Famed journalist and writer William F. Buckley, Jr. founded the conservative magazine National Review and hosted the long-running talk show Firing Line and was called by Ronald Reagan “perhaps the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era.” Buckley was also a master of the elusive memorial, the eulogy. For the first time, WFB’s sweeping judgments of the great figures of his time—presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and scoundrels, intellectuals and guitar gods—are collected in one place, in the newly released volume A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century. Here, we’ve reprinted four eulogies that Buckley wrote memorializing some of the biggest authors of the 20th century—Truman Capote, Ayn Rand, Vladimir Nabokov and William Shawn. Not all of the eulogies are flattering, but they do convey what an incredible difference these writers made on literature and our culture as a whole.
On the evening of November 28, 1966, Pat and Bill Buckley were among the elite New Yorkers who bounded up the steps of the Plaza Hotel to attend the masked Black and White Ball thrown, with unprecedented fanfare, by Truman Capote. Tuxedo-clad, hands in pockets, WFB sported an outsized robber’s mask; Pat dazzled, as ever, in a Catwoman-like getup. Heralded as the party of the century, the Black and White Ball brought together Frank Sinatra and Andy Warhol, Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Candice Bergen, McGeorge Bundy and Norman Mailer, and cemented Capote’s status as a central figure of artistic and intellectual life in the mid-1960s. He had just published In Cold Blood, his “nonfiction novel,” previously serialized in The New Yorker, about the gruesome 1959 slayings of a Kansas family. A bestseller made into a movie, In Cold Blood helped usher in the “New Journalism,” in which writers such as Capote and Mailer, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe dazzlingly applied the techniques of fiction to nonfiction subjects. To many, WFB’s books—particularly the more personal works, such as The Unmaking of a Mayor (1966), Cruising Speed (1971), United Nations Journal (1974), and the sailing volumes—made Buckley one of the most prolific and commercially successful New Journalists. That literary affinity and the mutual habitat of Manhattan’s Upper East Side accounted for the unlikely friendship between Capote and the Buckleys—until 1976, when the latter performed, in the pages of Esquire, the spectacular act of social hara-kiri WFB records below. Unusually, WFB wrote two eulogies for Capote: the first, for the syndicated column, the second, published in National Review, shorter—and more unforgiving. “What are the politics of Truman Capote?” Buckley had asked in Esquire in 1967. “In the liberal-conservative sense, there were no discernible politics, except insofar as the social Zeitgeist says that liberals are more beautiful than conservatives.”
“Truman Capote, RIP”
Syndicated column, September 1–2, 1984.
The only time I was ever at a movie set was in 1976 when I went to the designated studio to pick up David Niven for lunch. But the scene being shot was not yet finished, and so I found myself waiting, at the camera end of the dining room set in which Lionel Twain was so foully murdered in Neil Simon’s Murder by Death. Three times, before the shot was over, Truman Capote, playing Twain, came into the room, leaned forward over the table, stumbled, was caught by a dozen hands in one of which was a bare bodkin plunged into Truman Capote’s back. Question: In whose hands was the dagger that killed him?
At lunch David Niven commented that at that particular moment, everyone was suspect. Everyone seemed to have a motive to kill poor Truman Capote: “It’s like Murder on the Orient Express.” The background was Esquire magazine’s publication, a month or two before, of “Unspoiled Monsters,” the first part of Capote’s “novel,” Answered Prayers. That work finished Truman Capote’s social life as decisively as a hangman’s trapdoor. It collected brilliantly and with relish related every ugly fact and rumor about New York’s glitterati that Truman Capote, in years of knowing and mixing with them, had assembled.
He seemed astonished, at first, that old friends hung up the telephone when he called, and that others took trouble to avoid him. And so he took refuge in booze and pills, pills and booze. And then one day, on television, in a high pitch of wrath, he lashed out by name at Lee Radziwill and a few others. Then there was word he was submitting to treatment. And then there was word he was not submitting to treatment. And then there was word that he had died.
It was a most awful fall from the dizzy heights he had achieved in 1966, when all the world contended to receive an invitation to his famous Black & White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel. Some men left for Europe rather than risk the suspicion that they had not been invited. One woman hired a huge public relations firm, first to bring pressure on Capote to invite her, second, in the event that it failed, to elaborate ennobling reasons why she had not been invited.
