Magazine April 16, 2012, Issue

Remembering Priscilla Buckley

Priscilla and Bill Buckley in 1983 (National Review Archives)

Den Mother

Of my thousand memories of my beloved Aunt Pitts, an early one is of visiting the old NR offices at 150 East 35th Street when I was maybe eight, so it would have been 1960 or so. Pup (a.k.a. WFB) pointed out to me with amusement the dumbwaiter in his office. It’s possible that he was the only editor-in-chief of a journal of opinion who had a dumbwaiter in his office. (No jokes, please.)

When he finished writing an editorial on his trademark yellow paper, he would place the copy in the dumbwaiter and ring a bell and hoist it aloft―to the office of his older sister, Priscilla, NR’s managing editor.

As I think on it, this arrangement is a perfect metaphor for their relationship. She was only five feet tall, Pitts, but Pup looked up to her all his life. He adored her. I don’t think it’s exaggeration to say that without Pitts, there might not have been an NR. Or if there had been, it certainly wouldn’t have been as good, or come out every two weeks. Or have been nearly as much fun for those who worked there. She made the trains run on time, and she made everyone laugh. She became a kind of den mother to the modern conservative movement, cherished by everyone who knew her in that role, from George Will to Garry Wills. Quite a spectrum, that.

Pitts never married or had children of her own. She had 50 nieces and nephews, too many of whom lost their mothers at a too-early age. Pitts became their mother. (She even delivered one of her nieces — Priscilla O’Reilly — when her sister Maureen couldn’t make it to the hospital in time.) She was unfailing in love, always there for you. So perhaps Pitts ended up having more children than any of her brothers and sisters. She was to the Buckley family what the rock of Gibraltar is to the Mediterranean.

Bless you, Pitts, and bon voyage on your latest ballooning adventure into the heavens.

– Mr. Buckley is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine and a columnist for the Daily Beast.


Thanks for the Fun

When Barry Goldwater first dipped his toe into politics — it was 1949 and he was running for a seat on the Phoenix city council — he wrote to his brother to explain his decision, saying: “It ain’t for life and it might be fun.” Politics is supposed to be fun, and done right — one thinks of Ronald Reagan — it is.

Priscilla thought everything should be fun, and everything was for those who had the pleasure of her company.

I became National Review’s Washington editor in January 1973, fresh from the remarkable achievement of helping a three-term Republican senator, Colorado’s Gordon Allott, lose his seat while a Republican president was carrying 49 states. Priscilla was my first editor. I have never needed an editor more, and never had a better one. She was unfailingly precise, exacting, and congenial — part drill sergeant, part pixie, and entirely a friend.

Bill was often out and about — building the magazine, saving the Republic, etc. — so to Priscilla fell much of the day-to-day responsibility for making sure the editorial content was wisely chosen and properly presented. The magazine flourished, and because it did — I simplify a bit — so did the Republic.

A small and disputatious magazine attracts disputatious people with large agendas and considerable confidence in their intellectual firepower. Someone must referee the inevitable intramural conflicts. Priscilla did this without, to my knowledge, leaving a single lasting scar on the combatants, or any enmity that lasted past dusk on the particular day.

Winston Churchill said, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.” Priscilla was like that, but you got the infectious effervescence without the New Deal — a much better bargain.

It is supposedly difficult to improve Heaven, considering who is in charge there, so it is probably heresy to say this, but: On the morning of March 25, Heaven became even more fun.

– Mr. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post and an ABC News commentator and regular panelist on This Week.


In the Sixties and Seventies, it was normally Priscilla, as managing editor, who interviewed and hired summer assistants for the editorial department. But once in a while Bill came across a young person he wanted to give a tryout, and I was one of those. So when I presented myself at 150 East 35th Street in June of 1969, I had never met the woman I was actually going to be working for every day.

The receptionist asked me to take a seat and made a brief telephone call. A few minutes later a short, grey-haired woman with a lovely smile came through the door and said, “Are you the Christian? I’m the lion.” Of course, if she was a lion, it was one like Androcles’ lion — velvet paws.

Priscilla set about teaching me the art of journalistic writing and editing, as she had done for so many others in the previous ten years, and would do for so many more until her semi-retirement 16 years later. In fact, her friend and office mate, senior editor James Burnham, had dubbed the NR editorial department “Miss Buckley’s Finishing School for Young Ladies and Gentlemen of Conservative Disposition.”

Priscilla taught us out of her long experience, which began with United Press in New York during World War II, and continued first with UP in Paris and then with her brother’s fledgling National Review, where she was our in-house reporter for three years before becoming managing editor.

She taught us also with patience and warmth. In fact, I recall seeing Priscilla lose her temper exactly twice: first when a young editor started shouting at Jim Burnham because Jim had declined to run his overblown editorial on Woodstock; and second when one of our outside writers, Max Geltman, accused the magazine of being genocidally anti-Semitic. In both cases the recipient richly deserved Priscilla’s unexpected blast.

