Cleverness and cruelty; Christopher Buckley's parents were brilliant and glittering--but often drunken and distant
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 May 2009)

As a comic novelist, Christopher Buckley must always have known that eventually he would write about his parents-- William F. Buckley Jr., the prince of American conservative thinkers, and Patricia Taylor Buckley, originally from Vancouver, whose cleverness and chic beauty made her a famous New York hostess. It was a story too good not to tell. As he writes in the newly published Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir, passing up high-quality material like that would amount to waste or evasion.

Buckley, now 56, an only child, lost both parents within a year -- his mother at age 80 in April, 2007, his father at 82 in February, 2008. The events around their deaths, from final illnesses to Henry Kissinger eulogies at both memorial services, provide the book's structure; the past appears in flashbacks.

That plague year, a trauma for the author, was relieved by elements of dark humour. He establishes a rather jaunty tone with an epigraph quoting Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

Losing Mum and Pup proves once again that every family contains scandals that only an insider can reveal. Christopher loved and admired his father but considered him a neglectful and ungenerous parent, capable of responding to his son's latest book with "This one didn't work for me. Sorry." Pup, Christopher's pet name for his dad, was a control freak, happy only when he could be captain.

He was monumentally annoying, the autocrat of the TV set, deploying the remote control like a Taser. He was also irresponsible, whether blithely ignoring red lights or gaily sailing his yacht into storms that terrified everyone else aboard, most notably his wife.

In his last days, he overdosed himself with uppers (mainly Ritalin), counteracting them with downers (Stilnox), producing dementia -- a fresh ailment added to diabetes, emphysema and heart disease. He also developed a habit of uninhibited urination in more or less public places. He thought seriously about suicide, but felt his Catholic convictions wouldn't allow it.

The Buckleys, surely one of the most articulate families on the planet, often cut off communication from one another. Their son testifies that Bill and Pat were on non-speaking terms for about a third of their marriage. Christopher and Bill didn't communicate for a year.

Christopher calls Mum "beautiful, theatrical, bright as a diamond, the wittiest woman I have ever known," but at times they also cut each other off. Toward the end, she left letters from him unopened, knowing they would contain complaints about her conduct. After her death, he opened one and read his words: "Dear Mum: That really was an appalling scene at dinner last night ..."

Too much wine turned her nasty, and she liked to put his friends in their place, if necessary inventing statistics to prove they didn't know anything about whatever it was they claimed to understand. On one occasion, Christopher's daughter, Caitlin, brought to dinner her best friend, Kate Kennedy, granddaughter of Robert and Ethel. Mum wheeled on Kate, claimed falsely to have been an alternate juror in the murder trial of Ethel's nephew, Michael Skakel, and agreed with the real jury's verdict of guilty.

That lie was typical. At about age six, Christopher realized that Mum had a habit of prevarication. "Her fluent mendacity, combined with adamantine confidence, made her truly indomitable." People didn't disagree, even if they could get a word in. She liked to say, "I'm just a simple country girl from the woods of British Columbia." If that were true, Kissinger said in his eulogy, he would hate to meet a complicated country girl from the woods of British Columbia.

Christopher Buckley has been praised for his frankness in conveying the emotional truth of his experience, but he's also often evasive. There's much talk about his children, little about his wife -- and there's no mention of Jonathan, the nine-year-old he fathered with Irina Woelfle, who was his publicist. He pays $3,000 a month in support, but has chosen to have no contact with this child. William F. Buckley left handsome bequests from his estate of $30-million to Christopher and Christopher's two legitimate children, but specifically excluded Jonathan (according to a recent Los Angeles Times story).

Can it be that all three Buckleys remained silent on this subject? It seems impossible that it didn't merit worried discussion, especially as death approached. Perhaps Losing Mum and Pup also demonstrates that there's no such thing as an entirely honest family memoir.

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