Daredevil

Riding motorbikes without a helmet, flying planes while half asleep—not to mention discussing books he’d never read and using words he didn’t understand—William F. Buckley courted adventure in all that he did. Here, the conservative godfather’s onetime protégé and longtime nemesis fondly recalls their friendship—and argues that Buckley was not the snob many thought him to be.
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Image: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Hour by hour, day by day, Bill Buckley was just an exciting person to be around, especially when he was exhilarated by his love of sailing. He could turn any event into an adventure, a joke, a showdown. He loved risk. I saw him time after time rush his boat toward a harbor, sails flying, only to swerve and drop sail at the last moment. For some on the pier, looking up to see this large yacht bearing down on them, it was a heart-stopping moment. To add to the excitement, Bill was often standing on the helmsman’s seat, his hands clutching the shrouds above his head, turning the wheel with his foot, in a swashbuckling pose. (He claimed he saw the berth better from up there.)

I once saw the importance of his swift reflexes on the boat. We had set out for a night sail on the ocean, and Bill’s Yale friend Van Galbraith—later President Reagan’s ambassador to France—had got tipsy from repeated shots of Tia Maria in his coffee. He fell overboard while the boat was under full sail. In a flash, Bill threw overboard a life preserver with a bright light on it, and called for us to bring the boat about. We circled back toward Galbraith, found him in the darkness, and fished him out. It was a scary moment, one that only Bill’s cool rapidity kept from being a tragic one.

Bill wrote the way he sailed, taking chances. Once, he called me up to ask about some new papal pronouncement. He had got into trouble with fellow Catholics by criticizing papal encyclicals, and I had become a kind of informal adviser on Catholic matters. The statement at issue that day was obscure.

He wanted to launch an immediate attack on it. I asked why he did not wait to see what impact it would have. “Why not wait? Because I don’t have falsos testes.” He was referring to an earlier discussion, in which he asked whether even papal defenders admit the pontiff can err. I said that medieval commentators claimed that such an error could happen if the pope was given imperfect evidence (propter falsos testes). He asked, “Isn’t testis [testifier] the same word in Latin as testicle?” Yes. That was all the warrant he needed.

He was always ready to plunge in. Another time he called me and asked, “Have you ever heard of Joe Nuh-math?” This was when everybody had heard of the way Joe Nay-math won the 1969 Super Bowl as quarterback for the New York Jets. Bill had only just read the name in an editor’s letter asking him to write about the man. I told him how Namath had beat my hero, Johnny Unitas, in the Super Bowl. There were large gaps in Bill’s knowledge of popular culture, especially of popular sports. His father once wrote to Bill’s future father-in-law, complaining that he had tried for years, without success, to interest his son in the ordinary games—golf or tennis or team sports. But Bill had a relish only for solo performances—sailing, skiing, horseback riding, or flying an airplane. I asked if Bill was going to write about Namath. Yes. “That should be an interesting interview.” He said, “Oh, I don’t have time to learn enough about football to interview him.” He wrote the piece by comparing Namath’s career to something he did know—the record of a famous bullfighter.

Another time, I was on Bill’s boat racing to Bermuda. We saw on the horizon a huge shape like an island—it was a World War II battleship taken out of mothballs and put out for a shakedown cruise before being sent to the Vietnam War, a breathtaking sight from our lower vantage point on the water. Bill could not resist hailing it on the radio, though radioing was against racing rules except in an emergency. When we reached Bermuda, Bill was disqualified. One of the other boats had heard his conversation with the battleship and reported him. He said it was worth it. He reminded me of one of Wodehouse’s blithe young men—Psmith, say, or Piccadilly Jim—who act forever on impulse.

He took risks even in routine and mundane ways. One night, after dinner at his town house in Manhattan, he wanted to continue our conversation, so instead of calling me a cab to take me back to my hotel he gave me a ride on his motorbike. New York law required that bikers wear a helmet, so a policeman stopped us—neither of us was helmeted. When the cop recognized him, he let us go with just a warning, since Bill was popular with cops for opposing police review boards. Needless to say, the next time he gave me a ride, there were still no helmets.