Once, when Priscilla had calmed an editors’ meeting that was turning acrimonious, Frank Meyer said admiringly — if with an insecure knowledge of the internal-combustion engine — “Priscilla, you’re the grease in our crankcase.” When Priscilla fully retired, Bill did too, unwilling to face that crankcase without her.

– Linda Bridges is an editor-at-large of National Review.


NR’s Center

Priscilla was the metaphorical and literal center of life at National Review. Why literal? Her office was at the elbow of the main hallway on the second floor of the offices at 150 East 35th Street. Because it was at the center of the action, people were always congregating outside her door to chat, swap jokes, or consult the reference books that were arranged on the shelf in the hallway. It was the hub. Oh, and there were always staffers stopping by her desk to have her interpret, as only she could, Bill’s hieroglyphics written in red ink.

“How,” I once asked Priscilla, “can you calmly attend to your work when that ruckus is going on just inches from your desk?”

“Ah,” she said, “when you come from a family with ten children, you learn to tune things out.”

She was the metaphorical center because her incomparable poise, intelligence, humor, and, above all, graciousness set the tone for the office. Naturally, everyone coveted Bill’s praise. But everyone would also agree that if Priscilla didn’t think well of you, there was something wrong with your soul.

A brilliant writer herself, Priscilla had the gift of teasing the best out of generations of young writers who trooped through National Review. She was shrewd about people without being ungenerous.

Beyond writing and editing, Priscilla set the example of how to live. She threw herself into adventures―hot-air-balloon rides, rafting down the Colorado River, visiting Angkor Wat, and plenty of (sometimes harrowing) hunting trips. She relished good food, good wine, great music, her large family, and her voluminous list of friends. In the 33 years I knew her, I never once heard her complain―about anything. But how very often she spoke warmly and appreciatively of others!

We had to cancel our last lunch date, just before Christmas. It’s painful to reflect that I will never see her resplendent smile again. But I am so grateful to have experienced her example, and savored her friendship for as long as I did. R.I.P.

– Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

#page#Managing Editors

Dear Priscilla Buckley. Yes, she had two first names and many of us used both of them.

I will have more to say on this tender subject in the weeks ahead, but two settled thoughts should be recorded immediately, one of them personal and the other corporate.

For me, she was a constant of the universe, from the day I stumbled into NR in the 1960s and asked her to show me how to be an editor, until two weeks ago when she helped me resolve a sticky issue with the Buckley Program at Yale, on whose board she served, unquestioned, as the only non-Yalie director. She saved my bacon as a columnist. She saved my bacon in a dust-up with Frank Meyer, who was known to tear young ideological deviants limb from limb. She even saved my bacon with her little brother. For a decade, I served hazardous duty editing WFB’s newspaper column. When on rare occasions we would reach an impasse over a point of fact or usage, we would appeal to the highest court in the land, Dear Priscilla, whose opinion carried the force of law.

Here’s the larger thought. If you have loitered over the years in the hallowed precincts of NR―at dinners, book parties, cruises, and suchlike―you will have heard the toasts and tributes to Priscilla. What a fine colleague she was, what an irenic office presence―that sort of thing. You probably took those encomia as grace notes, old-fashioned gallantries extended from old-fashioned men to an ornamental woman. That’s not even close. Those old-fashioned men were stating a plainspoken truth: Priscilla did hold the magazine together, and by extension the conservative movement. Remember the cast of characters in the formative years: Willmoore Kendall, Willi Schlamm, Frank Meyer, Bill Rickenbacker, Brent Bozell, Bill Rusher — these were not all reliably clubbable gents. They were men of large ego and short fuse, bonded in the conceit that the future of civilization itself hung on their deliberations. Even Jim Burnham, behind his bowtie and avuncular countenance, enjoyed a good scrap now and again.

WFB, who had neither talent nor appetite for personal confrontation, would let the “spirited exchanges” play out. If they didn’t subside in reasonable term, he would intervene with an ornate levity. That worked, sometimes, and the meeting would then proceed. When it didn’t, and the debates rose to DEFCON 2 levels, we knew that it would soon be . . . Priscilla Time. Usually the only woman in the room and on occasion the only adult, Priscilla would gently scold the line-crossers, smooth a path for combatant retreat, and restore the meeting to anodyne sodality. It was a magical process, conducted by a real-life magician.

I recall only a single exception. In the late winter of 1964, Jim Burnham, feeling perhaps a bit pyromaniacal, offered one of his recondite theories on why the superior choice for NR would be Rockefeller rather than Goldwater. Bill Rusher, a Goldwaterite to the tips of his cordovans, reacted as all of us could have predicted: like Old Faithful, first fizzing, then burbling, and finally erupting in an explosive rant. It was too much even for Dear Priscilla. She quietly gathered her papers, made her excuses, and departed to attend to some urgent matter. John Paul II, he of the saintly patience, would have departed five minutes earlier.

