Though his mother was a veritable pillar of the International Best-Dressed List, Buckley admits he didn’t always appreciate her celebrated style. One of his first inklings that Mum was not like the others came at about age 14, when he was attending a Benedictine monastery boarding school in Rhode Island. News from the outside world seeped in courtesy of the switchboard operator, a fat, gossipy woman whose reading material included the “Suzy Says” society column, as he recalls in his book: “‘Your mutha went to a big party last night for Walter Cronkite!’ she would yell out at me into the crowded room where we checked our mailboxes. ‘She wore an Eves Saint Lawrent dress! Musta cost a fortune!’”
Retelling the story over lunch, a wistful smile comes to Buckley’s face. “I can still hear it—I wanted to die,” he says.
Buckley pens a similarly mixed portrait of his father. WFB, as he was widely referred to, comes through as a great man who didn’t always have time for his son. Ten minutes into Christopher’s Yale graduation ceremony, Buckley Senior grew bored and took the other family members to lunch, leaving Christopher to wander the campus in search of them. As Buckley’s own career and stature as a writer grew, his father was sometimes stinting in his approval. “This one didn’t work for me. Sorry,” he wrote in the postscript of an e-mail to his son, referring to Buckley’s new novel, which was receiving rave reviews. Recently, however, going through the numerous e-mails he’d received from his father, Buckley found compliments on his pieces in The New Yorker and other publications. “I may have been a little hard on [my father]—but not by much,” he says.
Yet Buckley speaks lovingly of many aspects of his relationship with his father. They bonded on long sailing trips, including voyages across two oceans. He cast his first vote at age eight—in 1960, for Richard Nixon—on WFB’s lap.
Since his parents’ deaths, Buckley’s life has hardly been drama-free. After he endorsed Barack Obama last October in a post for the Daily Beast, the right wing launched a veritable fatwa against Buckley, a heretofore loyal Republican who once worked as a speechwriter for then Vice President George Bush, while the National Review, the conservative magazine his father founded in 1955, hastily accepted his gentlemanly resignation—to his surprise. “I am very mindful of the NR being Pup’s proudest creation,” he says. “I feel really bad this happened.”
More-salacious items have appeared in gossip columns, on the matter of a lawsuit brought by a former Random House publicist, Irina Woelfle, with whom he fathered a son, Jonathan, now eight years old. Woelfle is seeking an increase in the $3,000-a-month child support currently being paid by Buckley, who remains married to his wife, Lucy, with whom he has two children, Caitlin, 21, and Conor, 17. After his father died, it was revealed in the Hartford Courant that WFB had left the child out of his will: “I intentionally make no provision herein for said Jonathan, who for all purposes…shall be deemed to have predeceased me.” Buckley declines to discuss the will, stating that “[Jonathan] is provided for,” and says that he is constrained from speaking about Woelfle’s suit. “It’s a legal matter,” he says. “But I am working very hard to resolve it. I look forward to the time when I can talk about it.”