Friday, October 07, 2005


Peter Robinson on The National Review at 50:
Gstaad, Switzerland, the winter of 1988. In need of someone to help research and edit a book, William F. Buckley Jr. had arranged for me to take a two-month leave of absence from my job as a White House speechwriter. He and I worked in the enormous cellar of the Chateau de Rougemont, a medieval monastery that a century earlier had been converted into a vast residence, WFB at a desk at one end of the room, I at a table at the other. (Although the cellar was a bare, simple room, the rooms above proved magnificent — high-ceilinged and wood-paneled, hung with superb paintings, and graced with magnificent views of the Alps. Not that the Chateau, which the Buckleys rented each year, met the exacting standards of Mrs. Buckley even so. When Pat arrived from New York, she strode into the study, and, unaware of my presence, threw her fur onto the sofa, performed a slow turn, and said, "This heap.")

WFB's routine proved invariable. At his desk by 7.30 each morning, he would work until noon, pausing only to change LPs on the record player — classical music only — and take telephone calls. (Contesting the New Hampshire primary, both Jack Kemp and Bob Dole called for advice.) At noon WFB would break for lunch, inviting me to join him either in the dining room upstairs, where guests regularly included Taki, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Roger Moore, or in a nearby restaurant, where we would often meet James Clavell. After lunch, skiing — but never for more than 90 minutes. Once, halfway down Videmanette, WFB stopped, then waved me to his side. "Peter," he said, "in more than four decades of skiing in these mountains, I have never seen more utterly perfect conditions." For once, I supposed, he would wave the time limit. Instead, he peeled back his glove, glanced at his watch, an announced that it was time to quit skiing and get back to work.

After skiing, WFB would spend another three hours at his desk, intently writing and editing until 6:00. At that hour, a servant would appear to serve us each a kir and a cigar. (In self-defense, I soon arranged for my drink to consist of flat soda water and just enough crème de cassis to look like a kir.) Half an hour later, dinner. If dinner was served in the Chateau, then WFB, Pat, and I would greet guests for a drink in the study, process into the dining room for dinner proper, and then adjourn to the sitting room for nightcaps. When WFB decided the evening had run its course, he would seat himself at the piano to play "Good Night, Ladies," a gesture that had become so famous in Gstaad that his guests — including, one evening, Princess Benedikte of Denmark and her husband, Prince Richard of Wittgenstein — always gracefully took the hint to depart.

Often, however, we would go out, visiting the chalet of Roger Moore, perhaps, or stopping at the Palace Hotel. (At the Palace one evening, WFB seated me across from the designer Valentino, then wandered off, leaving me to attempt conversation about haute couture.) Preparing to go out, WFB and I heard Pat shout down the Chateau's circular staircase. "Bill, hurry. The Goulandrises have invited the King of Greece, and according to protocol we all have to be there before the King arrives." WFB smiled. Then, in a voice too low for Pat to overhear, he said, "You'd think poor Constantine had never been deposed."

After dinner, even dinner with the King of Greece, WFB would repair to the cellar, seat himself at his desk, and return, once again, to work. His only concession to the hour: He would no longer play classical LPs, but jazz. WFB would remain at work until at least 11.00.

WFB and work. I witnessed his wit, his glamour, and his immense talent for friendship. But what impressed me most was the ceaselessness with which he worked. In the two months I spent in Gstaad, WFB composed some 24 newspaper columns; wrote a play based on Stained Glass, one of his Blackford Oakes novels; returned to New York to tape half a dozen episodes of Firing Line; completed the book on which we were collaborating (On the Firing Line would be published the following year); and edited four issues of National Review.

"Bill," I finally said one day, "you were born wealthy and you've been famous for thirty years. Why do you keep working so hard?"

WFB looked at me, surprised. "My father taught me that I owe it to my country," he replied. "It's how I pay my debt."

That is what I think of when I think of National Review. A payment on our debt to America.