Almost 50 years ago, William F. Buckley, Jr., made what was undoubtedly the shrewdest and most audacious move of his life. He invited his sister Priscilla to quit her job and join the staff of a magazine he had just started. To appreciate fully the depths of his brotherly nerve, it should be understood that, at the time, the young woman was living happily in Paris, which, in the mid-50’s, had recovered from the war and was, well, Paris. What’s more, she was a rising star at the Paris bureau of the United Press news agency. In the years since, United Press, now known as United Press International, has fallen on hard times, but back then, it was considered the writer’s news agency and was the envy of hacks who worked for the AP and Reuters. And what would she get in return for abandoning UP and the City of Light? Why, the chance to be part of a magazine that just about everyone predicted would flop. Yet the sister was as nervy as her brother. She accepted his offer, which he sweetened by granting her six weeks’ vacation per year in partial compensation for a minuscule salary. So began, in 1956, Priscilla Buckley’s career at National Review, where she would remain for more than 40 years. Living It Up at National Review is her memoir of those years.
At the start, she had to have had a few qualms about her decision. National Review’s editors brawled with one another as easily as they did with the liberal world that surrounded them. Willi Schlamm, a founding editor, lasted only two years. The problem was his firm belief that he, rather than Bill Buckley, should be in charge of the magazine. Schlamm was asked to leave, Miss Buckley says delicately, “after a number of eruptions of increasing unpleasantness.” (Yet, among NR staffers, his name lived on long after he left, thanks to one of his antagonists at the magazine. James Burnham immortalized him in a Burnham principle of the cubicle world: “Every office has a Schlamm.”) Another editor, Willmoore Kendall, soon went the way of Schlamm, after picking fights with every member of the senior staff. Following this initial turbulence, however, Bill Buckley settled on a senior crew that stayed at the magazine many years: Burnham, Frank Meyer, William Rusher, Jeffrey Hart—and Priscilla Buckley, who became managing editor in 1959.
But Living It Up at National Review is about more than life at National Review. Almost half of it is devoted to Miss Buckley’s adventures during her weeks away from the magazine. She has hunted duck in the swamps of South Carolina and antelope on the savannahs of Mozambique; sailed everywhere, from the East River to Bora Bora; taken a luxury barge down the Seine and a far-from-luxurious raft down the rapids of the Colorado River. She has gone ballooning in the United States and Europe, is an accomplished skier and an excellent golfer, skilled enough to play in the Women’s National Amateur Championship. That’s fine, you say, but has she delivered a baby? Of course she has: a girl named Priscilla, the second child of her sister Maureen. (It should be noted that, unlike the other activities, this last wasn’t something she set out to do. It just happened one night.)
Delightful as Miss Buckley may be as a traveling companion, I believe the people who benefited most from her company were those with her the 46 weeks of the year when she wasn’t gallivanting around the world—that is, the hundreds of people who spent time at National Review during her reign. Like the books editor of this magazine, I was one of those hundreds. Because of his many commitments—the TV show Firing Line, the syndicated column, his speaking engagements, etc.—the magazine’s editor in chief was far less a presence than the managing editor he had so wisely lured away from Paris. While this may have been news to the vast majority of NR subscribers, anyone who worked at the magazine realized her influence. Miss Buckley recounts a remark Burnham made to Bill Buckley during dinner one night at a Manhattan restaurant: “Bill,” Burnham said, “you and I think we are putting out a magazine but what we actually have is Miss Buckley’s finishing school for young ladies and gentlemen of conservative persuasion.”
Living It Up at National Review provides an insight into what an extraordinary school Miss Buckley ran. She took in students from a variety of backgrounds, including a Marine Corps veteran who only wore sweatshirts and an Ivy Leaguer who only wore Brooks Brothers, and somehow managed to create an atmosphere where these disparate souls not only felt comfortable and welcome but were able to flourish. However, you have to read between the lines to get a sense of the inestimable contribution she made to the magazine. She is more than modest to a fault. In her, it rises to the level of mortal sin.
What’s more, she loved to laugh, even when it was at the expense of her brother. One of the many stories she tells is of a joke played on him while he was in Switzerland, where he would go each year for several weeks to ski and write. It was decided that, in his absence, the editors would concoct a page of editorial paragraphs whose sole intent was to make him cringe with embarrassment. Some had obvious grammatical errors, some were kooky, and some were just plain tasteless. The page of these fake paragraphs was then expertly glued over a real editorial page and sent off to Switzerland. A short time later came a memo from her brother that showed how successful the joke was. “The seizure of coyness in this section,” he wrote, “is quite impossible to understand . . . and makes me weep.” Miss Buckley was delighted. He had completely fallen for it.
Though Living It Up at National Review tells the stories of the many characters who passed through the editorial offices of the magazine over the years, not an unkind word is said about one of them. (So merciful is the author that even the Stalinist tour guide who browbeat a band of NR staffers about the wonders of communism gets treated gently.) This absolute generosity of spirit will not surprise anyone who knows Priscilla Buckley. Uttering an unkind word is something she is constitutionally incapable of doing.
In 1999, Miss Buckley retired from National Review, having more than fulfilled the mission her brother asked her to undertake 43 years earlier. Since her retirement, NR staffers have surely learned a law that Burnham had no need to enunciate. Every office may have a Willi Schlamm, but there is only one Priscilla Buckley. It is no wonder that, years after they graduated, the students of Miss Buckley’s finishing school remain forever grateful.
[Living It Up at National Review: A Memoir, by Priscilla Buckley (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company) 247 pp., $27.95]
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