It is amazing that Bill’s risks did not end his life. At Yale he secretly learned to fly, and bought a small plane with a couple of friends, without letting his father know about it. He landed the plane on his sister’s prep-school campus in a spectacular visit. On the day of his college tests, he took the plane out for a celebratory flight, all by himself. He had been up the night before cramming for the exams, and he fell asleep. Fortunately, he woke in time to land the plane. A great career might have ended before it began.

For a while I was Bill’s designated biographer. A shared friend of ours, Neil McCaffrey, commissioned the book for his new publishing venture, Arlington House. Bill approved the idea because, like many celebrities, he was constantly pestered by people wanting to interview him for books or magazines. With me as his chosen scribe, he could turn them down by saying he was already committed. I recorded many hours of tapes with him, his wife, his siblings, and his friends for the project, before giving it up over political disagreements. He was stunningly candid, so much so that I, like many people close to him, came to feel I should protect him from his own reckless truthfulness. He was too trusting of people he liked. He set up a former boat boy in a partnership to buy radio stations, and afterward found that his young partner had bilked him. He argued for the innocence of a prisoner who wrote him winning letters, and worked to have Edgar Smith released, only to see the man convicted again, this time of kidnapping and attempted murder.

Some of the things Bill told me on the tapes I have never repeated, except to my wife. One thing I can partly tell now that he is dead. When he entered the CIA, in 1951, he beat the polygraph test that all prospective agents have to take. (Always willing to risk.) He was determined to protect a family member from an embarrassing disclosure, and he did. I asked him how he accomplished that. “I guess that if you think you have a right to tell a lie, it will not register as one.” At least it did not with him. He told me what he lied about, though I promised then to keep the secret, and I have.

From what I have said so far, it might be thought that Bill was self-centered. That was far from the case. He was thoughtful of others, almost to a fault. When he found that a summer intern at National Review was a promising young pianist who missed his practice hours back in the Midwest, he gave him the key to his town house (which had been UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s) and told him he could use it, while his wife was away, to play on his splendid Bösendorfer piano.

His generosity was unfailing. He liked to do things for people, surprising them with unexpected gifts. When the writer Wilfrid Sheed was ill, Bill, who knew he was a deep student of popular song, sent him the latest books on the subject. One day in the early ’60s, a large package was brought to my front door. It was the 24 volumes of the new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another time I got a package containing framed copies of two charcoal portraits by the famous British newspaper artist David Low. These were studies of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, men Bill knew I admired. I asked where he had got the pictures. They were a gift to him from the British broadcaster Alistair Cooke. Bill said, “They will mean more to you than to me.”

He spent a lot of time thinking of what he could do for friends. When he heard that I needed a passport in a hurry, he pulled strings at the State Department to get it for me. On another occasion, when my new bride and I could not find a cheap sea liner to England for our honeymoon, he found a ship for us leaving from Canada. Bill ingeniously invented a way to institutionalize his love for giving special gifts. Because his family was so prolific, he had 49 of what he called “N and Ns” (nieces and nephews). He took care of the education of many of them. But supplying necessities was not enough for him. He set up a fund he called the Dear Uncle Bill Trust (DUBT, soon pronounced “Doubt”), whose administrators gave surprise treats to N and Ns—a valuable guitar to an aspiring musician, a vacation in a favorite spot—on a rotating basis.

His desire to do things for people made him an inveterate matchmaker. He did all he could to encourage his Yale friend Brent Bozell to marry his favorite sister, Patricia (Trish), which Bozell did in 1949. He hinted that another Yale undergraduate, Bill Coffin, should date another of his sisters. When I went to National Review in the summer of 1957, I was just two months out of a Jesuit seminary, where I had been starved for opera music, and I soon found the Sam Goody music store. But the apartment I was staying in had no phonograph. When I mentioned this to Bill’s younger sister Maureen, who was working part-time at National Review that summer, she gave me the key to her apartment and said I could use the phonograph there any afternoon while she was working. Bill noticed that Maureen and I got along well, and when we would all go out to dinner at the end of the day, he’d put us together in one cab and take another with the rest of the party. We laughed at his matchmaking attempts. It was a family trait. Trish had met Pat Taylor at Vassar and decided Bill should marry her—as he did.

