William F. Buckley Jr., Generous Mentor to a Generation

It was the fall of 1994 when William F. Buckley Jr. received a letter at his office from an 18-year-old Russian immigrant from Minnesota who wanted to come play the piano for him. Lawrence Perelman had been studying to be a concert pianist, and had grown despondent upon receiving a rejection letter from the Juilliard School. But reading Buckley’s book, Happy Days Were Here Again, which contained a number of loving columns dedicated to classical music, had left Mr. Perelman invigorated, and he wanted to thank Buckley for the inspiration. Evidently delighted, Buckley wrote back, and the following April invited Mr. Perelman to come play for him at his home.

“I played three pieces: one by Bach, one by Debussy, and one by Liszt,” Mr. Perelman said yesterday evening, some 12 hours after he and the rest of the world found out that Buckley had died in his study at the age of 82 during the early hours of the morning. “In between each piece we talked a little bit. That sowed the seed for friendship and for the next three years we wrote letters back and forth.”

In 2000, Mr. Perelman began giving regular dinner party recitals at Buckley’s apartment on 73rd and Park as Buckley and his friends—some of them dignitaries and intellectuals, some on the staff of the National Review—watched and listened. “Our tradition,” Mr. Perelman said, “was that whenever I finished learning a piece and performed it, I would say, ‘Okay, Bill, what’d you want me to learn next?”

Last spring Buckley asked for Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and throughout the summer and fall, Mr. Perelman prepared for the challenge. The recital during which he was to perform them was scheduled to take place last night.

“After my parents he was the most important person in my life,” Mr. Perelman said. “For a group of us in our 20’s and 30’s, he was a mentor.”

Indeed, Mr. Perelman was just one of many young men that Buckley nurtured, cultivated and inspired over the course of his long, fun career as the elder statesman of intellectual conservatism.

When he needed a first mate to join him on his yacht for the summer of 1999, Buckley placed an advertisement in the Yale Daily News calling for applications. A senior at the college named Jamie Ewing, having made no immediate plans for after graduation, decided to give it a try.

Mr. Ewing didn’t expect anything to come of it, but before long, he was at Wallacks Point in Stamford, Conn., sharing a four-course lunch with Buckley and talking to him about sailing. Mr. Ewing got the job, and starting in June, he spent almost every weekend sailing with Buckley across the sound and along the Long Island coast in a 36-foot sloop.

Wallacks Point was where Buckley had been living since the 1950’s, enthusiastically writing and entertaining friends in his majestic house overlooking Long Island Sound. When he and Mr. Ewing went sailing, they would be joined every time by two of Buckley’s friends; on their way out, every Friday, they’d drop anchor and make dinner, and afterward play cards, smoke cigars and drink coffee spiked with cognac. Before bed they would take a swim in the sound, spend the night in the boat and in the morning have breakfast and head homeward. By 10 they’d be back in Stamford, and by 10:30 Buckley was already in his study working. The first year Mr. Ewing did this—he came back again the following summer—this routine lasted through Thanksgiving.

“I was one lucky son of a bitch to be able to participate in it,” said Mr. Ewing.

Lucky, maybe, but also no fluke, apparently, because the following winter Buckley invited Mr. Ewing to his chateau in Switzerland to be his research assistant while he wrote a novel about Elvis Presley.

The monthlong Switzerland trip was an annual thing once Buckley started writing fiction regularly, and each time, he’d come back with the better part of a book in the can. Every year, Buckley liked to bring one lucky youngster with him to help him with his research; being chosen for the trip, as it was described yesterday in interviews, was a serious honor, and it invariably opened doors for the anointed.

In 1998, the honor went to James Panero, now the managing editor of the New Criterion, who was recruited for the job as a junior editor at the National Review.

According to Mr. Panero, there was a firm routine to the days spent at the resort, with Buckley getting up at 5:30 or 6 every morning, and either starting right away on the novel or first hammering out his nationally syndicated column, which he filed on Tuesdays and Fridays.

“He set a goal for himself of writing 2,000 words a day on the book, thinking that within 30 days he would have a completed novel,” said Mr. Panero, who said he usually clocked in around 8 and helped Buckley by pulling books and looking up information until around noon. Then the two of them would go to lunch in town and discuss what had been written in the morning.

“He didn’t have any idea where the book was going until he wrote it,” Mr. Panero said. “He’d finish a chapter and say, ‘Should I kill this character off?’ ‘Should we put a gun in the camera?’ So we’d kind of discuss what should happen to the plot in the next chapter.”

After lunch they’d go skiing, sometimes in the company of a famous author or dignitary that Buckley was friends with.

“We’d ski down this very long sort of curvaceous European run and 30 minutes into it, about a quarter of a mile from the bottom of the run, there was a premonitory from which you could see the chateau,” said Mr. Ewing, “He’d always stop at that precise point and wait for whoever his skiing guest was that day, point to the chateau, wink, and say, ‘And where are you staying?’”

Upon returning home, Buckley and his assistant would work for another two or three hours, often editing whatever he’d written in the morning, before going out for dinner with friends like Roger Moore and the Princess of Denmark. Nights would end with cocktails or The Sopranos, depending on what year it was.

According to current National Review editor Rich Lowry, Buckley could always tell a puppy with big paws, and he was not stingy with his attention when he spotted someone with potential.

“Somehow on top of everything he did he was able to scout these people out and find them,” said Mr. Lowry. Among them, Mr. Lowry said, was Paul Gigot, George Will and Richard Brookhiser, whose writing Buckley published in the National Review while he was still in high school. Also David Brooks, he added, who raised Buckley’s famous eyebrows and got himself a job offer while still in college by writing a satirical piece about him in the University of Chicago student paper.

“It was a remarkable thing to be noticed by someone like him,” Mr. Panero said. “And he did the same thing for dozens and dozens of people over the years.”

William F. Buckley Jr., Generous Mentor to a Generation