For donkey’s years, Priscilla carried the title of managing editor, and the job involved, among many other duties, the managing of editors. We miss you already, Dear Pitts.

– Mr. Freeman has been an editor, Washington correspondent, and columnist for National Review.


Priscilla Is Smiling

“She does everything,” Bill wrote of Priscilla. “Without her, life at NR is, well, unimaginable. On top of everything else, at NR we don’t have to worry when the lights go out, because Priscilla is smiling.”

I first felt the full force of that smile in the late 1960s, when Bill Buckley came to San Francisco, took me to dinner at Trader Vic’s, and asked me to come to New York to join the NR staff. My youngest daughter, Charity, was waiting to be born, I didn’t want to leave California, didn’t want to relocate to New York, didn’t want to work on anyone’s staff. But it was Bill Buckley doing the asking, and so naturally I came.

After driving for several days, straight through, I arrived in Manhattan on a chilly grey day, fought for several hours to make it from the West Side to the East Side, found a parking garage that charged piratical rates, cursed New York, and made my way to 150 East 35th Street. A receptionist/switchboard operator, speaking thick New Yorkese, directed me to Priscilla’s office, where she and Jim Burnham (a legend who later became friend and mentor) were reading copy.

I introduced myself, she said, “We’ve been waiting for you,” and then she smiled that wonderful smile, and I was suddenly completely at ease, hers for the bidding, ready to carry her scarf into battle (which I very nearly did, without her knowledge, one boozy night).

Various problems arose over the years, but never with Priscilla. She was not only the prettiest managing editor on East 35th Street (or anywhere else in New York), but one of the very best in the country, as anyone who worked with her will agree. We’ve suffered a loss, but tonight Heaven is just a little brighter. Priscilla is smiling.

– Mr. Coyne is a former staff feature writer and Washington correspondent for National Review and a former White House speechwriter.

#page#Priscilla’s Great Cause

When I arrived at National Review in the late summer of 1988, Priscilla had allegedly retired. This retirement did not seem to keep her out of the office very much.

The formal record suggests that after 1985 she occupied herself by retiring in stages, coming into the office every other week, contributing to the magazine in her new role as senior editor, and being available to all in her informal role of editorial maid-of-all-work. But I never recall her being out of the office when I needed help or advice (which was often) in those first two years.

As an apprentice editor who knew NR only as a reader, I had determined in advance to rely on her advice to the full degree to which it was offered. Also, I felt she was a friend, on the slender basis that in 1970 she had sent me a rejection slip so charming that I began to feel that I was a world-historical figure. And, by Heaven, I was right: She was a friend (about the world-historical . . . well, some other time). Even when she retired fully in 1991, alongside Bill himself, she remained a guardian angel, somehow smiling over the office during her now slightly longer absences, through every dispute that rocked the magazine.

Her help was of three kinds. First, she was the only professional journalist at NR for long periods in the magazine’s life, and her skills gave her real authority over the unruly geniuses who erupted so brilliantly around her. The story is well known that, with Bill out of town and unreachable, she completely reordered the issue of NR containing an attack on Robert Kennedy on the day after his assassination. That was a tour de force of professionalism, but it was also the kind of achievement that can be built only on the foundations of regular daily reliable writing, editing, and organizing. Without Priscilla’s skills, from correct punctuation to deadline discipline, NR would never have survived. Nor my editorship for almost ten years.

Second, Priscilla understood and could deal with Bill Buckley better than anyone else. As she herself said, she never lost the sense of superiority over him that she had gained when she was twelve and he was eight. She was half-joking, of course, but it was at least half true. Because of this unique relationship, she was his diplomatic plenipotentiary to the rest of the world and to NR’s staff. Bill was a great man, but he could be, well, arbitrary. She could make him see that when no one else could. Even more remarkable, she could sometimes foresee when he was likely to be arbitrary, and on what topic, and to what degree―and warn his target and any innocent bystanders.

Ultimately, Priscilla was always going to come down on Bill’s side. She was the managing editor of the magazine because he knew he could rely on her absolutely. But a lot of good things can happen before you reach the stage of “ultimately”―and Priscilla defused many a row, saved many a job, and is thus responsible for many a brilliant career.

Finally, to describe the effect that Priscilla had on all the world, I cannot match the memories of those who knew her better and longer. So I have to reach for a quote. It’s a quote that Margaret Thatcher used to describe Ronald Reagan. It comes from Arnold Bennett’s The Card―it is in fact the last line of the book―and it’s the reply to someone who asks querulously “what great cause” the hero is associated with.

Many replies could be given if that query were to be addressed to Priscilla’s life―principally, winning the freedom of half the world. But all who knew and worked with her will agree that “she is associated with the great cause of cheering us all up.”

– Mr. O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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