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.