I first met Bill Buckley five years ago, after responding to an advertisement he published in the News. The ad was small, buried in the leaves of the campus daily. Beneath a soaring sea-bird were written the words, “Do you like to sail?”
Buckley, a famous political figure and author, was a legendary sailor — and back then, he was looking for a first mate to accompany him aboard his sloop Patito as he sailed on Long Island Sound. Unlike the hordes of blazer-clad conservative youth who would no doubt trade significant hardship for an audience with their hero, my only real exposure to Mr. Buckley had come from watching a DVD archive of his 1969 Firing Line debate with Noam Chomsky.
Despite these evident handicaps, he invited me for an interview over lunch. I vowed to do Noam proud.
After bloody Marys and a few glasses of wine, I remember feeling somewhat surreal, like I was a guest on his long-running program. I was having a swell time, but tried not to get too comfortable — since I was convinced that as soon as he found out I opposed the imminent Iraq invasion, our pleasant repartee would dry up. Deep into the meal and no doubt emboldened by drink, I broached the subject. There ensued a lively and quite heated discussion, at the end of which he hired me to sail with him.
That first lunch was the only time we really talked politics. I had thought it important to mark my ground, to make clear that I wasn’t about to discard my convictions (youthful as they were) just to land a sailing gig. But more significant was what I learned about Bill: He didn’t let politics dictate his friendships. Though famous for his conservative thought, he not only held court with avowed liberals, but charmed them utterly, too.
We sailed weekly in the sound that summer. Sailing with Bill Buckley was unlike anything I’d seen before, or since. The entire galley storage aboard Patito was routinely commandeered with the makings of just one lavish dinner; condiments occupied the whole starboard cupboard. We relaxed and talked with his guests, ate scandalously well and, just once, ran aground (hard!) in Stamford harbor. Bill’s absolute arsenal of $10 words made him not only a famously eloquent speaker but a potent adversary at the word game ‘ghost,’ which, perhaps not coincidentally, he always had us play. His mischievous smile and unflagging joie de vivre made those trips unforgettable.
Buckley the writer was equally remarkable. He wrote, in addition to his regular syndicated column, a full-length book every year, this he generally banged out all at once during a few short weeks abroad.
In spring 2005, I accompanied Bill and his wife Pat to the Bahamas to help work on what would be his last novel, “The Rake.” Our routine was set: We worked in the morning, broke for lunch, then took our daily walk around Lyford Cay to discuss the characters, the story and life in general. Watching a book take shape a few thousand words at a time dashed my conceptions of how a novel is written (and how long it takes) and spurred me to start one myself — an endeavor which proceeded briskly in Nassau but wallowed in Connecticut. Sharing a desk in paradise with one of the sharpest and most prolific writers of our time is a creative catalyst not easily replaced.
Through days filled with music — for which I had lugged a ‘portable’ stereo to the Bahamas in an extra suitcase — and nights dining with Pat and the most captivating guests imaginable, Bill wrote swiftly and finished the book, on time of course. In a curious echo of the culinary largesse on the boat, he shipped an enormous suitcase to Nassau packed with reams and reams of heavy-bond paper and a full-size laser printer. When you wrote with Bill, the daily drafts were not just reviewed on-screen — they were printed 40 pages per minute on resume stock.
My time with Bill stands out for me as it might for anyone: a highlight and a rarity. Each day jammed full of work and play, of life lived as it should be. Bill Buckley lived like that every day. Over the years, I was privileged to join him from time to time, to ride alongside as he wrote, sailed, laughed and lived with his legendary intensity.
William F. Buckley, Jr. stood out, truly larger than life. Anyone I ever took to meet him came away enchanted. He was much to many — a legendary political figure, a beloved author, a magnanimous gentleman — and to this Yale student, ultimately, a great friend.
Michael Seringhaus is a first year student at Yale Law School. He is an occasional columnist for the News.