Politics & Policy

In WFB’s Footsteps

WFB in his office, c. 1975
Bill Buckley died five years ago, but his presence in the lives of his friends is everlasting.

“A few days passed, and young Hans Castorp had now spent seven months up here, whereas Joachim, who already had five months to his credit when his cousin first arrived, could now look back on twelve months, one round year — round in the cosmic sense, as well, for in the time since the small, sturdy locomotive had dropped him off up here, the earth had returned to its starting point, having completed one orbit around the sun.”

                                                             —Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

This is one of my favorite passages from this extraordinary novel. I feel it’s appropriate to the occasion, as we have now all completed five orbits around the sun since Bill Buckley died on February 27, 2008. Things are unequivocally different for us all.

Four years ago, on the first anniversary of Bill’s death, Christopher Buckley wrote a remembrance in which he stated, “Jews observe a formal period of one year’s mourning for a parent, called an avelut. We aren’t Jewish, but I get, and like, the idea, even though I don’t suppose the mourning ever really ends, until one’s own time comes.” I wrote to Christo to reiterate my condolences. He replied: “Dear Larry, Thanks so much. Yes, hard to believe that almost a year ago you were about to put on a concert at Wallacks Point. I have his appointments diary beside me as I type, and the last entry in it, in his impenetrable handwriting, is PERELMAN—CONCERT for the evening of February 27, 2008.”

Although I had given up the piano as a vocation, Bill’s enthusiasm for my playing kept me from letting it deteriorate even as I pursued another career. Knowing that the last event in his diary was the concert that never was, but to which he had been looking forward eagerly, has a special meaning for me.

On this, the fifth anniversary of Bill’s death, I am observing a Yahrzeit (a Jewish tradition of commemorating the dead) because I feel the absence of Bill in a particularly profound way. Five years ago I wrote about my friendship with Bill and the dinner I had with him on what ended up being the night before he died. I ended that piece at the point when he went upstairs to bed. In fact, I too spent that night at Bill’s house so that I could practice the next day for the concert.

I wrote the following not long afterward, but saved it for publication until I felt a comfortable period had passed. Now is the time I’ve decided to share it.

* * *

February 27, 2008. The Buckley residence, Wallacks Point, Stamford, Connecticut. I was waking up from a deep sleep and looked at my BlackBerry. “Ugh. 6:30 a.m. Footsteps in the hallway? It must be Bill going downstairs.” My birthday had been two days earlier, and I was still recovering from a night out with friends, not to mention the dinner with Bill the previous evening. I thought about getting up, but instead returned to my slumber. This guest room is the one Christo usually occupied on his visits home, and it had been used by many friends and luminaries during their visits to the Buckleys. Staying at Wallacks Point was always a special treat, and the house evoked a Victorian charm through the interiors chosen by Pat. She had been gone not quite a year, and Bill’s health had deteriorated very noticeably since April 2007. Nevertheless, he was still himself in most ways, and for those like me who viewed the glass as half full, it was still our Bill who was with us. And we were thankful to have him still.

I finally got up at 8:30, showered, threw on a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a sweater, and headed downstairs to the kitchen. Tonight I was to give my second performance of Bill’s favorite work by Beethoven, the Diabelli Variations; last week I had given the “premiere” (as he called it) for a small group that included three of his siblings, a niece from Washington, D.C., a cousin from Texas, and my mom, who was in from St. Paul. Bill simply called the work “The Diabelli,” but he would pronounce it in his ironic manner, which could have been code for “You’ve gotta be insane to even attempt playing Beethoven’s magnum opus, but good luck!” A dozen friends were invited for the performance, with dinner to follow. Bill had asked me to come to Wallacks Point a day early, to have dinner with him and to stay the night so that I could practice on the day of the concert.

I walked into the kitchen and found Julian, the Buckleys’ cook, and the two maids in conversation; the staff was like family, having worked for the Buckleys for decades. When I said “Good morning” they laughed a bit, given that 9:00 a.m. was quite late in a house where Bill was now known to ring for breakfast at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. I asked where Bill was, and Julian said he was out in the study. This corroborated that it was in fact Bill whom I had heard at 6:30. Eighty-two years old and writing a book about the Reagan he knew. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s book number 55! Incredible. Bill’s study was a converted garage; he needed an epic amount of space. It was in some respects the conservative movement’s Sistine Chapel. Lined with hundreds of books (including multiple copies of the 54 books he had published so far), the study was the ultimate work space, consisting of desks and tables strewn with papers, manuscripts, computers, typewriters, and assorted gadgetry from decades of curiosity spanning his Renaissance-man worlds, including those of sailing, music, and religion.

After breakfast I walked to the living room, where stood one of the two Bösendorfer pianos the Buckleys owned; the other was a fixture at their maisonette at 73 East 73rd Street. Anyone who ever attended a concert at the Buckleys’ had heard Pat announce with great pride, “Bill married me for that piano.” The plush red carpeting warmly welcomed me into the room, and I sat down at the piano. I warmed up with some Bach and then a Schumann song transcribed by Liszt. At about 9:30, after 30 minutes of practicing, I went up to the guestroom to get another sweater.

