Prof. Jeff Hart on WFB

Dartmouth English professor emeritus Jeffrey Hart wrote this essay, “Understanding William F. Buckley,” shortly after Mr. Buckley’s death. It appeared first in The Dartmouth Review, the collegiate newspaper inspired by the late intellectual’s National Review and to which your editorial staff briefly and poorly contributed. In it, Professor Hart offers a glimpse, frustrating in its brevity, of what made Mr. Buckley so indespensible a man: his intellectualism and curiosity and determination, but equally the joy and tenacity with which he experienced life.

The essay is re-printed here slightly abbreviated; the Professor’s analysis of National Review’s political stances has been sacrificed to afford his memories of summers in Gstaad with the Buckleys more room.

I did not meet Buckley until the summer of 1962, and then almost by accident. I was teaching a Columbia summer term course in the Victorian novel. One of the students in this course came into my office for a conference. She noticed on my desk a copy of The Fabric of Society by Ernest van den Haag and Ralph Ross, a brilliant and comprehensive summary of the social sciences, economics, psychology, political philosophy, sociology. The student asked me if I would like to meet Van den Haag, and when I said yes invited me to a cocktail party at her apartment in Greenwich Village.

William F. Buckley, Jr. at work.

There I found that she affectionately called him “Ernie Pooh.” He certainly did not seem Pooh-like. He seemed very European, dark, with a sharp nose and a black comb-over, smoking a thin European cigar, wearing tight European trousers, and narrow shoes made from the skin of some reptile. Anyone less Pooh-like would be hard to imagine. At the cocktail party he had a friend with him, Anatole Broyard, a man famous in the Village and later an incisive book critic for The New York Times. Friends soon told me that Van den Haag and Broyard cut a wide swath through the female population of the Village and were the opposite of discreet about their adventures. Broyard later wrote a memoir of life in the Village with the humorous title When Kafka was the Rage.

Van den Haag and I became friends and it developed that he was a talent scout for Buckley. “Would you review books for National Review?” he asked me, and I said I would be glad to. This led to some extraordinary experiences, including work as a speechwriter for Reagan and then Nixon in 1968.

Soon I received a phone call from Buckley’s secretary and agreed to meet him at the National Review office, then at 150 E. 35th Street, and go to dinner with him. I did not know at the time that this secretary Gertrude Vogt had been a passenger on the Orizaba and had seen Hart Crane jump off the stern of the ship and disappear.

When I arrived I met Buckley in his office evidently doing some last-minute things to the magazine before it went to the printer. He was bent over a table with pages of typed copy scattered over it. The tail of his J. Press shirt hung out as he worked hurriedly. His tie knot was down to his chest. Finally, he pulled himself together and we headed out to a local Chinese restaurant. He was excellent company and I had a preliminary glimpse of what many would later experience as his genius for friendship, which transcended differences of opinion. As I would discover, he was passionate about enjoying life, sailing, skiing, playing the piano harpsichord, paining, good wine and cigars.

Some astounding characters wrote from National Review, at least one of them, Willmoore Kendall, a Yale professor and genius. He was a political philosopher in the Leo Strauss tradition, and advocate of “majority rule” democracy. That meant that we governed ourselves according to the Constitution. He was suspicious of “rights,” which could de-rail majority rule.

A couch still exists at National Review, The Willmoore Kendall Memorial Couch, on which he had been caught inflagrante with one of the secretaries.

Of the major figures at National Review, I learned most from Kendall and James Burnham: constitutional theory from Kendall, policy analysis from Burnham. I also developed a friendship with Buckley that would last until his death in March 2008. Buckley had a way of drastically changing peoples’ lives, and it was fascinating to be connected with his magazine as it went on to change its leadership twice, and with that the value of the magazine itself.

Matthew Hart, the youngest of my four children, is Buckley’s godson and now lives near Lake Tahoe in California; when he heard that Buckley had died he sent me an e-mail:

I just wanted to send you my condolences about Mr. Buckley. I know you have been friends for a really long time. He was always nice to me as a kid and still wrote to me on my birthday up to my 20s. He didn’t have to, but he did. It really shows class when someone like him takes time to engage us as kids. He could have spent the time talking with adults who were around (and probably wanted more of his time) but he didn’t. For some reason he seems like the type of person who doesn’t exist anymore. I’ll always have the memories of Switzerland and skiing with the A Team and being reminded not to pass the Leader but being led off into some sort of gulch we had to hike out of in three feet of snow. Well, what can you do? We made it out after all. That’s what happens when you leave the trail I guess. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Matthew was in Gstaad only once. I went several times beginning in the 1970s – I had been a senior editor at National Review since 1969 and a few impressions of life at Gstaad provides a sense of the joi de vivre that was characteristic of Buckley’s life.