Perhaps it was his matchmaking urge that made Bill want to connect people with his church. After he learned as a child that any Christian can baptize a person in need of salvation, he and Trish would unobtrusively rub water on visitors to their home while whispering the baptism formula. In the National Review circle, those who were not Catholics to begin with tended to enter the fold as converts—Bozell, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, William Rusher, Jeffrey Hart, M. Joseph Sobran, Marvin Liebman, Robert Novak, Richard John Neuhaus. The major holdouts were James Burnham, a born Catholic who left the faith and never went back, and Whittaker Chambers, who was drawn to Richard Nixon’s Quakerism. It was always easiest to be a Catholic around Bill. I believe Bill was so nice to me because I am what the Lutheran scholar Martin Marty called me, “incurably Catholic.” There were different concentrations of people at National Review—Yale alumni, ex-communists (Burnham, Meyer, Chambers), ex-CIA members (Bill, Burnham, Kendall, and Priscilla Buckley, another of Bill’s sisters)—but the Catholic contingent outnumbered all others.

Bill went to church on Sundays with the many Spanish-speaking house servants he had over the years. That did not fit his reputation as a snob. He was accused, at times, of being a social snob, an ideological snob, and an intellectual snob. None of these was the case in any but the most superficial sense.

Social Snob?

Bill could hardly have been a social snob when he was playing matchmaker for his sister and me. I was a penniless nobody. For that matter, Brent Bozell had no significant money or social standing when (with Bill’s encouragement) he married Trish Buckley. Brent had got to Yale on a double scholarship, from the GI Bill and from an American Legion oratory award. Where his family was concerned, Bill always cared more about a person’s being Catholic and conservative than about his or her being rich. I passed the Catholic test, and came close enough on the conservative point in 1957, for him to hint that Maureen and I might be made for each other.

Despite his religious and ideological preferences, Bill was basically egalitarian.

Though he always used proper titles for guests on his TV show, he was “Bill” to everyone from the moment they met him. He treated all ranks at the magazine with equal courtesy and respect. There was never any “side” to him. In this he was unlike his wife. He always dressed like a rumpled undergraduate, while she had Bill Blass and other designers dancing attendance on her. Bill and Pat were deeply in love—each called the other “Ducky,” just as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn call each other “Pinky” in the movie Adam’s Rib. But the Tracy and Hepburn characters have their differences, and so did the Buckleys. They had different (though overlapping) social circles. Bill was amused by some of her friends (like Truman Capote). But she treated some of his intellectual friends—like the literary critic Hugh Kenner—as a nuisance. Pat never finished college, and intellectual talk could make her uneasy. Once, when we were doing a night sail from Stamford, Connecticut (she never went on longer sails), I brought up the writer Donald Barthelme and she said she had no time for such pretentious stuff.

In one of his published journals, Bill described in loving detail the limousine he’d had specially redesigned as a kind of traveling office. He was widely mocked for this. But he had realized the advantage of having a chauffeur only when he ran for mayor of New York, in 1965, and needed a car and driver to get him to events where there was no time or place for parking a car himself. He saw that he could do his endless dictating of letters and columns on the move, and he kept the Irish Catholic driver who had seen him through the campaign. Before that race, he’d regularly ridden around New York on his motorbike. And he was driving his own (modest) car when I met him in 1957. After I arrived at his office in New York to talk about writing for National Review, he asked where I had left my suitcase. I said, “At the airport”; I thought I might be heading right back to Michigan at the end of that day. He told me to wait while he finished his editing for the day, then he drove me to LaGuardia. After I picked up my bag, he drove us out to his home in Stamford, where we talked, swam, and ate dinner. Then he drove me back into New York, put me up in his father’s apartment at 80 Park Avenue, and turned around to drive back to Stamford. He was my chauffeur that day. It was the kind of thoughtfulness many people experienced from him.

Ideological Snob?

There was a better case for thinking Bill had ideological class prejudices. But when he established National Review, in 1955, he applied no ideological test to all those he hired or tried to hire. He wanted good writing and intellectual stimulation. That is why he printed non-right-wingers like John Leonard, Joan Didion, Renata Adler, and Arlene Croce. Later, he sailed or skied with John Kenneth Galbraith and Walter Cronkite (I sailed with both), not because they were celebrities but because he liked them and admired their minds.

