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Remembering Buckley By: David Evanier
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 02, 2008


I first met Bill Buckley in person when Priscilla Buckley, his sister, assigned me to write an RIP in National Review for Tennessee Williams the week he died. I was honored and touched that the Buckleys had chosen me to write of a great artist whom I venerated as much as Eugene O’Neill--that they felt I was the one to do it--and it was easy to do. The magazine was in a hurry, so I delivered the page in person. I was told to give it directly to Buckley. I was nervous enough as it was to meet him, but when I entered his office I was blinded. The sun was shining upon him as if he were its designated object. He sat there behind his huge desk, that loving smile of his upon me, that amazing dancing glint that radiated from his light blue eyes that must have had a physical basis -- let’s face it, he looked superhuman. And of course he really was.

I only spent a few minutes of my life with Bill Buckley, but he was my friend for thirty years. It would be difficult to explain just how bizarre it was for me to enter the orbit of Buckley and National Review in the late 1970s. I was never really a conservative.  There was little that was rational about my politics in the early days. First I used the Communist Party and its environs as an emotional crutch, but inwardly despised that world. The Zionists were too rational for me. I really only liked the extremes. But by the time I got to Buckley, I’d met the anti-Communist mindset of The New Leader (I’d been assistant editor), had experienced American Communism intimately and understood that Buckley’s view of its espionage apparatus was correct. But I certainly knew no economics (I’d done poorly in math and science in school) and had no real understanding of it. When I expressed the notion of the domino theory of worldwide Communist expansionism to Bill to show off my vast knowledge, Jeffrey Hart, seated beside us, said “That’s an original idea.”  Bill, incapable of the slightest unkindness, of course said nothing. Still, I would live my life in awe and intimidation in his presence.

I had originally written a totally non-political piece for National Review about Frank Sinatra and disc jockey Jonathan Schwartz, and one thing led to another under the kind tutelage of its brilliant and idiosyncratic literary editor, Chilton Williamson Jr., who later moved to the right of National Review as an editor of the paleo-conservative Chronicles.   Look, the truth is that I was somehow taught, or influenced in my childhood, to spit every time I passed a Church, and more likely than not, it was a Catholic one. And my own experiences with anti-Semitism had come mainly from Irish Catholics, especially if they’d had a few drinks. The incidents were scattered and few, but they mattered to a young boy.

There was a reverent atmosphere of Catholicism at the magazine. But actually “brilliant and eccentric” were, if used lightly, better ways of describing its milieu, with Joe Sobran walking around with a Bible that, Chilton told me, he would recite from in a chiding way at inspired moments to members of the staff. But in its celebration of language, civility and clarity, and sense of humor, the magazine perhaps came close to resembling The New Yorker of that time.  It was simply a pleasure to read on a literary level no matter what your politics were.  Of course The New Yorker  was pre-eminent and largely free of politics; nevertheless  National Review,  despite its ideology, managed to also represent a vanishing literary world in which the quality of mind and language mattered more (it venerated the two Waughs, Evelyn and Auberon), or at least as much, as politics. It accomplished this odd balancing act because of its humor and its extraordinary choice of writers, and, of course, because it had a genius -- and a deeply witty man -- at the helm in Buckley.

Actually, I had already hobnobbed in my way with WASP literary life as an editor of The Paris Review , working with George Plimpton. There was no pretentiousness to either Buckley or Plimptonj.  George plucked three stories of mine out of the slush pile and was a benefactor to me, and Bill was one of the gentlest and most compassionate souls I’ve ever met in my life.  And there was myself, patron of the Automats, Lindy’s, every cafeteria known to New York in those days, a former hanger-on with Communist-Party types, crying my heart out at Pete Seeger concerts, trying desperately to swallow the Party line until the Hungarian revolution undid me, a swarthy young Jew with a passion for knishes and hot pastrami sandwiches on rye stuffed with potato salad.  The contrast was sharp at National Review, which, despite Morrie Ryskind (who was before my time) and a few others, oozed Catholicism, wealth, and a sense of entitlement and joie de vivre that was unknown in my sweaty post-Holocaust world.