At Gstaad, the Buckley schedule ruled our social life, and his schedule was always the same. We all skied in the morning while Buckley worked in his chateau on some writing project. Then all the skiers met for lunch at one or another restaurant at the base of one of the mountains. After lunch, fortified by plenty of wine, we followed the leader to another mountain and skied there until late afternoon.

At the top of one of the mountains was a restaurant called The Sky Club, members only. One morning Buckley and I were skiing together, and he decided to have lunch at the Club. As we were putting our skiis on the rack outside Buckley indicated to me an elderly man in a one-piece blue ski outfit also putting his skis on the rack. Buckley whispered to me that he would tell me about him when we found a table.

Over lunch he said that he had stayed with this man, the Count von Something at his castle in Germany to do some research for a novel he was writing. The first night they sat down in front of the fireplace and had some drinks and there above the fireplace on the wall were life-sized oil portraits of Josef Goebbels and Herman Goering. Came the obvious question: Why were those portraits there? “Because they were my godfathers,” said the Count. Oh.

Buckley’s chateau, which he leased annually, was an enormous place located at the base of one of the mountains. It was in Rougemont, a few miles from Gstaad. You could finish a day by skiing right to its rear entrance.

On my first visit to the chateau I entered through the front door, which seemed the normal way for drive-up guests to get in. But I found myself in a large kitchen with a stone fireplace for cooking a large piece of meat on a spit. All it needed was a dwarf cook, preferably with a leather apron.

On the second floor of the chateau, up stone steps of course, was Buckley’s office where he worked in the morning, and also his studio. He painted in oils, when the creative urge moved him mountains, sailboats, unrecognizable portraits. Buckley had many talents including being the most influential journalists of his time, but painting was not one of his gifts.

I heard that once, before I had begun to go to Gstaad, David Niven had told Buckley that Marc Chagall was coming to Gstaad, that Chagall enjoyed Buckley’s spy novels and would like to stop to say hello. “Fine,” said Buckley. “I’d like to meet him.” “Wait a minute, Bill,” said Niven. “Chagall is a real artist. World famous. You wouldn’t take him to your studio, would you?” “Of course not,” Buckley replied. Niven and Chagall showed up at the chateau, Buckley took him immediately to his studio, and Chagall, gazing at Buckley’s paintings, said in French, “The poor paint.”

Another time, Ted Kennedy visited the Buckley’s in Rougemont, skiing and partying. On one occasion he asked, “Mind if I borrow one of the cars and drive into Gstaad?” “Hell no,” Pat Buckley said, “There are two bridges between here and Gstaad.”

I doubt that Kennedy considered that thigh-slapping funny.

Social life at the chateau resembled that at the Buckleys’ 73rd Street and Park Avenue duplex: interesting and civilized people, usually accomplished in one way or another; conservatives but not only conservatives: Kitty and Ken Galbraith, David Niven, Taki Theodoracopolis (a glamorous multi-millionaire, great skier, and good enough at tennis to compete at Wimbledon).

Other guests included: the latest actor to play James Bond; “Swifty” Lazar the agent; Arthur Schlesinger. Once I asked Arthur about Jack Kennedy’s off-the-charts womanizing to see how he would handle that question. Everyone knew that Kennedy’s behavior made Bill Clinton look like a monk in comparison. Of course, Arthur professed to know nothing about it.

David Niven was one of the pleasantest people you could meet, witty, debonair, civilized. One year when he was ill with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, we were instructed not to say anything funny, since if Niven tried to laugh he might choke. Since at the Buckley gatherings, wit was the coin of the realm, this inhibition tended to produce near silence: “Good skiing today.” “I hear Ali Khan is in town . . .” “Looks like snow tomorrow.”

But with the illnesses of Pat Buckley and then Bill, the good times in Gstaad had to end.  

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