Dispatch February 2008

"We're On Our Way Home Now, Duckie!"

Sailing, swimming, and sipping nightcaps with William F. Buckley Jr.

The following is an excerpt from Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005).

There was one great perk to [being a National Review intern], which was the chance to meet William F. Buckley, Jr., the great man, the right’s godfather, the urbane and wicked prince of the conservatives. He no longer edited in any official capacity, having retired in the late 1980s, but his influence endured. The magazine reprinted his syndicated columns in every issue, and he also kept up a “Notes and Asides,” where he corresponded faithfully with readers on obscure lexical and grammatical points. Occasionally he would drop a longer article into the magazine—a remembrance of Whittaker Chambers in one issue, a breezy tour through Abercrombie & Fitch’s soft-core porn in another. He still kept an office, too, and an assistant, in the Lexington Avenue building, halfway between the editorial and business departments. Everywhere were the shelves of his books, a march of familiar titles (God and Man at Yale, McCarthy and His Enemies, Up From Liberalism) that evoked the right’s long half-century rise from ash to power.

The current editors, his chosen heirs, dined with him every second Monday, and as a special treat I was asked to dinner on my first day, along with my fellow intern, Jaime Sneider, a Columbia conservative. I had only just met Jaime, but he and I sealed our friendship that night, gawking together at Buckley’s fantastic uptown lair—the gimlet-eyed butler; the cooks and maids murmuring, in Spanish, the dinner table with glasses of cigarettes by each place setting; the luxurious sitting room with its lush tapestries and lacquered tables. We gawked, too, at Buckley himself, who swept down to greet us, his eyes bright and curious, his wit languid but mischievous, and his flesh slacking a bit with age but still held together by a lurking energy, a sense of coiled potency. His wife, Pat, was with him, a thin, imperious figure, gracious but cutting, with an anglicized drawl to match her husband’s. Buckley was simply gracious, and masterful at handling his celebrity, which he somehow acknowledged and set aside at the same time, disarming us with his good cheer and his famous blade-thin smile.

That night, which passed in a blur of wine and delicate meats and leisurely conversation, would be our only up-close glimpse of Buckley, or so we assumed at the time. A month and a half at the job did nothing to dent this impression. Then, in the middle of July, there was a phone call for me. The clipped voice at the other end belonged to Buckley’s personal assistant.

“Bill would like to invite you and Jaime to go sailing with him this Friday,” she said. “You can? Splendid. You’ll be picked up at Stamford at six, then. At the train station, yes. Excellent. Have a nice day.”

So Jaime and I rode the train along the Connecticut coast to Stamford, where Buckley picked us up, wearing a jaunty cap and driving a Land Cruiser. “We’ll stop off at my house first,” he told us as we pulled away from the station. We were spirited off to his summertime cottage, which waited for us at the end of a long gravel drive, beside a long lawn that drowsed, green and new-mown, in the shade of occasional trees. It was a big place, with an attached carriage house—“my study,” Buckley told us as he parked the ear in front—and a porch running down the side. Beyond the house, the lawn sloped down through gardens and past small swimming pool, its water a pale blue against the white tile, and beyond flits, rocks and then the Long Island Sound, drenched that day in a shimmering haze.

Inside, we were introduced to Buckley’s “boat boy,” Ben, a bearded Yale student hired for the summer to help out on the sailboat. Drinks with Pat followed, in a sea-facing room with deep armchairs and a huge tiger-skin rug dominating the floor, and while we chatted, a small dog leaped into her lap.

“He’s new,” she declared as the dog, an adorable King Charles spaniel, nuzzled at her long fingers. “His name is Sebastian, but we call him Sebby.”

There was general agreement on Sebby’s excellence, and then Pat announced grandly that it was time for the news. A switch was pressed, a screen was lowered from the ceiling, and a projector whirred while Buckley fumbled with the remote, settling on NBC. It was a slow news day, as I recall, but it hardly mattered; news-watching with the Buckleys consisted mainly of them bantering for a half hour, which in turn consisted largely of him offering various assertions and her dismissing them airily, with a pull of her cigarette and a wave of her hand.

“No, no, duckie, you’ve got it all wrong as usual,” she would say, and Buckley would shrug and flash us the famous smile, the long expanse of teeth slashing his face, reaching for his ears.