The real measure of Bill was the extent to which he overcame the prejudices he began with because of his family. His mother was a southern belle from New Orleans whose grandfather had been a Confederate soldier at Shiloh. She kept the attitude toward blacks of her upbringing. One time, when we were sailing and stopped at Charleston, South Carolina, Bill took me to his father’s winter home. When we arrived, we were greeted by a black retainer who had known Bill from his childhood—he called him “Master Billy.” It was not surprising that Bill and I would initially disagree about the civil-rights movement. In a notorious 1957 editorial called “Why the South Must Prevail,” he defended segregation because whites were “the advanced race,” and “the claims of civilization supersede[d] those of universal suffrage.” We argued over this, and his biographer, John Judis, says that my views gradually had some effect:

Under the influence of conservative proponents of civil rights like Wills and the heated debate about civil rights taking place in the country, Buckley began to distinguish National Review’s and the conservative position from that of southern racists.

Another burden from Bill’s early days was his father’s anti-Semitism, a harder thing for him to conquer since he honored his father so profoundly. A close friend of Bill’s at the Yale Daily News was Tom Guinzburg, later the president of Viking Press. Guinzburg and Bill’s sister Jane were on the verge of being engaged, and Bill’s father said that Bill, using his friendship with Guinzburg, should prevent a Jew from joining the family. Bill intervened, to his later regret. For once, he was a match breaker rather than a matchmaker. I was with him the night he finally confessed to Jane what he had done behind her back. She said it did not matter—the marriage would not have worked out. Bill said, “I wish I had known that before—I have been reproaching myself all these years.” Bill did more than break National Review away from right-wing journals that harbored anti-Semites. When he found that a book reviewer (Revilo Oliver) and one of his editors (M. Joseph Sobran) were writing anti-Semitic stuff in other venues, he dismissed them from the magazine. Bill became so sensitive to the problem that he wrote a book on the anti-Semitic writings of right-wingers like Sobran and Patrick Buchanan.

By the time of his death, even Bill’s earlier critics admitted that he had done much to make conservatism respectable by purging it of racist and fanatical traits earlier embedded in it. He distanced his followers from the southern prejudices of George Wallace, the anti-Semitism of the Liberty Lobby, the fanaticism of the John Birch Society, the glorification of selfishness by Ayn Rand (famously excoriated in National Review by Whittaker Chambers), the paranoia and conspiratorialism of the neocons. In each of these cases, some right-wingers tried to cut off donations to National Review, but Bill stood his ground. In doing so, he elevated the discourse of American politics, making civil debate possible between responsible liberals and conservatives.

Intellectual Snob?

Bill was considered an elitist because he loved to use big words. But he did it not from hauteur but from impishness. This was part of his playfulness. He liked to play games in general, and word games were especially appealing to him. He used the big words for their own sake, even when he was not secure in their meaning. One of his most famous usages poisoned the general currency, especially among young conservatives trying to imitate him. They took oxymoron in the sense he gave it, though that was the opposite of its true meaning. He thought it was a fancier word for “contradiction,” so young imitators would say that “an intelligent liberal” was an oxymoron. But the Greek word means “something that is surprisingly true, a paradox,” as in a shrewd dumbness.

One time Bill’s love of exotic locutions came out when he asked me for the meaning of a word I had written, subumbrous. I said it meant “cloaked in darkness.” He protested that he could not find the word in any of his dictionaries. No wonder, I said, I made it up from the Latin sub umbra. He loved that—it continued the word games. But his lunge toward risky words was like his other ventures into risk. He could write, for instance, that National Review’s “mendacity” prevented the magazine from running free advertisements, when he meant “mendicancy.”

Bill was not, and did not pretend to be, a real intellectual. He gave up on the “big book” that his father and others were urging him to write. For years he tried to do a continuation of José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. This had been a sacred text for his father’s guru, Albert Jay Nock. Bill took intellectual comrades like Hugh Kenner with him for his winter break in Switzerland, to help him get a grip on this ambitious project. But he told me he realized in time this was not his métier. He was not a reflective thinker. He was a quick responder. He wrote rapidly because he was quickly bored. His gifts were facility, flash, and charm, not depth or prolonged wrestling with a problem.

