During the relatively short life of Spence Publishing, I was always excited to see their titles and read a few of them. They published people like Tom Hibbs, Jennifer Roback Morse, J. Budziszewski, Brad Miner, and many other notables. Many of their authors are now friends of mine.
One of their titles that I noted and didn’t get around to obtaining was Priscilla Buckley’s Living It Up with National Review. Being a nearly lifelong fan of Bill Buckley, I was prompted by my reading of Carl Bogus’s biography of him to pick up the book by Buckley’s sister. Bogus had left me unsatisfied about the internal dynamics of NR. As I think back, maybe the most satisfying in that regard is Jeffrey Hart’s The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times. I was eager to add Priscilla’s account to my collection.
Having read it, I can render a couple of verdicts. Yes, Priscilla’s narrative does add to my knowledge of Buckley’s life and the magazine’s story. No, I am not fully satisfied.
Why am I left wanting more? The answer is that this book is really two books. The larger book is a book about Priscilla’s travels and hunting trips. When her brother recruited her away from UPI to help him at National Review, she insisted that she have six weeks of vacation as she did not need the job and was leaving a position she enjoyed. He granted that condition, which was good since he forgot to pay her for several months before adding her to the payroll. It seems that the six weeks meant a great deal to her as the travels she engaged in during those stints make up the majority (or very nearly so) of the book. As a travel book, it is interesting and enjoyable, just not the beast I happened to be hunting.
On the other hand, she does devote a number of chapters to National Review and those did satisfy some curiosities. We hear about George Will, Garry Wills, Jim Manzi, Paul Gigot, and a number of the notables who spent early years working with the magazine. Priscilla also does a nice job of conveying some of the madness and difficulty of putting together a magazine on deadline, especially when characters had to be set to fit specific column widths and changes could not easily be made prior to publication. As an example, she describes a cover planned with Bobby Kennedy coiled like a cobra that had to be stopped at the last minute when he was assassinated. Likewise, there were articles critical of Kennedy that had to be excised and replaced.
Another minor complaint is that there is just not quite enough Bill in the book, despite the fact that he was the dominant figure at the publication. Then again, that may not be a complaint so much as a revelation. One suspects he traveled, spoke, and wrote so much in an attempt to meet other obligations and to keep the magazine afloat that he wasn’t there all that much. National Review, it seems, depended on more everyday staff like Priscilla to handle most of the details of publishing. The picture she paints is of a sometimes frantic operation with people like James Burnham and Jeffrey Hart coming in to the office at various points while others filed columns from afar. Reading her account makes it easy to see how much simpler this kind of work has become in the age of internet and email.
While I am very mildly critical of Ms. Buckley’s decision to use the book to tell the story of a number of her travels not much related to NR, I enjoyed the book as a whole very much and was always ready to pick it back up. Recommended for all Buckley and NR fans.