He does, however, elaborate on some aspects of his parents’ relationship: There were, he notes, three people in the marriage. “I was the person in the middle,” says Buckley. “We clashed often. I was sort of tapped as a go-between marriage counselor. [Pup would say,] ‘You won’t believe what your mother’s done now.’ That’s not really fair, but I’m not complaining, exactly,” he adds.
As she emerges in his book, Pat, with her over-the-top wit, could be hilarious as well as exasperating—thanks to her often imperious manner. Her “serial misbehavior,” as Buckley calls it, also included a tenuous relationship with the truth, something he first noticed at about age six, when she announced in front of guests that “the king and queen always stayed with us,” referring to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Colorful as these whoppers could be, Buckley is loath to call them lies. “Prevarications,” he says wryly.
But as Pat grew older, a meanness crept into some of her tall tales. In his memoir, Buckley recalls the night a few years ago when his daughter went to visit her grandmother at her Stamford estate, bringing along her best friend, Kate Kennedy. At the dinner table, Pat claimed (untruthfully) to have been an alternate juror at the murder trial of Kate’s father’s first cousin Michael Skakel, and launched into a lecture on his villainy. Buckley wasn’t speaking to his mother at the time, and when told about it, he was too upset even to write her one of his frequent “scolding—occasionally scalding—letters,” as he describes them. “I think it was [her] insecurity factor—a way of overcompensating,” he says of her behavior. Although her father, who had timber and oil interests, was one of the richest men in Canada, “she was a woman with some fundamental insecurities,” Buckley says. Brought up in “the backwoods of British Columbia,” as Pat used to say (though her family’s house occupied a city block in Vancouver), she attended Vassar but dropped out at the end of her sophomore year—for reasons never fully explained, according to Buckley. The following summer, she married Bill, who had just graduated from Yale. Her habitual fibbing, surmises her son, may have come from her feelings of inferiority, which were no doubt exacerbated by living in the shadow of a man of formidable intelligence. Yet Pat possessed “a very fine mind,” states Buckley. “She [could do] the entire Sunday Times crossword puzzle, which I can’t do.”
In later years, Pat’s drinking became increasingly problematic. The subject comes up in his memoir and in our interview, but Buckley stops short of calling her an alcoholic. “I’m not going to use that word into your tape recorder, having carefully avoided it over the course of 250 pages,” he says. When asked for comment, several close friends of Mrs. Buckley were also reluctant to call her an alcoholic. “But when she drank, she did become more aggressive, more belligerent,” says one. Kenneth Jay Lane, a frequent Stamford houseguest, disputes that. “Pat liked her wine, but she could hold her liquor,” he says. Buckley brightens considerably when he brings up Pat’s better qualities. “I don’t think there was a wittier woman on this earth, or wittier person,” he says. “She had a delicious grasp of the ridiculous.”