Gstaad in Swizerland was where William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008) spent winters skiing and writing the novels that he regularly sent me in the vain expectation that I would read them; they were not his best writing, and I do not read novels anyway, as every day in real life is more thrilling than any fiction. His grand “maisonette” on Park Avenue and 73rd Street probably hosted the most lively conversations in the city, everyone gathered in the red library with wife Pat who stood as tall as her Boldini-like portrait.
But home was Wallacks Point in Stamford. That is where Bill died at his desk, found by his chef Julian, who was one of the pallbearers. Bill really prepared to die when Pat died less than a year earlier; her public memorial tribute in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by Egyptian mummy cases, was the first time among friends he could not speak. The yacht Patito had been sold some time before, and the harpsichord stood silent in those months, the lid closed, and through the window Long Island Sound looked vastly empty. Echoing his revered Whittaker Chambers, he said he was “weary.”
As an American boy, going to Catholic school in England, he passed an airfield at the moment Chamberlain waved a piece of paper announcing peace in our time. For the rest of his life, Buckley fought the devilish conceit that peace might issue from concordance with evil. He did this with a tongue that was “the pen of a ready writer” and was unusual among men in that he both spoke and wrote well, writing over 50 books and 6,000 columns, plus filming 1,500 episodes of Firing Line — which, lasting 33 years, was the longest-running program with the same host on television. English was his third language: first was Spanish, as his father’s principal business interests had been in Mexico, and then his first school was in Paris. His most formative academy was the home in Sharon, Connecticut, when the family was not wintering in Camden, South Carolina. At the dinner table, Buckley Sr. ingrained in all ten children that God, family, and beauty are the core of life.
While Pat Buckley could make a quarterback tremble with one fixed stare, she was the object of her husband’s faithful devotion for 56 years, in a cosmopolitan milieu that did not make the sacramentality of marriage a priority. The Rosary was his favorite daily prayer, reciting it for all sorts who had asked for help, which did not preclude the material help he often gave to those with problems from shaky mortgages to taxes and tuition. Regular confession was a norm, and once we stumbled through a dark church at night so that he might be shriven. Not the Mass in English, but the Mass in miserable English, made the Holy Sacrifice an unholy torture, and he made special efforts to find it in Latin, although his grasp of Cicero and Plautus was from an admiring distance. Often he ran lines by me for parsing, even once sending a translation by ship radio from the middle of the Atlantic.
It annoyed him to be thought arbitrary in religion. The line attributed to him, “Mater, Si; Magistra, No” was not his, and while he even published in a book his difficulties with some doctrines, he proved Newman’s point that a thousand difficulties do not make one doubt. By his own admission, the Lourdes pilgrim never knew one moment of lost faith and was precise in moral obedience, as when he wanted to do exactly the right thing about extraordinary care when Pat was dying.
There were happy anniversaries, such as his 80th birthday, and my own 60th birthday and 25th ordination anniversary, which he ornamented with his unique rhetoric. His public memorial, a month after a private funeral, opened with the hymnodic verse, “No foes shall stay his might, though he with giants fight. . . .” St. Patrick’s Cathedral was filled and overflowing for the Mass, which it was my lot to celebrate and preach, ending with his own words: “What is the greater miracle: the raising of the dead man in Lazarus, or the mere existence of the man who died and of the witnesses who swore to his revival?”