Afterward, we went to the docks, where the boat boy awaited us, and Buckley’s vessel Patito. It was the first large sailboat I had been on, and the only one yet on which I have been asked to take the helm—an experiment that came about once we had motored out of the harbor, leaving behind Stamford’s swarm of yachts and sailboats and motorboats, and Buckley and the boat boy had set the sails in order, the young man springing nimbly around the boat while the older man shouted orders, knotted ropes, and steered.

“Do you do this every summer?” I asked the Yalie a little later, after wrestling with the wheel for a time and then turning it over, with some relief, to Jaime.

“No, no,” he said. “He”—a nod to Buckley—“takes out an ad in The Yale Daily News every spring, for someone to crew his boat during the summer, and I answered it.”

“He didn’t know quite as much about sailing as I’d like,” Buckley confided to us a moment later, as his first mate scrambled to fix a rope near the bow. “But he does as he’s told well enough, and he has other duties.... Speaking of which”—he raised his voice—“how about those hors d’oeuvres, Ben?”

So Ben went belowdecks and emerged with champagne and salmon-spread crackers, prepared by the cook back on land. Some time later he mixed martinis, which was where his real skill lay. Buckley said loudly— in martinis, Ben, not sailing!

We drank them as the sun swept lower, and eventually Jaime and I fell into some kind of interminable argument—about religion or politics, I can’t remember which, save that we were jockeying to sound intellectual and earnest, to impress our host with the range and depth of our young minds. Buckley seemed to be paying close attention, cocking his head to one side as we went back and forth, until finally he stirred from his position at the wheel, reached for his martini, and cleared his throat.

“It’s a fascinating argument you’re having,” he said, “but perhaps I can impart a trace of my wisdom here?”

“Of course,” we said hastily, bracing ourselves for a bon mot, perhaps some stunning profundity. “Please do.”

“Well, gentlemen’“‘—his sudden grin seemed to swallow his cheeks—“it seems to me that you should probably put those sweaters on now. The sun’s going down, you know, and once you get cold out on the water, you’re not likely to warm up.”

We anchored in Oyster Bay, in a narrow inlet where a number of other sailboats were bobbing, while behind the sheltering arm of land the sun disappeared, and the trees along the shore flailed the bay with shadow. The cook had prepared steaks, which Ben warmed for us somehow, and there were salad and baked potatoes, and then pie à la mode, all eaten on a table that folded down in the main cabin, in the middle of a wraparound couch. It could have passed for a dinner at a four-star restaurant, I thought at the time, though my experience of such establishments was limited … [and] my appreciation of the meal was also probably influenced by the vast on-boat bar …

Buckley drank the most, but if it affected him, I never noticed, whereas Jaime and I fell into a drunkenness so deep I can barely remember our conversation. We talked about the Red Sox, I think—our host was writing a book set around 1946, the year that Pesky held the ball—and Ayn Rand, with Jaime asking Buckley if he had been there on the night when I.udwig von Mises had famously reduced her to tears by calling her a “little Jew girl.” (Buckley hadn’t, to everyone’s regret.) We talked about Hamden, where I had gone to high school, and where Buckley had lived as a young man after graduating from Yale. 1 wrote God and Man at Yale there, he told me, and I sloshed my wine and felt myself swell up, the suburban dullness … suddenly transformed by this historical coincidence.

After dessert had been set aside and Ben had gone to clean up, Buckley gathered himself up from his seat and peered down at us. “I generally take a swim after eating,” he said. “You’re all welcome to swim as well, of course.”

Now that he mentioned it, a swim seemed just the thing. (I imagine practically anything would have sounded like just the thing at that point in the evening.) But then I considered the matter more deeply and heaved a deep and regretful sigh.

“I’d swim, sir,” I said. “I would swim, I really would like to. But I’m afraid I didn’t bring a bathing suit.”

It had taken me so long to reach this conclusion that Buckley had already begun to climb the ladder, and now he regarded me with unconcealed amusement. “Well, neither did I. After all, it’s quite dark out there. And we’re all men here, you know.”

When he was gone, Jaime and I sat for a moment in silence, the dinner settling in our stomachs and the wine rising to our eyes.

“You aren’t actually going to go swimming, are you?” he asked me.

“Aren’t you?” I demanded.

“Well ...”

“Well what?”

“I don’t really like to swim very much in general.”

“Well, Jaime,” I said grandly, “neither do I, honestly. But you know, I think there comes a time in a man’s life when he has a chance to say to his grandchildren, I once went skinny-dipping with William F. Buckley, Jr. And this, Jaime, this is that chance.”