I  came from a crazed, lower-middle-class Queens world in which FDR was the patron saint and voting Republican was seen as the ultimate act of treife -- unkosher food, unkosher thought -- really unthinkable in the environment in which I, and probably most Jews even today,  grow up. My father had a lifelong hate for Dick Nixon which gave him endless pleasure.

And in some ways Jews in those days had good reason to be wary of some conservatives, particularly because of their frequent anti-Semitism and indifference to the civil-rights struggle.  There was a considerable body of them who had been Father Coughlin devotees and isolationists whose most passionate, sometimes unconscious reason for that position was to make sure that Jews were not rescued from Hitler and the Holocaust.

And so I entered the world of National Review with a sense of guilt, fear, oddity, and painful self-consciousness--almost of betraying my own heritage. Except--my parents were nuts and I didn’t respect anything they said, so I was willing to give it a shot.

And what happened was that, because of the breadth of his feeling and conscience and understanding of the depravities of anti-Semitism, it was ultimately Buckley and the magazine itself that moved closer to me, rather than I toward it.  The same could probably be said of the situation even today: conservatives have moved closer to Jews (and Israel), but a majority of secular Jews have stubbornly withstood their embrace.

With Chilton Williamson’s encouragement, I began to write for the magazine on a regular basis, and each time I did I received one of those little notes on blue cardboard from Buckley in his tiny script, always specific and thoughtfully inscribed to me. And then his books began arriving in the mail, also inscribed.  Chilton introduced me to members of the staff and we (including my wife Dini) had long drunken dinners together at which Chilton complained that Buckley was bored by everyone and distracted in conversation and didn’t seem to be really listening. I wasn’t sure if this was Chilton’s effect on Buckley or a universal one. I did think Chilton had a point about Buckley doing too many things at once--sailing, taking up the harp, campaigning for mayor, writing detective novels -- rather than writing the great book he was obviously capable of. In this regard his wealth gave him an excess of possibilities.                                                                

Chilton also told me that Bill was annoyed about sending out so many copies of his books and not getting back enough praise from the recipients in return. And here I was truly uncomfortable and would remain so throughout my relationship with Bill: I never liked his fiction at all and never felt he understood what fiction was.  Bill was a genius and a great writer, but he was not even a good novelist.  He simply could not escape his WASP heritage of formality and Puritanism to loosen up in his novels. There was a stiffness, a stuffiness, a strained attempt at, shall we say, sexiness, of working-class camaraderie, that sounded like an English barrister, a peer or a parson was trying to get down and dirty with the help. That heritage also enforced a kind of stoicism, an inability to reveal himself, to “confess,” which resulted in his inability to also write a genuine memoir (Miles To Go was more of a religious memoir.) The problem was compounded by his celebrityhood. Like Mailer, he became an untouchable, and I was sad to think of Bill in the same old boys’ club as Mailer.  Bill was the real thing

By 1982 I was at work on my novel about the Rosenbergs, Red Love, and Bill began to take a passionate interest in what I was doing. I had my own crafty ways of meeting and interviewing the Rosenberg crowd--Morton Sobell, Helen Sobell, (Morton’s wife), Julius Rosenberg’s sister Ethel, William A. Reuben, the “historian” of the case who proved that the Soviet constitution forbade espionage, Edith Segal, the poet laureate of the case (“Ethel, Ethel, in your lonely prison cell, what’s  that lousy schmatte  you’re wearing on the way to hell?”) and I also met many experts on the case including historians Nathan Glazer, Richard Gid Powers,  Ronald Radosh and Harvey Klehr,  Tom Sgovio, who’d been imprisoned in the Gulag and ex-Communists and Spanish Civil War vets John Gates, Robert Gladnick and William Herrick.

Buckley arranged for me to meet John Harrington, the FBI agent who arrested Julius and Ethel, Communist expert Herbert Romerstein, and, among many others, Roy Cohn. Cohn, I later realized, must have been in the early stages of AIDS, for when I met him in at his townhouse on East 68th Street in Manhattan, he was sniffling, in a bathrobe, accompanied by two burly bodyguards. He proved to be impossible to gain access to for a substantial interview, and when I complained, he wrote me on September 11, 1982 in his characteristically charming way:

Dear Mr. Evanier:

I have your letter. Let’s understand several things. First of all, I have a very busy life which consists of running a tremendously active law firm, attempting to supervise several charities (Prisoners’ Art Program, Jewish National Fund,l Humane Society, etc.) various and extensive patriotic endeavors, etc....