Oh, those were the days for Truman Capote, fresh from the literary victory of In Cold Blood, which incorporated nothing less than the discovery of a new art form, he told the world, basking in self-contentment, some of it earned by his formidable talent, that included an ear wonderfully acute for detail, irony and speech. His big new novel would secure him in the pantheon of American literature, he confidently predicted. But for many years he had begun to lean progressively on his social life rather than his professional life to sustain him, so that when the former collapsed, his remaining crutch became booze. And there was, really, not time enough, or clearheadedness enough, to resume serious production.
One day he called and asked to be introduced to Gov. Ronald Reagan, because Capote was doing an hour’s documentary on capital punishment and needed access to the Death House in California. An unlikely, yet enduring, friendship was struck up between the Reagans and Capote. It had its own theatrical life when Capote ran afoul of a contempt citation and was sentenced to several days in jail, from which only a pardon by Governor Reagan could save him: It was all handled with dignity.
“He’s quite a guy, and very interesting,” Reagan once said. “But you know, when you first meet him, it is kind of a shock.” The reference was to the exaggeratedly effeminate voice. A few weeks before they met, Reagan’s office was scandalized by the discovery of Reagan’s top aide in a homosexual spa off in the mountains. After Capote left the governor’s office, Reagan was seen to lean out of the door and bellow out, “Troll that feller in and out of the hall here a couple of times, let’s see if there are any left.” Capote would probably have put that line into his next book.
The doctors have not told us what Truman Capote died from, but it was not old age. “Forsooth,” the Rabelaisian character says to his reproachful physician, “I do believe I know more old drunkards than I do old doctors.” But not this time around. And so, once again (in our day, in our country: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Cozzens) the reading world lost a half-dozen breakfasts at Tiffany that sat, ungestated, in the mind of a brilliant and essentially likable man, sat there smothered by booze, the consumption of which proved terminal. The same imbalance that created “Unspoiled Monsters” acquiesced in that fateful, sad exchange.
National Review, September 21, 1984.
In Cold Blood, a nonfiction “novel” about two murderers, was probably Truman Capote’s best book. Here he was able to apply his literary talents to the presentation of material derived from the external world, which excused him from having to imagine it. He did not have a powerful novelistic imagination, and in this, at least, he resembled Norman Mailer, whose In Cold Blood was The Executioner’s Song , Mailer’s best book.
Capote emerged at 23 with Other Voices, Other Rooms , emerged as a writer and as a personality. The photograph on the dust-jacket, depicting a tiny androgynous dandy, reclining, with a blond doe’s stare, established the identity. His prose style, which some admired and for which he himself claimed a great deal, reinforced that idea. It was offbeat in its focus on odd details, consistently alienated, and “fragrant”—music for chameleons indeed.
In his later years he had calamitous drug and alcohol problems, not so unusual for writers, and it is useless to try to diagnose his state of mind. Perhaps he had stretched his minor talent as far as it could go; perhaps, in his social life, he was, in Barbara Gordon’s phrase, dancing as fast as he could. He died last week in Los Angeles, at the age of 59.
As if his life weren’t charmed enough, Buckley counted among his fans and regular lunch companions Vladimir Nabokov. Born in Russia and educated at Cambridge, Nabokov vaulted to greatness with Lolita (1957), a satirical novel about the erotic relationship between a twelve-year-old nymphet—a term Nabokov created—and a middle-aged professor. A resident of the United States for two decades before settling down for the last eighteen years of his life in Switzerland, Nabokov was an ardent reader of National Review and carried on a lengthy correspondence with Buckley. When WFB sent Nabokov an Ezra Pound anthology edited by WFB’s dear friend Hugh Kenner, Nabokov replied: “Though I detest Pound and the costume jewelry of his verse, I must say Kenner’s approach is very interesting.” “The National Review has always been a joy to read,” Nabokov wrote WFB on March 26, 1973, from Montreux, “and your articles in the Herald Tribune counteract wonderfully the evil and trash of its general politics.” Spurred by the vastness of the talent he was seeking to capture in portraiture, WFB’s eulogy for Nabokov is one of Buckley’s most literary: Note the seamless shifting back and forth of point of view (“Isn’t that right, Vera?”) and the allusive depiction of Vera Nabokov as a brooding, authoritative presence in her husband’s life and mind.
