When I see Priscilla Buckley, who died over the weekend at age 90, in my mind's eye, she is roaring with laughter. That's how you would find her much of the time during her 43 years as managing editor of National Review. She so reveled in a good story or a bon mot. Her chin would tilt up, and her sunbeam grin would turn her blue eyes into little half moons of mirth. It was particularly true when brother Bill was around. The two spent a lifetime chortling over the lighter side of life. And when you were around them, the world seemed altogether brighter.
Bill Buckley was the founder, owner, editor, and guiding spirit of National Review. But Priscilla, his sister, set the daily tone at the offices on East 35th Street in Manhattan. Her rule was benevolent and irenic, thank God, because magazines of opinion are known for eccentric and prickly characters, and NR was no exception. But while writers would be late with their copy or fail to show up for meetings or squabble with their editors, everyone seemed mentally to tuck his shirt in when Priscilla was around. She was so gracious, professional and discerning that people wanted to be better in her presence. (They didn't always succeed.)
She set a standard of unassuming excellence and deeply appreciated talent in others. James Burnham, her office mate for many years, was a particular hero, but her admiration was catholic. On the other hand, Priscilla would set you straight if you needed correction.
In "Living It Up with National Review," she recounted the story of an intern, "George," a "graduate of a posh eastern prep school and a sophomore at a posh Ivy League college," who "complained indignantly that 'the typists refused to type my copy.'" Priscilla adopted a soft approach at first. "I explained, kindly, that we reserve the typists for copy that Bill had already edited, to be typed for the press to the correct line length. ... I pointed out to him that both Jim Burnham and Jeff Hart write out their work longhand and then type it up before showing it to Bill..."
"'But you don't understand,' he said. 'I don't type.'"
"'George,' I said, somewhat less kindly, 'you have eyes to see the keys with and fingers to peck with. You are now a typist.'"
National Review was not a comfortable place for the self-important, the pompous or the spoiled. Bill was rich, but National Review wasn't. The offices, invariably described as "Dickensian," were shabby. The money was notional. But, with Priscilla there, it was the apex of civilization. It was as if the Queen of England showed up at a safari. You'd still be dodging bugs and snakes and longing for a real shower, but you'd feel that you were at the center of something and that you were among the elect.
Priscilla was a brilliant editor but also a terrific prose stylist herself. Her memoir of her time as a UPI correspondent in Paris, from 1953 to 1956, "String of Pearls," is a delight, combining history, amusing stories of journalistic improvisation, and memorable sketches of the French.
Her travel writing appeared often in the pages of NR and some can be sampled in the pages of "Living It Up." Here, for example, is a description of a Greek island:
"Samos, 4,700 feet high, comes into view in the early afternoon, a grey haze, a rosy outline, a looming presence. We are close enough to pick out the spunky stone walls that march up over the hill and out of sight and crisscross the flanks of every island we pass, separating, to our untutored eyes, nothing from nothing, so rocky and barren is the terrain."
Already an experienced journalist when Bill hired her to steer NR, Priscilla was also (like Bill) a former spy for the CIA, as well as an expert golfer, hunter, and master of several languages.
We tried to meet once a year for lunch. Though age gnarled her fingers and lined her face, she remained mentally sharp until the end. I owe her so much: for her lessons in good writing when I joined NR as a 22-year-old college graduate, for her encouragement of my career, for her advice, and for her friendship. But above all, I feel grateful to have known someone so worthy of emulation. I won't hear her delighted laughter again. But, as Bill might have said, the angels are laughing now to have her in their company.