Bill needed people around him all the time. Frequently, when he told me he had to write a column, I would offer to withdraw from the boat cabin or hotel room where we were. He urged me not to, and as he typed (with great speed and accuracy) he would keep talking off and on, reading a sentence to me, trying out a word, saying that something he was writing would annoy old So-and-So. When I appeared on his TV show to discuss a new book of mine, it was clear to me that he had not read the book—he was given notes on each author he interviewed. Once he asked me if I had read all of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. I said yes. “Haven’t you?” He had not. I suspect that was true of the other capitalist classics he referred to, by Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Roepke, and others. He could defend them with great panache. But he did not want to sit all by himself for a long time reading them. One of his teachers at Yale, the philosopher Paul Weiss, told me that Bill was very good at discussing books he had not read.

Bill was heatedly attacked by Catholic liberals when he dismissed papal criticism of capitalism. He dismissed John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra for its challenge to the free market. I joked that his attitude was “Mater sí, Magistra no,” playing on a slogan of the time, “Cuba sí, Castro no.” He printed the quip in the magazine and was attacked on the assumption that the saying was his own. He questioned me about church teachings. He felt insecure because his Catholic education was so exiguous—it amounted to one year at a Jesuit prep school in England. I had been entirely educated in Catholic schools before entering graduate school at Yale, and he exaggerated what knowledge that had given me.

He wanted to know more about encyclicals. I told him I did not know much. I had read carefully the so-called social encyclicals—Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931)—because Chesterton had admired their praise of medieval guilds. Bill asked if I would bone up on the subject, and I agreed to. After I had done some research on the matter, he drove up from Stamford to New Haven to spend an afternoon discussing it. He had been challenged to a debate with an editor of Commonweal, William Clancy. Bill suggested that each side be defended by a two-man team—Bill and I on one side, Clancy and a partner of his choosing on the other. Clancy did not like the idea. Nonetheless, when it came time for the debate, to be held across the river from Manhattan in New Jersey, Bill asked me to go along with him for some last-minute preparation in the car. We had to grab a quick dinner before the event, so we stopped at a greasy spoon in New Jersey. When Bill asked for a bottle of red wine, it came out ice-cold, so he asked that it be run under hot water for a while, and we kept up our informal seminar on encyclicals.

Bill handled the debate with his customary forensic stylishness. But the Catholic attacks on him continued. By the early 1960s, they had become so voluminous that our friend Neil McCaffrey made a collection of them, to be published with his sulphurous comments on each item. Bill asked me to write an introduction to the collection, on the status of encyclicals. When Neil had the book ready, Bill asked me to come out to his garage study at Stamford. He found Neil’s intemperate running commentary embarrassing. He wanted to cancel the project—unless I was willing to expand my introduction, incorporating some of the acidulous commentary into a calmer treatment of the matter. I said that I doubted Neil would be amenable to having his concept taken away from him. Bill said I should just leave that to him. Somehow, with his smooth persuasiveness, he took the project over without losing Neil’s friendship, and I published Politics and Catholic Freedom, the first of my books on the papacy.

Bill lived and wrote and lectured—and played and socialized and exercised—at a furious pace. Partly this was because he bored so easily. But partly it was to make money. He was commonly thought of as a spoiled rich boy. But he had never had the kind of money people imagined. His wife did—she came from a family far wealthier than his. But he did not want to live on her inheritance. Bill’s oilman father had drilled many a dry hole. John Judis did the numbers, and said that the senior Buckley’s money was exaggerated. After the father’s death, Bill’s oldest brother, John, a heavy drinker, ran the company without great skill.

Bill’s own investments, especially in radio stations, set back rather than advanced his financial affairs—as always, he was too in love with risk. But he made a good living, initially from his heavy lecture schedule and then from his profitable series of spy novels. I remember how delighted he was, in 1960, when for the first time he was paid a dollar a word for a magazine article (a high sum then). He did not, of course, have to work for a living. He could have lived, like his siblings, on a lower scale than the one he did. But Bill wanted to maintain the swashbuckling yachts, the custom-made limousine, the ski lodge in Switzerland, and the great generosity of his gifts to others; and he did not want to do this on his wife’s money. Thus he secretly acquired what some will consider his least plausible identity, that of a working stiff.