National Review, July 22, 1977.
[brackets and ellipses in original]
The cover of this magazine had gone to press when word came in that Vladimir Nabokov was dead. I am sorry—not for the impiety; sorry that VN will not see the cover, or read the verse, which he’d have enjoyed. He’d have seen this issue days ahead of most Americans, because he received National Review by airmail, and had done so for several years. And when we would meet, which was every year, for lunch or dinner, he never failed to express pleasure with the magazine. In February, when I last saw him, he came down in the elevator, big, hunched, with his cane, carefully observed by Vera, white-haired, with the ivory skin and delicate features and beautiful face. VN was carrying a book, which he tendered me with some embarrassment—because it was inscribed. In one of his books, a collection of interviews and random fare, given over not insubstantially to the celebration of his favorite crotchets, he had said that one of the things he never did was inscribe books. Last year, called back unexpectedly to New York, I missed our annual reunion. Since then I had sent him my two most recent books, and about these he now expressed hospitable enthusiasm as we sat down at his table in the corner of the elegant dining room of the most adamantly unchanged hotel in Europe: I cannot imagine, for all its recent architectural modernization, that the Montreux-Palace was any different before the Russian revolution.
He had been very ill, he said, and was saved by the dogged intervention of his son, Dmitri, who at the hospital ordered ministrations the poor doctors had not thought of—isn’t that right, Vera? Almost right—Vera is a stickler for precision. But he was writing again, back to the old schedule. What was that schedule? (I knew, but knew he liked to tell it.) Up in the morning about six, read the papers and a few journals, then cook breakfast for Vera in the warren of little rooms where they had lived for 17 years. After that he would begin writing, and would write all morning long, usually standing, on the cards he had specially cut to a size that suited him (he wrote on both sides, and collated them finally into books). Then a light lunch, then a walk, then a nap, and, in nimbler days, a little butterfly-chasing or tennis, then back to his writing until dinner time. Seven hours of writing, and he would produce 175 words. [What words!] Then dinner, and book-reading, perhaps a game of Scrabble in Russian. A very dull life, he said chortling with pleasure, and then asking questions about America, deploring the infelicitous Russian prose of Solzhenitsyn, assuring me that I was wrong in saying he had attended the inaugural meeting of the Congress for Cultural Freedom—he had never attended any organizational meeting of anything—isn’t that right, Vera? This time she nods her head and tells him to get on with the business of ordering from the menu. He describes with a fluent synoptic virtuosity the literary scene, the political scene, inflation, bad French, cupiditous publishers, the exciting breakthrough in his son’s operatic career, and what am I working on now?
A novel, and you’re in it.
What was that?
You and Vera are in it. You have a daughter, and she becomes a Communist agent.
He is more amused by this than Vera, but not all that amused. Of course I’ll send it to you, I beam. He laughs— much of the time he is laughing. How long will it take you to drive to the airport in Geneva?
My taxi told me it takes “un petit heure.”
Une petite heure [he is the professor]: that means fifty minutes. We shall have to eat quickly. He reminisces about his declination of my bid to go on Firing Line. It would have taken me two weeks of preparation, he says almost proudly, reminding me of his well-known rule against improvising. Every word he ever spoke before an audience had been written out and memorized, he assured me—isn’t that right, Vera? Well no, he would answer questions in class extemporaneously. Well obviously! He laughed. He could hardly program his students to ask questions to which he had the answers prepared! I demur: His extemporaneous style is fine, just fine; ah, he says, but before an audience, or before one of those . . . television . . . cameras, he would freeze. He ordered a brandy, and in a few minutes we rose, and he and Vera and I walked ever so slowly to the doors. “As long as Western civilization survives,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in the Times last Tuesday, “his reputation is safe. Indeed, he will probably emerge as one of the greatest artists our century has produced.” I said goodbye warmly, embracing Vera, taking his hand, knowing that probably I would never see again—never mind the artist—this wonderful human being. —WFB
In Ayn Rand, the novelist, screenwriter, philosopher, and cult object, Buckley found a vexing foe. Initially, it seems, he imagined that the author of novels such as The Fountainhead (1943), a best-seller that brimmed with antistatist fervor, might find common cause with the young publisher of National Review, but Rand’s opening line to WFB at their first meeting, in 1954—“You are too intelligent to believe in God”—ruled out any alliance. “Religion is the first enemy of the Objectivist,” WFB later noted. As with Bircherism, Buckley regarded Rand’s concept of “objectivism,” which exalted self-interest above fidelity to God and country, as a toxin to conservatism, urgently in need of expunging. To the task, no one at the time was better suited than Whittaker Chambers, whose review of Rand’s latest best-seller in the December 28, 1957, issue of NR, lamenting the “dictatorial tone” of her writing, carried the greatest put-down in the annals of literary criticism: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’” In his 1963 essay “Notes toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism,” WFB reveled in how Chambers had managed to “read Miss Rand right out of conservatism.” “Her philosophy,” WFB wrote, “is in fact another kind of materialism—not the dialectic materialism of Marx, but the materialism of technocracy, of the relentless self-server, who lives for himself and for absolutely no one else. . . . Her exclusion from the conservative community was . . . the result of her desiccated philosophy’s conclusive incompatibility with the conservative’s emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral.”