Under those circumstances I really don’t see why it becomes my obligation to write other people’s books, articles and plays for them. Nobody writes them for me. I have given a substantial portion of my life to the Rosenberg case from the time I was 23 years of age to the present....

A little background: because you were recommended by the Buckleys and because of my friendship (for them--I do not know you), which is important, particularly when it involves somebody like Bill, I have tried to make time for you. My schedule has been complicated by a viral infection--the first time I can remember in my life that I was not functioning in perfect health. I still find it extremely tiring and very interfering with my daily activities.

It is very obvious that I should have said no to you originally, but I have tried to work you in and still will, having read your questions...As to Mrs. Rosenberg’s guilt -- my observation was that she was the “heavy” of the two and had more influence on her younger brother, David Greenglass, than did Julius.  The idea of her exculpation is, I believe, founded on the theory of throwing a bone to the liberals after concurring in the findings of guilt on the part of Julius. As to your proposed book, I am sure it will be excellent.

A couple of points: what the critics of the Rosenberg case always seemed to love to leave out are such facts as...  the opinion affirming the Rosenberg convictions was written by Judge Jerome N. Frank, one of the great New Deal liberal jurists, who stated he had gone over the record with a fine tooth comb [and] the lengthy opinion some years after the case by Federal Judge Edward Weinfield, another of the nation’s very liberal jurists, in which he denied [Morton]  Sobell’s motion for a new trial in an excellent analysis of the evidence.

As to the sons, the way I handle it is by pointing out they know as much about the atom spy case as Tricia Nixon does about Watergate.

I hope that answers your questions and is of some help in your project.

To prove my commitment to friendship, despite the pretentiousness of your letter, I would still be glad to help because of my friendship for the Buckleys and the fact that they never say no to me.

Sincerely,

Roy M. Cohn

This experience of Cohn helped shape the complex range of feelings I had about my association with Buckley, feelings that kept me at a certain distance from him always. Roy Cohn was not a Jew I wanted to be associated with, and the right-wing milieu of the magazine was something I would find difficult always to digest. Now I understand I was wrong, but even though I was not a red-diaper baby, I was a stunted young man in my own way. And Cohn really was kind of an odious guy. One needed a Budd Schulberg or Jerome Weidman to understand him and not get on a high horse about him and Cohn finally found that writer in Sidney Zion.

When Red Love was about to be published in 1991 with my dedication to him (and to Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League), Bill invited me to his birthday party at his home of East 73rd Street.. I sat to his left, and across from me sat Henry Kissinger, to whom Bill introduced me, telling Kissinger of my book, with the notion of turning us into friends. Pat Buckley, Chris Buckley, Paul Gigot and David Frum were among many others who were there, but I was regrettably  too nervous to pay much attention to them,  not even Chris, an exemplary son and fine writer. This was all such a high honor that I was probably besotted with self-consciousness in such patrician surroundings. I do remember eating with a surprisingly small fork, and a gentle hand beside me discreetly placing a dinner fork beside me and replacing the salad fork. Of course it was Bill.

Soon after I was invited to an anniversary celebration for National Review.  Red Love  had just come out and I had not had the opportunity give Bill a copy. I remember running out to his car and placing it in his hands. The next day, I received a note from him, not on National Review  stationery with his name on it. I cannot locate that note but I will remember it to the end of my life. He had impulsively scribbled in his tiny script an expression of appreciation that was full of emotion and gratitude for my dedication, far more gratitude than I deserved. That note introduced me to the inner world of Bill, a fragile and sensitive world.

Buckley understood the complexities of his stance on the Rosenbergs. He knew they were guilty as hell, but he was very well aware of the nuances of his friendship with a Jewish writer like myself setting out to expose them--and expose them with the chutzpah of humor,  which caused Kirkus Reviews to later write, with approval, that Red Love  was “one of the most irreverent novels ever written.”  He had written of his father’s anti-Semitism, and he was well aware of the neanderthal proclivities of certain aspects of conservativism he’d grown up with. I have no doubt that in the privacy of his home, in the social clubs to which he’d belonged, he’d been exposed to many diatribes about the Jews over the years, and, of course, about Jewish leftism.