For more years than I wish, Bill and I were estranged. Though he had backed off from the southern view of black inferiority, he thought that Martin Luther King Jr. was hurting the country in its struggle with Communism by criticizing America, and he was a strong friend of Henry Kissinger in defending the Vietnam War. Even my own friend at the magazine, Frank Meyer, tried to have my comments against Richard Nixon killed, and Bill finally refused to publish my claim that there was no conservative rationale for our ruinous engagement in Vietnam. Later, when I moved out of my office at Northwestern and reduced my library to what would fit into my home, I gave a used-bookstore owner the pick of my volumes at the university. He went off with many titles that Bill had inscribed to me, and when irate fans of his found them in the store, they bought them and sent them back to him, calling me an ingrate for selling his gifts.

When Bill’s service in the CIA under Howard Hunt came to light during the Watergate scandal, I wrote a column about Bill’s CIA connections. Perhaps he thought I was using confidential knowledge he had given me on the tapes I had made for his biography; but I used nothing that was not public knowledge by then. He circulated my column to the National Review board of editors with the marginal notation, “I think we should smash him”—an item that Judis found in Bill’s papers at Yale. For a time the magazine ran recurring “Wills Watch” features, recording the latest liberal abomination I was guilty of. Rick Brookhiser, an editor at the magazine, writes in his new memoir of working with Bill:

It was clear to me as a reader of National Review that Wills had been an important figure at the magazine, if only because the magazine continued to needle him. One cover pasted Wills’s head on a famous image of Black Panther Huey Newton, enthroned with spear and shotgun on his wicker chair.

John Leonard, another “National Review apostate,” as Bill called us, told Judis:

When Garry said what was happening to blacks was more important than what was reflected in the magazine, and it hurts me personally, morally, he spoke to that best part, that most vulnerable part of the Buckleys. It [the disagreement] went from blacks to Nixon to Vietnam.

M. Joseph Sobran, the principal Wills Watcher, said in comparing me with another “defector”: “I don’t think Kevin Phillips got anywhere near [Buckley’s] heart the way that Garry Wills had. [Buckley] didn’t covet Phillips’s esteem the way he had Garry’s.”

When Bill went to speak at Yale, on one of his innumerable visits there, my son, Garry L. Wills, was in the line of students waiting to shake his hand. When my son gave his name as Garry Wills, Bill said, “No relation, I hope.” Garry, who can be as pixieish as Bill, serenely said, “None at all”—which left Bill turning back with puzzled looks as he moved on down the line. On another occasion, Bill’s son, Christopher, whom I had met years before when he was the boat boy on Bill’s yacht, was a student at Yale, and he invited me to come speak at the annual Yale Daily News dinner. I suspected that Christopher was in one of his moments of conflict with his father, and I declined to take part in that drama.

But Bill’s wonderful and selfless sister Priscilla, who always kept me in her loving circle, trusted to the real regard Bill and I still had for each other. She called me in 2005 and said it was silly for those who had been such friends not to be talking to each other. She set up a dinner at our old restaurant, Paone, where Bill and I resumed our friendship, and after that, our correspondence. Bill wrote to tell me he had given my What Jesus Meant as a Christmas gift to friends. It was clear that our old disagreements had been transcended. And whereas Bill had defended the Vietnam War, leading us to part company so many years before, he ended up a critic of the Iraq War.

When Bill suggested on The Charlie Rose Show that he was ready to die, I found his words heartbreaking, and I wrote to tell him so. When Priscilla told me that in his last days, weakened by emphysema, he could not move across the room without her pulling him up and supporting him, I thought of the figure—lithe, athletic, prompt—who brought his sailboat to rest with one deft turn of his foot on the wheel, and I grieved for one who had brought so much excitement into my life.

Garry Wills is the author of more than 30 books. His most recent, Martial’s Epigrams: A Selection, was published last year.
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