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.”