Some time in the 1980s he set about cleansing the conservative movement of its anti-Semites. And as he set about doing this, I somehow understood more of his relationship to me and to Henry Kissinger.  In 1992, a year after the publication of Red Love, he published In Search of Anti-Semitism.  His principal targets were Pat Buchanan, Gore Vidal and Joseph Sobran. He wrote that “the pain genuinely experienced by many American Jews when they feel even an emanation of anti-Semitism is--and ought to be--a major deterrent to those who insouciantly trip down that memory lane. Anyone who cares deeply how other human beings feel should care not to cause others to suffer on account of rhetorical carelessness, and that is a point Patrick Buchanan should accost, when he has time to draw breath.”  Of these three people, there is little doubt that it must have been most painful for Buckley to deal with Sobran -- to disassociate the magazine from Sobran’s columns, then expose him and finally to fire him from National Review.  Buckley was fiercely loyal, and when I first met the staff of the magazine, Sobran was much a part of its governing circle. He was a talented writer, a man possessed of many demons, and increasingly unable to control his hatred of Israel--he was the quintessential critic of Israel whose real targets were the Jews. Buckley wrote, “The question naturally...arises whether the gestating anti-Semite has gradually become fixated on the subject of Israel, whose every act at the bargaining table, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, advances the fetal little monster toward untethered life. Sobran has a very difficult time of it. It is a common casualty of the world of polemics that critics don’t always have the time, or take it if they do, for patient, detailed inquiry. Such inattentions to detail breed licentiousness. Sobran has written that 'Israel is a deeply anti-Christian country; it has even eliminated the plus sign from math textbooks because the plus sign (yes, this: +) looks like a cross! Yet Israel depends on American Christians for tax money and tourism, so it has to mute this theme for foreign consumption.’"

I recently checked Sobran out on the internet and found his website. There he was writing with his characteristically handsome prose how “we” were all “haunted” by the Jews. What may have been discreet in the old days had now morphed into the chilling code language of traditional anti-Semitism.

We are left with Bill’s incomparable prose, his trenchant intellect, the memory of his melodious voice and  haunting, beautiful sentences,  his great loving humanity, his defense of freedom and human rights, his friendship to so many of us. And, of course his blithe spirit and insouciant sense of humor.  Bill was a very funny man. Cancel Your Own Goddamn Subscription, a collection of his correspondence with crusty readers, appeared just a month after he passed. A Charles L. Murphy wrote him in 1974:

Dear Mr. Buckley,

Unfortunately your brilliant intellect is inside your head and does nothing for your male beauty. You are, shall we say, unhandsome. This misfortune does not confer the right to appear dishevelled.

A decent respect for the opinion of mankind (of conservatism, if not B.B.) would require that you mitigate nature’s failure where reasonably possible.

Toward that end, I enclose a pocket comb. If you ply the instrument faithfully, I shall consider contributing toward a haircut. Don’t mention it!”

Buckley replied: 

“Dear Mr. Murphy: I have combed my hair. What do I do now? Cordially, WFB.”

On May 7, 2007, I received one of his last letters: 

Dear David:

I saw today for the first time your letter of January 1. I found it--unopened--with other mail that my poor wife had stashed away in one of her folders. She of course was not well, and I was still suffering from pneumonia.

Anyway, I have now read it, and wanted so much to tell you how deeply I appreciate the affectionate references to me, and how brilliant and interesting I thought your  long interview in Frontpage Magazine.

I am still not well, and as you know--for I also have here your lovely condolence note--Pat has died. But at least I have an opportunity to thank you and to express my warm respect. 

Yours  ever,

Bill.


David Evanier is the author of The Great Kisser, Red Love, The One-Star Jew, Making the Wiseguys Weep: The Jimmy Roselli Story, Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin, and other books. He is a former writer for the civil rights department of the Anti-Defamation League and a winner of the Aga Khan Fiction Prize.


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