“Ayn Rand, R.I.P.”
Syndicated column, March 11, 1982; published in National Review, April 2, 1982.
Ayn Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was, in fact, stillborn. The great public crisis in Ayn Rand’s career came, in my judgment, when Whittaker Chambers took her on—in December of 1957, when her book Atlas Shrugged was dominating the best-seller list, lecturers were beginning to teach something called Randism, and students started using such terms as “mysticism of the mind” (religion), and “mysticism of the muscle” (statism). Whittaker Chambers, whose authority with American conservatives was as high as that of any man then living, wrote in National Review, after a lengthy analysis of the essential aridity of Miss Rand’s philosophy, “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”
I had met Miss Rand three years before that review was published. Her very first words to me (I do not exaggerate) were: “You ahrr too intelligent to believe in Gott.” The critic Wilfrid Sheed once remarked, when I told him the story, “Well, that certainly is an icebreaker.” It was; and we conversed, and did so for two or three years. I used to send her postcards in liturgical Latin; but levity with Miss Rand was not an effective weapon. And when I published Whittaker Chambers’s review, her resentment was so comprehensive that she regularly inquired of all hosts or toastmasters whether she was being invited to a function at which I was also scheduled to appear, because if that was the case, either she would not come; or, if so, only after I had left; or before I arrived. I fear that I put the lady through a great deal of choreographical pain.
Miss Rand’s most memorable personal claim (if you don’t count the one about her being the next greatest philosopher after Aristotle) was that since formulating her philosophy of “objectivism,” she had never experienced any emotion for which she could not fully account. And then one day, a dozen years ago, she was at a small dinner, the host of which was Henry Hazlitt, the libertarian economist, the other guest being Ludwig von Mises, the grand master of the Austrian school of antistatist economics. Miss Rand was going on about something or other, at which point Mises told her to be quiet, that she was being very foolish. The lady who could account for all her emotions at that point burst out into tears, and complained: “You are treating me like a poor ignorant little Jewish girl!” Mr. Hazlitt, attempting to bring serenity to his table, leaned over and said, “There there, Ayn, that isn’t at all what Ludwig was suggesting.” But this attempt at conciliation was ruined when Mises jumped up and said: “That iss eggsactly what you ahrr!” Since both participants were Jewish, this was not a racist slur. This story was mortal to her reputation as the lady of total self-control.
There were other unpleasantnesses of professional interest, such as her alienation from her principal apostle, Nathaniel Brandon [sic; Branden]—who was so ungallant as to suggest, in retaliation against her charge that he was trying to swindle her, that the breakup was the result of his rejection of an, er, amatory advance by Miss Rand. Oh goodness, it got ugly.
There were a few who, like Chambers, caught on early. Atlas Shrugged was published back before the law of the Obligatory Sex Scene was passed by both houses of Congress and all fifty state legislatures, so that the volume was considered rather risqué, in its day. Russell Kirk, challenged to account for Miss Rand’s success if indeed she was merely an exiguous philosophic figure, replied, “Oh, they read her books for the fornicating bits.” Unkind. And only partly true. The Fountainhead, read in a certain way, is a profound assertion of the integrity of art. What did Miss Rand in was her anxiety to theologize her beliefs. She was an eloquent and persuasive antistatist, and if only she had left it at that—but no, she had to declare that God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest is good and noble. She risked, in fact, giving to capitalism that bad name that its enemies have done so well in giving it; and that is a pity. Miss Rand was a talented woman, devoted to her ideals. She came as a refugee from Communism to this country as a young woman, and carved out a substantial career. May she rest in peace, and may she experience the demystification of her mind possessed.
In today’s media environment, in which the most prestigious outlets struggle to lure clicks from cat videos, younger readers probably cannot grasp how vaunted, how powerful, was the editor in chief of The New Yorker, William Shawn. The New York Times called the mild-mannered, bald-headed Shawn a “gentle despot” of the magazine, where, across a thirty-five-year reign, he edited and catapulted to fame countless literary giants, from J. D. Salinger to Truman Capote to Hannah Arendt. It was three years into the Shawn era when National Review debuted, and as editor of his own fledgling magazine, Buckley revered The New Yorker and understood the special place its editor held in American letters. In the great literary contretemps of 1965, when Tom Wolfe published “TINY MUMMIES! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” in the New York Herald-Tribune—a savage, often hilarious attack on Shawn as a craven and tyrannical creature, so constrained by antiquated proprieties as to have become mummified—WFB, who also admired Wolfe, remained neutral; only cursorily did he treat the affair in The Unmaking of a Mayor (1966), noting Shawn’s refusal to speak to Wolfe as one strategy for dealing with “the tendentious journalist.” In later years, Buckley lamented the arrival of profanity at The New Yorker; Tina Brown, he said, had “let little time go by before pushing to one side the taboos observed by the august William Shawn.” As Shawn had published Buckley’s work so often, WFB wanted this eulogy to be special. It appears here as it did in National Review, uniquely crafted as a letter to WFB’s successor and illustrated by a handwritten note from Shawn, quoted herein.
“William Shawn, RIP”
National Review, January 18, 1993.
You asked me to do an obit on William Shawn, and I replied that I could not write a formal piece about him because of the odd intimacy of my experiences with him. I speak of a man on whom I laid eyes twice in my life. The day the newspapers carried the news of his death a letter from him arrived at the office. It was handwritten and had been mailed the day before he died. I quote it in full:
Dear Mr. Buckley:
Thank you for sending me copies of WindFall and In Search of Anti-Semitism. Since you are the author of both books, I am confident that I will not be disappointed. I have not yet read Anti-Semitism, but I’ve read enough of WindFall to see that I can read the rest with confidence. The Buckley style, thank goodness, is Intact, and the humor is undiminished. I’ll go on reading. Meanwhile, I send you warmest regards,
Obviously, he was “Mr. Shawn” to me, as he was Mr. Shawn even to authors older than I, who had much closer experiences with him than I. But from the beginning he was in his own way so very courteous to me that I took extravagant pains never to suggest that I was urging on him a familiarity he might have found uncomfortable. With almost anyone else with whom I have fairly extensive personal dealings, as you know, I’d have got around pretty early on, never mind how I addressed him/her, to signing off as “Bill.” Never with Mr. Shawn. Always, “Wm. F. Buckley, Jr.” I can’t help believing that he knew what I was up to, and liked it.
I don’t recall what it was that prompted me to send my manuscript, Cruising Speed, to him in 1970. The chances against The New Yorker’s running an intensely personal journal of a single week in the life of a youngish (I was 45) right-wing journalist were overwhelming. We all remember the usual things, the day Kennedy was killed, V-J Day; I remember the afternoon I reached Camden, South Carolina, to visit with my mother. Frances Bronson had left word to call her at the office. I did, of course, and she told me breathlessly that Mr. Shawn had called her up and told her that he very definitely wished to publish “Mr. Buckley’s” book, which, he told her, was “beautifully written and witty” and that he would himself be editing the excerpts run by The New Yorker. No other professional experience in my lifetime has so buoyant a place in my memory
He had assigned himself, I gather from reading about him and talking with a few New Yorker professionals, the job of personally editing one book manuscript every year, I think it was, and whether he selected me because, by lot, my manuscript came up at the time his turn had come to serve, or whether, for whatever reason, he selected mine as the book he wished to edit I don’t know. But the experience was unique, a word he would frown upon unless it was used with great precision.
I use it with great precision. Others have written about it, but it is ever so hard to believe, even having lived through the experience, that the part of your book Mr. Shawn has elected to reproduce arrives one day in galley form. A single column, two inches wide, running down the middle of a long sheet of paper, clipped to the next galley. The appearance is identical to cutting out a column from The New York Times and pasting it on a long sheet of paper eight inches wide. There was no apparent reason at all for the extraordinary extravagance of the procedure: Why did it not come to you typewritten and double-spaced, cheaper to execute (these were the days of Linotype, when any alteration meant replacing an entire line of metal type), and easier to edit? One did not ask.
In the roomy spaces to the right and to the left appeared Mr. Shawn’s handwritten “queries.” He wondered whether this was the correct spelling of a name, whether, on reflection, one wished to say exactly this, worded exactly so, about that phenomenon, or that statement, by that man or woman. He questioned the use of a comma there, of a paragraph marking somewhere else. The author confronted also the queries of the “fact checker.” No “fact” was ever taken for granted, if it could be independently verified. I remember that in one passage in my book I made a reference to the speech given by Tom Clark, with whom I was debating before the annual conference of the Chamber of Commerce. I had written that Clark’s opening speech was “a half-hour” long. On the side, a tiny note from the fact-checker. “Listened to tape. He spoke for 22 minutes.”
But this was the first of three drafts of the 30,000 words The New Yorker published in two installments. The second and the third drafts were completely reset at the printer, assimilating edited alterations; and they arrived with fresh queries, and suggestions. But the great moment came when Frances told me that Mr. Shawn had called her to ask if I would lunch with him at the Plaza Oak Room. He liked to talk to your secretary, much preferred doing this to talking to you; or in any event, that was so in my own case. For every conversation I had with him over the telephone, Frances had a half-dozen. I acknowledge that this probably says something about Mr. Shawn, but conceivably says something about the relative advantages of talking to Frances Bronson instead of to me.
I went to the Plaza, of course, and we sat behind a small screen. I don’t remember what he ate, but do remember that the waiter knew what to bring him, and I think I read somewhere that he pretty much always ate the same thing. He was genial only in the sense that his courtesy was absolute. There was only the barest amount of small talk. He wished to talk about the book he was editing, and to ask me a question or two concerning this point or the other. In particular I remember his telling me, in the most mild-mannered tones, that on reading the proofs I had returned—in most cases I had stuck by the punctuation I had originally used, rejecting the proffered alternatives—he had concluded that I was given to rather . . . eccentric uses of the comma. He said this by way of imparting information. It was not a reproach, or, rather, not exactly a reproach: but I could feel the tug of his great prestige, and so told him I would go back and look again at my footloose commas. The lunch ended fairly quickly and most agreeably, and a week or two later he called me, as he did four or five times before the manuscript finally appeared in print, to tell me, “Mr. Buckley, I really do not think that you know the correct use of the comma.” I can’t remember what it was that I replied, but do recall that I resolved not to fight à outrance over the remaining commas in the essay.
It is not everywhere known that, under Mr. Shawn, the author was given the final say as to what parts of his book would run, subject to the limitations of the space designated for that book. On some points Mr. Shawn would not give way—animadversions, for instance, which he thought for whatever reason unfair or unjustified. “Mr. Buckley, I do wish you would eliminate that paragraph about Mr. [Jones]. You see, we do not run a letters page, and it isn’t quite fair to leave him without an opportunity to defend himself. . . .” I don’t know how other authors handled him, but in almost every case, I yielded. His style was to cause the author to acquiesce in the change, rather than to dictate the change. With me this worked, though I remember a few cases in which, through an intermediary editor, I pleaded my case, and in all but one of these, Mr. Shawn yielded.
Two years later, I sent him the first of my sailing books, Airborne, once again thinking the possibility remote that he would himself read it, let alone publish it. But he did, passing along, through Frances, some nice words about my prose. A year or two later I wrote him to say that I had completed a book about the United Nations, but doubted he would wish to read it because United Nations life was intolerably boring. He replied instantly by mail asking to see it and one week later wrote to say he wished to publish my United Nations book. I made the dreadful mistake of declining, finally, to release it to The New Yorker because of its ruling that no book published in the magazine could appear in the trade press until six months had gone by. My publisher didn’t want to let six months go by, and so I hurried out with it, only to discover that not more than 16 people in the entire world are willing to read any book about the United Nations. I was pleased to hear from Mr. Shawn that I had written the only book about the United Nations that was both “literate and readable.” I appreciated the compliment even though it was not hard to make, inasmuch as at the time there were no books about the United Nations, literate or illiterate, except an odd Brazilian memoir and a kind of coffee-table book by Conor Cruise O’Brien, designed to promote some artist.
A year or two later I wrote him to say that I had cruised again across the Atlantic, and did not suppose that he would wish to consider yet another book on yet another Transatlantic sail. Oh but he would; and he proceeded to publish Atlantic High. Five years later I told him that only out of courtesy was I mentioning to him my manuscript, Racing Through Paradise, as it was inconceivable that The New Yorker would wish a third book by me with an ocean cruise as background. Inside of one week he advised me he wished to publish it. The last book of mine that he published was Overdrive, a sequel of sorts to Cruising Speed, in that it too was the journal of one week in my life. It was greeted as a most provocative, outrageous book, and was bitterly criticized by many reviewers. I winced at one reviewer, who wrote that perhaps Mr. Shawn’s imminent departure from The New Yorker had something to do with the manifest deterioration of his literary judgment, as witness his publication of Overdrive. When a few months later I wrote the introduction to the soft-cover edition of the book, a long (glorious!) essay examining the criticisms of the book, I sent him a copy. He called me to say, in gentle accents but without running any risk of my misunderstanding him on the subject, that the critics of my book had had other things in mind than the quality of the book, which he was pleased to have sponsored.
I mentioned that he liked to speak to Frances. When a New Yorker check arrived for Overdrive, she called me in San Francisco to report jubilantly that the check was for $40,000. But later in the afternoon she called and said with some dismay that Mr. Shawn had telephoned her. “What he said was, ‘Oh, Miss Bronson, our bookkeepers have made a most embarrassing mistake on the check for Mr. Buckley, and I would be grateful if you would simply mail it back to us, and we will mail the correct check tomorrow.’” That could only mean, we both reasoned, that I had been overpaid. The following day a check arrived for $55,000. Mr. Shawn had his own way of twinkling at the world he treated so formally.
An interesting postscript. When he had retired from The New Yorker, as you know, there were great protests from his adamantly loyal staff. About nine months later I said to myself: Should I write and invite him to lunch with me? I’d never have done any such thing while he was still the editor of his magazine, with powers of life and death you. Such an overture might have been thought a venture in self-ingratiation. So I put it very carefully in my little note to him, saying merely that it would give me great pleasure to lunch with him but I recognized that he didn’t go out very much and that when he did he almost certainly had on his mind a professional objective. He called Frances a day or so later and said he would be most pleased to lunch, and a week or so later we met at the Carlyle, and talked together animatedly. He had read that week’s issue of National Review. I can’t believe that he (a hardy political liberal) read NR as a matter of habit, but could easily persuade myself that he had made it a point to read the current issue in order to prepare for our lunch. (He read, by the way, with the speed of light. Everything that appeared in The New Yorker he had himself read, some of it two and, as with my books, three or even four times.) The hour went quickly and pleasantly and there was a total absence of ambient pressure, I thought.
The difficult decision came one year later. What went through my mind was this, that if I did not invite him one more time to lunch, he might think that the first invitation was done out of a sense of duty to a retired editor who had acted generously to me, and that now that he was so far away from the scene, I had no further interest in him. I decided to invite him again to lunch. He replied to Frances that he would like very much to have lunch, and suggested that perhaps some time in the fall would be good. That was in 1991. In the fall, he called Frances, to say that he still looked forward to our lunch but would rather not set a date for it right away, would this be agreeable? I wrote back that of course that would be agreeable; any time would do. I did not hear again from him until the letter I received the day he died.
He was a mythogenic character, a man totally taken by his muse and by his determination to hold to the standards he respected. I hope someone, perhaps one of his talented sons, will one day produce if not exactly a “life” of William Shawn, a book about his priorities, his literary manners, his immense effect on our culture, and his enormous impact on his devoted admirers. —Bill
Truman Capote: courtesy of Modern Library
Vladimir Nabokov: courtesy of Knopf
Ayn Rand: courtesy of Penguin Random House
William Shawn: courtesy of Australian Financial Review
WFB: courtesy of Crown Forum