Jack Kennedy once said that the reason people read a biography is to answer one question: What was he like?
What was the late William F. Buckley Jr. really like? And what of his wife, Pat, that formidable New York socialite? What could a son make of her? And what were those two, Bill and Pat, like together? What on earth was it like growing up in the middle of all that?
Novelist Christopher Buckley spends every page of Losing Mum and Pup spelling out the lively answers. He told one reporter it’s the best thing he’s ever written. And if he left some things out as he takes us through his parents’ last months, it’s like one of those plays by Harold Pinter. What he doesn’t say says a lot.
Certainly, it’s the best material any author could want. “Is it name-dropping,” Buckley asks, “when they’re your own parents?”
Certainly, it’s the best material any author could want. “Is it name-dropping,” he asks, “when they’re your own parents?”
And what of the world these three shared? The Park Avenue social whirl, Christmas sailing in the Caribbean, then off to Gstaad and drinks with David Niven?
If Losing Mum and Pup reads as debonair as the settings, there’s toughness as well.
Here’s a Bill Buckley you never met on Firing Line.
“Why don’t we agree that the next call you get from me will be when she’s dead.” He’s telling Chris that he, a man as in love with his wife any man could be, simply cannot bring himself to see his dying, comatose wife one more time.
Or this snappy little note from the father on his son’s most recent novel, which had elsewhere been extremely well received. “This one didn’t work for me. Sorry.”
Pretty tough. Then again, if you know fathers of that generation, not at all surprising. The Greatest Generation was tight with its trophies.
And what a life the old man shared with his boy. “My father had always had the notion of sailing across the Atlantic, and this we did in 1975. We set off from Miami on June 1. A month and 4,400 miles later, we dropped anchor in the shadow of Gibraltar.”
Buckley writes about “Mum,” who died first and not by that many months before “Pup,” with more exuberance. She had come dashing into Bill Buckley’s heart as a Vassar roommate of his sister’s. Despite all the spats and all the years, she never left it.
What a glow she left in these pages. “I’ve got the best legs in the business.” What other son can claim to have heard his mother drop that baby?
Among those hundreds of photos, he writes, there wasn’t one bad one. “She made love to every camera that came her way.”
Now try putting all this together.
“I don’t think I once heard Mum utter a religious or spiritual sentiment.”
Yet here is the portrait he paints of the great American Catholic’s wife visiting the Vatican. “She wore more black lace than a Goya duchess; the effect is that of the Magdalene, as dressed by Bill Blass.”
“Generally, she was defiant—almost magnificently so—when her demons slipped their leash.”
And yet, what a sport she could be when she, Patricia Buckley, decided to be.
“My mother deserves a word of appreciation here. She was the dutiful yachtsman’s wife. Lord, how she worked at it. In earlier times, the term for this occupation was 'galley slave.' She had been raised as a debutante, a beautiful, delicate orchid from Vancouver, Canada. Now she found herself cooking for eight men and scrubbing the toilet aboard a small boat with no hot water. She would mutter darkly, ‘I was made for better things.’”
Was Chris Buckley made for better things? No way. What presides over his pages is an appreciation of this duet being played around him. He sees his parents as characters in a novel he’s required to live as well as write. There’s a lot of Evelyn Waugh here, and not just because his father is a Roman Catholic whose world—and wife—is decidedly “Anglican.” Chris writes about his father, especially, as if observing an august figure, indeed, someone quite lordly.
I’m actually quite taken with it all. I read the late Tim Russert’s book about his working-class dad with the same curiosity. Being quite in the middle by the measure, I wondered even more what it was like to be raised as Chris Buckley was.
I got the picture in both cases: the distance, but also the common ground.
Here’s Buckley describing the moments after he had his mother’s oxygen removed.
“Danny [his life-long friend] found me sitting by the emergency front door, weeping into my opened laptop as I emailed out the obituary to the first wave of recipients. We drove home through empty Stamford streets. We tried to wake Pup, but by now he had taken enough sleeping pills to narcotize a rhino, so I left a note by his bed that said, ‘Mum’s suffering is over,’ drank two stiff Bloody Marys with Danny, and went to bed in the room I grew up in, listening to the rain against the windows and watching the branches of the tall pine tree I used to climb sway wildly in the wind.”
Here, just moments before, had been his soft goodbye.
“I stroked her forehead for a while as she used to mine, and spoke a few words to her, which, strangely, I cannot remember. Words of goodbye, I suppose they were. I tried to close her eyes. In the movies, they close. In real life, they don’ t. This is why in the old days they would put coins over the lids.”
As you read Buckley’s story of the year in which he lost both parents, there’s a “life goes on” quality to it all. He seems to be saying in numerous ways that, given it all—the spats, the toughness—the palpable love between his parents won in the end.
And, yes, there is the matter of God. I hope never to forget a story Bill Buckley once wrote about prayer. He told of the man standing alone in a church. There before the altar, with not another soul for an audience, he juggled a good number of balls in the air. It was just the one thing he could do and do well. He wanted to do it for God.
Laborare est orare. To work is to pray. You do what you can do in this world. What son Chris finds most wondrous about his dad here is his amazing lifetime productivity—the syndicated column he wrote for all those decades and never stopped writing, the 50-plus books, including the personal volumes on Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan that he worked on to the end.
It’s what you do with what you've got that counts. Read Mum and Pup and you’ll realize it would have been a mortal sin to have not written this book.
My wife and I recently toured the tombs and temples of the Pharaohs along the Upper Nile. What impressed me most was the belief and the beauty on the walls of the tombs. I came to anticipate the themes: The pharaoh paying tribute to the gods, the idealized portraits of the royal men and women, the desperate clinging for immortality.
Yet there’s something missing. Nowhere on the walls of the tombs is there a glimmer of an answer to Jack Kennedy’s question: So what was he like?
Because he can write, because he cared and was perhaps driven to it, Christopher Buckley has given us—and the ages—something of his parents. Read his book and you sense truly that you know them. You know that memory that stays with you long after you place the book up onto the shelf? The voice of the loved one you can still hear when you listen to recall it? That unmistakable perfume of life that lingers in the room?
Thanks to Chris, it’s all here.
See Christopher Buckley in conversation with Tina Brown at the 92nd Street Y on Thursday, May 7 at 8 p.m.
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Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’S Hardball and The Chris Matthews Show, has written five bestsellers, including Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America.