simple rules. Many celebrated writers will admit that she was and remains the part-author of their best work, including work done long after they left NR.

#ad#At the upper end of NR Priscilla had a lot of experience in preventing egos from clashing in the early-to-middle period of the magazine. Even for a journal of opinion it was unusually rich in writers and thinkers who were absolutely brilliant at everything except compromise. That meant she had to become an expert in man management — which she did, relying on competence, charm, reasonableness, and in the last resort a reluctantly tart tongue. She also became an expert in making the trains run on time, the author of fine and beautifully judged articles — her memoirs of UPI and Paris are wonderfully entertaining — and, definitely not least, she was a wise and prudent counselor.

National Review would not have survived so many turbulent controversies without Priscilla. She was the still center that calmed many a storm, some originating from her beloved but mercurial younger brother, some coming from difficult people of great talent who respected her quiet authority with perfect ease. Bill relied on her completely and without question.

And when I finally did arrive at National Review and, more, get to write for it, so did I.

John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.

LAWRENCE PERELMAN

Hearing the news of Priscilla Buckley’s passing this weekend was indeed a shock. If I recall correctly someone once called her National Review’s Rock of Gibraltar and honestly I thought she would live forever. In the 20 or so recitals I played at the editors’ fortnightly dinners at the Buckleys’ maisonette from 2000–2007 there were three Buckley constants: Bill, Pat, and Priscilla. After Bill and Pat passed away I stayed in touch with Priscilla via e-mail, and in 2009 she and Jim Buckley invited me to lunch in Sharon, Conn. I arrived at the train station nearest Sharon and Priscilla picked me up and drove me to the restaurant; most people half her age couldn’t drive half as well. After lunch I made my first visit to Great Elm, which I had read about since I was a kid. There I sat at the very Steinway on which the Buckley children studied piano 80 years ago. On the right side of the music stand stood a picture of Bill facing me and Priscilla and Jim sat behind me as I played some of Bill’s favorites. Following the recital we had coffee in the resplendent greenhouse she kept in immaculate condition. She told me of her soon-to-be-published book and showed me her paintings. Then it was time to go back to the train. Priscilla donned her sunglasses, and we were off to the races! When we arrived, I bid her adieu, and we embraced. This was an extraordinary lady of great strength, a rock. We are indebted to her for many fond memories, and I will cherish them for the rest of my life. Priscilla, Rest in Peace.

— Lawrence Perelman is a pianist and former research assistant to William F. Buckley.

#page#FR. GEORGE W. RUTLER

At any gathering of the usual suspects, the presence of Priscilla lightened things. In all the time I knew her, I never heard anyone of any view or disposition conjure any criticism of her. Hers was an almost preternatural amiability that confounded anyone tempted to self-importance. I enjoyed a cocktail with her just a few weeks ago and then after dinner she was eager to use the latest electronic-book gadget. She was preparing for an eye examination the next morning, and I hoped it would go well, for as a sharpshooter she did need her eyes. The time before that when we had dinner, it was by chance: I had not seen her for many months, and had just been reading the family’s tribute to her father in which was a photograph of her as a child. No less than an hour after I had looked at that picture, she showed up in front of the elevators at the Union League Club. I was actually carrying the book and was able to show her the picture. No question, I told her, that was not a coincidence. Anyway, Chesterton said that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Priscilla was not meant to be an angel, for she was encoded to be a grand lady, “a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor.”

— Fr. George Rutler is author of Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive.

ELIZABETH M. WHELAN

#ad#My husband Steve and I had the good fortune to befriend Priscilla during the 1980s. We dined frequently at our place, at her apartment in New York City — and dined out at (where else?) our beloved Nicola Paone. She always had an interesting story to tell. I recall our enjoying her anecdote about Nancy Reagan: She and Nancy both graduated from Smith College in 1943 — both being the same age at graduation. But, Priscilla told us with a smile, as the years went on, Nancy’s reported age was considerably younger than hers. “How could that be?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.

Priscilla Buckley was a gracious, refined lady of estimable intelligence. She was organized without ever making anyone feel as if she was organizing them. She would conduct a conversation by making everyone feel included in the discourse.

Priscilla was devoted to her brother Bill. In her subdued admiration, she would tell you about his forthcoming book in a manner that made you want to leave her drawing room straightaway and search for the nearest book store. Yet, you never imagined that she was importuning you on his behalf; she was simply the devoted sister, content to bask in his limelight, even though she herself was managing editor of National Review.

— Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.

NR Symposium — National Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.

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