Remembering Priscilla Buckley

Priscilla and Bill Buckley in 1983 (<span style="font-variant:small-caps;">National Review Archives</span>)



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.

April 16, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 7

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .