I have been a reader of National Review since I was a sophomore in high school. Like so many conservatives it seems, I wasn’t really consciously conservative but rather conservative by tendency and up bringing. I somehow stumbled upon NR in the school library and my interest in politics was born (I started reading The New Republic at the same time).
Since then my interest in all things NR, particularly all things related to its founding father William F. Buckley, has grown. In fact, in high school I was called a Buckleyite by a teacher and I think he meant that in a derogatory way. In graduate school my thesis focused, in part, on James Burnham a long time editor at NR. I own every single book William F. Buckley has written and have read most of them (I haven’t read every collection of his columns). I even have books by his siblings, his son, and a privately published memoir of his father.
Suffice it to say that when a book comes out by or about a Buckley or National Review I will read it. The occasion this time is Living It Up At National Review by Priscilla L. Buckley. Priscilla is WFB’s older sister, but a great deal more than mere nepotism brought her to National Review. Prior to agreeing to help her struggling brother keep a fledgling magazine afloat she was a reporter with United Press in both New York and Paris. Career wise a move to NR was a sacrifice for a cause. Once she made her choice, however, she was obviously in it for the long hall. She worked at an editor at NR for 43 years, 27 as managing editor. Living It Up covers that time period.
The one twist of the memoir results from the one requirement Buckley insisted on when taking a pay cut. She would have six weeks off each year to indulge in the wild trips and adventures she loved to take. So interspersed with the story of her time at NR are chapters on the sporting and hunting adventures she cajoled friends and family to take with her.
Living It Up is a lighthearted look back on almost fifty years of work at one of the most influential magazines of the twentieth century. It is also a collection of personal essays from a talented writer who clearly enjoys life and all it has to offer. It is at turns tender, witty, and urbane. It isn’t detailed history, but it is a quick and enjoyable read.
Your appreciation of this book will depend on a few things. 1) Your interest in NR and the Buckley family, 2) The level of detail you expect.
Those without an interest in NR or the Buckley family might not find the memories and stories that are related here quite as interesting. Those who have a fascination with, and a personal connection to, this magazine of opinion journalism view these stories – with their inside information and quirky anecdotes – as getting the dish on extended family members.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the anecdotes Buckley relates and the personalities she describes is the organized chaos of the whole thing. In many ways her brother was the glue that held the magazine together. He was able to set the tone and keep the diverse group of writers and thinkers on board (for the most part anyway). But clearly these intellectuals and journalists needed a lot of help. The staff of the magazine joined with the readers to form a sort of extended family. Without the largely anonymous people behind the scenes, and the dedication of the readers, the magazine wouldn’t have survived. By relating the quirky people and circumstances behind the staff, and the relationships that developed, Buckely gives us an inside look at office life at the magazine.
Alternating with the sections on NR are chapters that relate the adventures Buckley engaged during her six weeks off. They include trips to Angkor Wat, big game hunting in Africa, taking the rapids in the Grand Canyon, and pheasant hunting in South Carolina, among others. Buckley relates these adventures with a lighthearted tone and a dry wit. Her love of adventure and good hearted nature come through clearly. Interestingly enough, Buckley is as comfortable in hunting gear as she is in formal wear.
As an avid golfer she perfectly captures the maddening and exciting nature of that sport:
Golf is a till-death–do-us-part situation: a blessing and a curse, both of biblical proportions: it humbleth the proud, and bringeth the mighty low, but does not, necessarily, raise up the humble. Golf is aggravating, entrancing, humiliating, uplifting, amusing, baffling, depressing, exhilarating, frustrating, debilitating, joyous. It is the kind of game where you are always picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again, and again, and again. It can sunder friendships, it has sundered marriages. It is expensive, and time consuming, but as any golfer will tell you, there is nothing quite like the exhilaration of a well-struck drive, of a crisp six-iron to the green, or of that impossible putt that careens thirty feet on a slick and treacherous green to drop into the cup. There is nothing to beat stepping up to the first tee in a friendly but competitive foursome. Golf is one of the few sports where players with widely disparate talents can enjoy playing together because handicaps do indeed level the playing field. Golf is fun.
If there is one drawback to this book, and this relates to point #2 above, it is that it’s tantalizingly short on details. It gives you a taste of life at National Review without a great deal of detail or insight into the inner workings. Perhaps, Buckley’s work at United Press taught her brevity to the detriment of details. Perhaps, she wasn’t interested in dishing the dirt on her former colleagues and friends. Whatever the reason, Living It Up is really only a glimpse of the history or NR. I am looking forward to the forthcoming work by Jeff Hart for a more detailed history of the magazine.
Nevertheless, Living It Up is an interesting look inside one of the most influential journals of opinion in post WWII America through the eyes of one of its editors. It is also a collection of lighthearted travel stories. Both sections reveal the urbane and good natured personality of the author. Clearly she played a critical role in the amgazine’s success. For fans of National Review this is quick and enjoyable look back at history in celebration of the magazine’s fiftieth anniversary. Here is to fifty more.