WFB's two worlds

RedBuckley.jpgConservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. once mentioned how difficult he found it to discuss his Catholic faith in the social circles in which he moved. I had trouble imagining Buckley, who was so clear about his beliefs in God and Man at Yale and in the fortnightly National Review, having difficulty ever expressing his convictions, regardless of his dinner companions. A 7,200-word feature by Bob Colacello in the January Vanity Fair helps illuminate the glamorous life that William and Patricia Buckley led from their 15-bedroom Victorian house in Stamford, Conn., and a maisonette on East 73rd Street in Manhattan. It is no surprise that the Buckleys were wealthy, and enjoyed the company of other wealthy people. Colacello, writing from his perspective as an occasional guest of the Buckleys, conveys how much wealth shaped Pat Buckley's attitude even toward minutiae such as the proper handling of bread:

Christopher's teenage daughter, Caitlin, recalled her grandmother's lessons in comportment, such as "Never ever butter your bread in midair -- only people who are deeply common do that." "When I was seven or eight," Caitlin continued, "she taught me the art of air-kissing. She said this would be essential later in life when I moved to New York."

This is hardly an environment in which a sudden reference to the Desert Fathers, or the Last Things, is likely to be received warmly.

The piece is largely a tribute to the Buckleys' love for one another, but Colacello also shows a keener awareness about religion than most other Vanity Fair contributors. He does not spend as much time on faith as on Pat Buckley's extraordinary efforts at moving the Buckley household to Gstaad, Switzerland, for two months every winter, or her talent for packing her husband's yacht with creature comforts.

I have to wonder, though, if Colacello engages religion about as often as it arose in the Buckleys' social life. When Colacello does touch on religion, the narrative hints at a sense of disconnection:

Bill, who had a private Mass said every Sunday for him, the two Hispanic maids, and any houseguests who were Catholic, was understandably upset when his son "demurred" -- Christopher's word -- from the faith. "My father had a great sense of humor, but it absolutely stopped at the threshold of the Church. And that became a source of great disappointment to him. The funny thing is, my mother got it. She and I probably, over the course of the last 20 years, spent about a third of the time not speaking, but I could go to her more than I could go to him."

Consider also Colacello's crackling lede, which compares the Buckleys so well:

His memorial service was at St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Fifth Avenue. Hers was at the Temple of Dendur, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His was a Requiem Mass, with 18 priests, banks of Easter lilies along the altar rail, and Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto for a postlude. Hers was a Celebration of the Life, with a brief benediction, a gigantic bouquet of fuchsia rhododendrons behind the lectern, and Rodgers and Hart's "Isn't It Romantic?" on the soundtrack of the opening photomontage. His was open to the public, and a capacity crowd of around 2,200 mourners -- a sprinkling of socialites and journalists engulfed by a legion of right-wing eggheads -- squeezed into the cathedral's pews. Hers was by invitation only, and socialites vastly outnumbered eggheads among the approximately 400 select, each of whom was perched on a gilded ballroom chair with a hot-pink cushion.

Henry Kissinger spoke at both.

The overall effect is both sad and amusing (Gore Vidal excoriates WFB but says he liked Pat). Colacello does not make disparaging remarks about Buckley's faith, but one of Buckley's longtime friends depicts that faith as an eccentricity:

Frederick Eberstadt, a New York friend who was a classmate at Millbrook, says, "It sounds funny, but Bill's biggest interest was kidding around. He was very Catholic, though. He had a little shrine in his room, a Madonna inside this kind of stone box. He asked me what I thought of it, and I said it was kitsch. He said, 'You don't understand.' I said, 'What don't I understand?' He said, 'It's the mother of God.' Even at that age, to his thinking, it could not be kitsch, because it was the mother of God."

Colacello quotes Christopher Buckley on writing his forthcoming memoir, Losing Mum and Pup:

"I honestly had no intention of writing about them. But I'm a writer, and when the universe hands you material like this, it would seem an act of conscious omission not to do something about it. It spilled out of me. I wrote it in 40 days -- no biblical association intended. This book is going to land hard in some quarters, although anyone who concludes that it's anything but an act of love will, I think, be wrong. It's a book about two very complex people. They were not your typical mom and dad. This is not Ozzie and Harriet. They were William F. and Pat Buckley. The phrase 'larger than life' doesn't twice cover it."

Considering Christopher Buckley's gifts as a humorist and storyteller, the book sounds like another key to understanding his father's world.

Photo: The library at the Buckleys' maisonette, which Colacello describes this way: "Drinks were taken in the library, where a full-length portrait of the hostess -- in a flame-red caftan, with her beloved Cavalier King Charles spaniels at her feet -- hung over the fireplace."

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