Somehow that settled it. We downed the dregs of our wine and went topside, where Buckley was just leaping from the bow, a flash of plummeting white flesh in the darkness. Jaime and I undressed quickly, then shouted and leaped in after him. In midflight, I saw Buckley already climbing the ladder, reaching for his towel—and then, as the cold water shocked me sober, I remembered how poor a swimmer I really was.

“I’m drowning, Douthat!” someone shouted nearby, as I surfaced, spitting salt and floundering. It sounded vaguely like Jaime, but I had troubles of my own.

“Swim for the ladder,” I managed to shout, pawing jellyfish aside, dog-paddling frantically, wondering if sharks frequented Oyster Bay. “For the ladder, Jaime!”

Afterward, Buckley went below to his berth, apparently to retire for the night, and Jaime and I sat on the boat’s bow with Ben, watching the lights on shore dim and the stars brighten.

“So how often do you do this?” I asked Ben after a while.

“How often?” he said, “I only started in June, and I have to go home for a while in August, so basically every weekend for two months, I’d say. It’s a good deal: I get to be outside all the time on the weekends, and then I can work on my thesis research during the week.”

“Is it usually just you and him?”

“Oh no, no—I mean, once or twice, but he has guests out on the boat almost every weekend. Usually it’s old friends from Skull and Bones, ex-ambassadors, people like that ... I’ve heard sometimes you get European nobility, deposed Romanovs and stuff.”

“He writes books about sailing,” Jaime said. “Some of them are down below, I think, in the cabin. My father used to read them.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “He had a bigger boat once, I think. He’d sail it to the Caribbean, to Europe, around the world, I don’t know where. Not anymore, or not the way he did once. But he isn’t close to quitting or anything. He still sails every weekend, March to September or October. He’ll still be taking the boat out when I’ve gone back to school, almost every Friday night.”

I leaned back, feeling the craft sway, the ocean stir. “Who can blame him?”

Just then there was a sound of clattering bottles from below. A moment later, Buckley emerged into the night air, dressed for sleep in boxers and a T-shirt, his hair a little tousled. He had a bottle and three plastic cups in his hands.

“Just a nightcap,” he said cheerfully. “Would anyone fancy some brandy?”

We slept on the cabin’s couch, Jaime and I, and woke with the dawn, having had very little sleep. The morning light felt refreshing nonetheless, and there were English muffins and jam for breakfast, and then we raised the anchor and turned north, for Stamford and home. It was a brilliant day, the Sound glittering, and we played Ghost, a word game—which Buckley won, naturally, with some high-vocabulary skulduggery at the end—and then he sent Ben to fish out his cell phone and dial up the number for his house.

“We’re on our way home now, duckie!” he shouted into the phone when Pat came on the line, while the wind caught his white hair and the boat knifed the water. “Yes, we’ll be back for lunch!”

And we were. We docked the boat, piled into the Land Cruiser, drove back, and cleaned up in the cottage’s grotto-like basement, which was complete with a changing room, a sunken bath, and a warm-water pool where Buckley swam laps while Jaime and I showered and changed. There was an hour or so that we spent sprawled on the lawn near the ocean, while bees droned in the gardens nearby, and then we ate lunch on the wraparound porch, with a portly priest whom Buckley called Padre, while Pat smoked beneath a vast black sun hat and talked about seeing The Producers, and about dinner with the Kissingers and the Limbaughs at Le Cirque.

Afterward, Buckley took us into the carriage house to see his study, a vast space hung with endless bookshelves beneath which were scattered little easels and tables and piles of magazines. (One, I noticed, had a younger Pat Buckley gracing the cover, draped in designer clothes.) Some of the shelves were entirely filled with Buckley books—the political volumes, the sailing books, the Blackford Oakes spy novels. “Take any of my books you like,” he said, so we each grabbed a handful and he autographed them, then drove us back through the Saturday glare to the Stamford station, where we thanked him (maybe too profusely, but he was gracious anyway) and boarded the train back to New York.

“So tell me, did that really all just happen?” I asked as we collapsed into our seats and the train began to move.

“I still can’t believe you made us go swimming,” Jaime said, and then our giggles carried us off, and so did the train, running west toward the city, leaving Buckley and Pat, Ben the boat boy and Stamford behind.

Presented by

Ross Douthat is an Atlantic senior editor.

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