I thought about what a gorgeous day this was, and reflected that spring was on the way. As I donned my sweater I was startled to hear what soon would become a continuous sound of yearning pain. What is that? No one screams in this house. It was a female voice. I couldn’t decipher the words but the sound was so out of place in this house. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and my skin went cold from the feeling of unease. Something wasn’t right. Within a couple of seconds I thought that Bill must have fallen. I had been told that he had fallen a few times — he was losing his balance and stubbornly reluctant to use a cane. But then I thought again and my mind darted toward the inconceivable. I looked out the window and couldn’t see anyone. That sound. Where is it coming from? No. No. No. It can’t be. No. No. Don’t think about that. It’s not possible. It’s just not possible. “Larry, don’t think about that.”

I ran down the stairs in the direction of the wailing. As I entered the kitchen I encountered one of the maids. She was the source of the sound. I finally focused and began to reluctantly understand her. She looked directly in my eyes: “Señor . . . Señor . . . Padre no more. Padre no more.”

It still didn’t sink in. I felt like I was in a Hemingway novel, “Padre no more. Padre no more.” Over and over again. I immediately asked, “Where’s Danny?” Danny was a childhood friend of Christo’s and was living at Wallacks Point in order to keep an eye on Bill. The maid showed me Danny’s mobile number and I quickly dialed. No answer. “Where’s Julian?” Earlier Julian had told me that he would be heading to the store to buy some things for the dinner. “Julian there . . . Julian there . . .” she said, pointing in the direction of Bill’s study.

I bolted out the door and ran the 30 yards to the study. The door was ajar and there was Bill. He was on the floor face down. His omnipresent Cavalier King Charles spaniels were confusedly walking around him while the other maid stood crying. A shocked Julian was on the phone, and a fire siren could be heard approaching. Within a minute the fire engine arrived and the firemen made their way in with EMT gear. I stood outside the door and watched other medical personnel arrive. It was surreal.

I walked back and forth on the driveway near the study door. I was next to Julian when one of the EMT men came over and said that Bill had a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) bracelet. There was a part of me that thought that maybe, just maybe, they were going to take him to the hospital anyway. Soon the same EMT man came back and said, “Mr. Buckley has passed away.”

I looked at the American flag outside the study and at Long Island Sound. I thought about everything Bill had done for his country, and for my family and the countless millions of people who waged battles against Communist regimes around the world.

The police arrived. It is a necessary formality in the case of any death at a residence. I walked into the house with one of the officers, and he asked me, “Did you know Mr. Buckley?”

I thought to myself, “Did I know Mr. Buckley? Did I know Bill?” I analyzed this question. Past tense. Why is he asking me this question in the past tense? The idea of death had yet to penetrate my mind. An hour ago, I would have said, “I know Mr. Buckley.” From now onward it was going to be, “I knew Mr. Buckley.”

The police officer was an innocent bystander to the emotions I was experiencing. I looked at him with tears forming in my eyes and said, “He was one of my best friends.” The officer replied, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” With those words it became reality. My eyes welled up completely as I said, “Thank you,” and ran up the stairs to the room where just four hours earlier I had awakened to the sound of Bill’s footsteps. What was especially difficult to process was the fact that I had had dinner with Bill just the night before. It was sinking in, and I was sinking along with the feeling. I couldn’t stop crying.

My BlackBerry began to vibrate. Text messages, e-mails, and phone calls began coming in. The news was out. Bill was still in his study, but everyone around the world was beginning to learn of the news.

Several hazy hours passed, and I prepared to return to New York. Julian kindly offered to give me a ride to the train station.

Before we left, I asked Julian, Danny, and the maids to gather in the living room. I said it was imperative for us to honor Bill’s memory with music that very afternoon. I proceeded to play the first prelude from the second book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This simple work in C Major, the simplest of keys, managed to bring us together in our grief while also giving us a sense of salvation. I’ll never forget the feeling of the tears coming down my cheeks as I finished the closing passage. As the sound disappeared, the five of us embraced and wept.

* * *

Five years on, the lasting influence Bill left has continued to grow. What is very evident is just how my understanding of selflessness has expanded, based on those memories. Here was a great man who epitomized selflessness, which manifested itself in goodness. His generosity and mentorship were legendary, but he didn’t look for credit where credit was due. What I think he looked for was for his friends to continue those actions, like the perpetual motion found in a great work by his favorite composer, J. S. Bach. Bill powered his friendships with this motion, and those lucky enough to have come into contact with him benefited greatly.

On June 8, 2007, two months after Pat passed away, I had received a letter and a gift from Bill. It was the last physical letter I received from him, and I’m sure it barely made it to my apartment given how illegible the handwriting was on the envelope. It left me speechless. The letter foretold what his friendship would mean to me in the years following his passing: “Dear Larry: What is enclosed is very simply a gift. It is, to be sure, an appreciation of your attainments, but hardly conceived as a reward for them — such rewards are to be received from other quarters. It is, simply, a gesture of appreciation and admiration, from a friend who greatly esteems you. XXB”

In the last five years I have made many meaningful friendships. The fact that I would never have met most of these people if not for my friendship with Bill reinforces the continuing presence he has in my life. Those “rewards” he referred to in his last letter are still materializing. I am forever grateful to him for answering the first letter I wrote him nearly 20 years ago. It formed the basis for an everlasting friendship, as I hear and follow his footsteps to this day.

— Lawrence Perelman is managing director of Semantix Creative Group, a strategic-advisory firm that counts cultural institutions like the Salzburg Festival among its clients.


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