Living It Up with National Review: A Memoir
American conservatism's family stories
By Steven Martinovich
Whether you love the National Review or hate it -- and you can find either judgment on both sides of the political divide -- it is hard to argue its tremendous impact on American conservatism. Part of that success was timing; despite the existence of other conservative magazines, there was clearly a need for a new magazine that could galvanize the nascent modern conservative movement.
More important, however, was the amazing collection of talent that William F. Buckley managed to put together. Serving as an incubator of sorts, many of the leading lights of American conservatism have at one time or another put time in at the magazine. One of them was Priscilla Buckley, former United Press reporter, sister of the founder and an editor with the National Review for 43 years. Her recollections of those years form the basis of her charming Living It Up with National Review: A Memoir.
Living It Up with National Review is not an exhaustive history of the magazine; rather it is a series of stories chronicling daily life at the National Review interspersed by tales of Buckley's frequent travels to exotic parts of the world. In lesser hands this would have resulted in an unfocused effort but true to the Buckley family legacy, Living it up with National Review is an example of excellent writing. With minimal effort she ties together a travelogue and personal history into a compelling story.
As Buckley relates, in 1955 brother Bill made an offer that could have been easy to refuse. Come back from Paris, where she was employed by the United Press, to work on a new and impoverished conservative magazine. Since the National Review couldn't afford to pay her fair market value for her services, Priscilla asked for and received six weeks of vacation time each year so she could indulge her love of travel. Thus began a 43 year association with the magazine, nearly three decades of which were as managing editor.
Life at the National Review during those early years must have been a daily adventure, not merely because of the magazine's lack of money. Talented new writers and personalities, inspired by the expanding conservative movement, eventually made their way to the magazine. Buckley found herself surrounded by people like Joan Didion, George Will, David Brooks, Joe Sobran and Brent Bozell, among many others, throughout the years. Though disagreements could be fierce -- and friendships occasionally ended -- the magazine was an ever growing family.
Buckley's other loves were traveling and sports, both of which filled up weekends and her six weeks of vacation time. There were few places on Earth that she wasn't willing to go and Living It Up is filled with stories including a trip to the Soviet Union, a visit to the Angkor ruins, boating in France and England and countless hunting trips. Buckley's talent at travel writing is such that had she not landed at the National Review, she more than likely would have gained renown as one of the best in that field.
While Living It Up is a fine effort, it does have two flaws, though neither is fatal. Buckley is a fine story teller but unfortunately she does not delve deeply in the history of the National Review. It is impossible to compress five decades of the storied institution into a handful of moments and Living It Up suffers because of that fact. Her stories also rely somewhat on a reader's presumed familiarity with those who have worked at the magazine and the Buckley family itself.
Those, however, are minor quibbles. Buckley's remembrances -- those both happy and sad -- are touching and entertaining enough that even those with a limited knowledge of the magazine and the wider culture it inspired will find Living It Up an enjoyable effort. It was once that one had to be a member of the National Review family to be privy to these stories, typically told over drinks during magazine's Wednesday evening "meetings", but thanks to Priscilla Buckley new generations of conservatives can celebrate some of the more remarkable people attached to the conservative movement.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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