James Burnham, philosopher and senior editor of National Review for many years, once nudged Bill Buckley, confiding, "Bill, you and I think we are putting out a magazine, but what we actually have is Miss Buckley's finishing school for young ladies and gentlemen of conservative persuasion."
This aside was provoked by Burnham's having overheard Priscilla Buckley shepherding one of the dozens of young editorial assistants who were lucky enough (I was one) to land in the rarefied offices of 150 East 35th Street during her long reign as managing editor. For those who could not be there in the flesh, Miss Buckley has now produced a vivid and enchanting memoir, "Living It Up at National Review," that will take readers very much inside the temple.
Any magazine of opinion is bound to attract more than its share of eccentrics, misfits and geniuses, and Buckley offers pungent and amusing descriptions of some of those who graced NR's masthead. These are, by and large, gentle sketches, but still highly entertaining. Buckley combines a sharp eye and quick wit with an overarching benevolence. So we learn whose desk was the messiest (Joe Sobran once missed a phone call because after eight rings, he still could not locate the phone "under mounds of paper, six-packs, radios, lives of Dr. Johnson, suitcases, magazines, empty envelopes, and important lost manuscripts that formed a five-foot-high ziggurat on his desk") and whose the most painstakingly orderly (Bill Rusher's). We learn how the "Willmoore Kendall memorial couch" got its name (not fit for a family newspaper) and how the editors tormented Bill Buckley by producing a "dummy" edition of the magazine, bursting with every grammatical, social and literary error he particularly loathed, and mailing it off to Switzerland where Bill was writing his annual book.
Best of all, readers get the incomparable pleasure of Priscilla Buckley's company as she reminisces about her energetic life outside 35th Street. This 5 foot 2 inch, graceful, refined anchor of NR partook of a quite breathtaking extracurricular life: She played championship-level golf, ballooned, went on Safari (and not armed with a camera), rafted down the most dangerous part of the Colorado River, and visited some of the remotest spots on the globe. Her gifts for description -- and for living -- make this a wonderful read.