Editor-in-chief Kenny Wooton on finding common ground with the late William F. Buckley, Jr.
Writers are a troublesome breed. As an editor, I’ve learned to expect hassles when a writer files a story, no matter how clear the assignment nor how skilled the author. Most, especially those paid by the word, tend to exceed prescribed story lengths, then resist when asked to cut. Others supply what amounts to raw material with the expectation a competent editor will shape their distended prose into compelling narrative—and then they resist. The process is usually resolved by email or on the phone. Engaging face-to-face can get “bloody,” as I discovered some years back.
One cool, damp Friday afternoon in summer 2002, I found myself in the unusual position of having to extract the blessing of a celebrated writer to chop his story. A few months earlier, I’d taken a call from a woman who identified herself as assistant to William F. Buckley, Jr.—writer, magazine editor, storied television host and icon of the modern conservative movement. She explained that Buckley was planning a charter in Croatia on a crewed sailing yacht with friends and wanted to know if the magazine I edited at the time, Yachting, would be interested in publishing a story about the trip. He’d written for us before, and readers always appreciated his voice. Without hesitation, I said yes.
In the weeks that followed, Buckley and I had several digital exchanges about his trip. He told me they wouldn’t have a professional photographer aboard. I encouraged him to have everyone with eyes and fingers fire away with their point-and-shoot cameras in hopes we’d be able to backfill what we needed. I also explained to him that we seldom ran feature stories longer than 1,500 words, but that I’d be happy to stretch that, within reason.
Buckley was a prolific writer, having authored dozens of books, including three widely read tomes about sailing: “Airborne,” “Atlantic High” and “Racing Through Paradise.” He founded National Review in 1955 and wrote what The New York Times estimated were some 5,600 twice-weekly syndicated newspaper columns. He often chronicled his trips afloat for boating magazines.
When the manuscript arrived soon after his return, my jaw bounced off the desk. It was a thundering 7,000 words. It was all great prose, but meandering and yards longer than anything we could possibly publish. I’d never edited his work, but I quickly learned two things about Buckley the writer: He was a man of many, many words; and, concise, Hemingwayesque, grenade-packed sentences clearly were not his forte.
I paced a bit, called his assistant and explained the situation. I asked her to see if he’d mind trimming the piece, or at least let our staff do it. She called back a short while later and said Buckley would like me to join him at his home for lunch that Friday. The potential for bloodletting—mine—was written all over this one, but how could I turn down such an offer? Lunch and a little wordsmithing debate with a master promised to be a unique experience.
At the time, my office was in Greenwich, Connecticut. Buckley and his wife, Pat, lived on a small shorefront estate on Long Island Sound in nearby Stamford. The day of the lunch dawned drizzly, breezy and cool. I drove the short distance and pulled up beside the barn-like garage behind the house. I hadn’t noticed to my left, inside the open garage doors, a man sitting at a table piled high with books and papers. As I got out of the car, the somewhat withered but unambiguous shape of my lunch date emerged into the drizzle.
He walked up to me dressed in a polo shirt, cable-knit sweater, rumpled khakis and Top-Siders with white socks. He shook my hand and introduced himself in a voice no one alive the previous four decades could confuse.
“Well, it’s an awful day,” he said with a note of defeat. “I was supposed to go sailing this afternoon, but it looks like that’s off. Would you care for a Bloody Mary?”
No stranger to a lunchtime libation when the right situation presented itself, I readily accepted.
I followed him into the house. It was a dark, cluttered, rambling space with heavy red curtains. The walls were hung with what surely weren’t prints, and the tabletops were crowded with photos of Buckley and the likes of politicians, diplomats and celebrities. Scattered about were small cups with loose cigarettes, which, it turned out, were there for Pat to pluck from when the urge took hold. Buckley led me to a small sunroom with sweeping views of the sound, then went to make the drinks.
As much apprehension as I had about cutting his story, I was perhaps more concerned he might bring up politics. Buckley, both a yachtsman and a cultural force majeure, had never suited my taste off the water. His public take on the world, while informed and formidable, conflicted sharply with my ’60s-influenced, left-of-center politics. Like many on my side of the ravine, I considered him a bit hard on the ears. But I wasn’t there to debate economics, foreign policy or the social issues of the day. I was there to help a writer and fellow sailor present his story in the best possible light—and fit it into the space I’d allotted in the magazine. In my decades-long pursuit of the sailing arts, I’d come to realize that politics generally are left at the dock when the lines are cast off—at least until the anchor goes down and the cocktails come out.
A few minutes later, Buckley returned with the Bloody Marys and we got down to business. The task at hand that day was simple: me asking Buckley whether he minded me trimming his story or whether he preferred to take it on. Leaving the story at its original length would have consumed about 15 pages in the magazine. Most writers would have launched an impassioned defense of their brilliant words and lobbied to leave the story as is. I girded myself for what was sure to be a cage match with a master of the art of debate. We had our first sips of the vodka and ice spiked with a splash of tomato juice and a dash of Tabasco, and I let fly the question.
“I have no problem with you doing it,” he replied.
That was that. Like the second Ali-Liston fight, it was over almost before the fans were in their seats. No bloodshed. No acrimony.
I was relieved, but a bit disappointed he hadn’t come out swinging. I would have enjoyed a little casual combat. Instead, we commenced chatting about his trip and flipping through the pile of fuzzy, poorly composed snapshots he and his friends had taken in Croatia. We examined a chart that detailed the boat’s movements. It was all very collegial and pleasant.
Eventually, Pat arrived in the doorway and Buckley introduced us. A former model and one of New York’s premier socialites and philanthropists, by then in her 70s, she was an imposing figure: tall, thin and strikingly beautiful. It’s a well-known story that Buckley and Pat addressed each other as “Ducky,” which they did freely in my presence. While odd, I found that endearing—the soft side of a hard man.
“He hasn’t made you one of those awful Bloody Marys, has he?” she asked with palpable disdain. “I’m sorry,” she said, and announced lunch would be ready shortly. The moment she left, Buckley asked me if I’d care for a refill, which I readily accepted.
Lunch was casual, but elegant. The Buckleys were gracious hosts. He conversed with the help in Spanish. My memory was blurred by the alcohol, but I recall the menu was salad, baked fish, rice and vegetables. A bottle of tart Italian white appeared, and then another. Buckley kept our glasses full as he salted me with questions about sailing and the yacht magazine business. I was touched that he seemed genuinely interested in my small corner of the publishing world, and pleased that another of his sailing tales would post in a magazine that had seen so many great writers in its pages. When the time came, he walked me to my car (I may have been teetering a bit) and we said our goodbyes. I never saw him again.
In the end, we published about 3,300 choice words—twice what I’d assigned, but less than half what Buckley had written. Predictably, we got letters, most reverential. He was a star journalist among sailors and certainly in league with the great yachting writers of yore.
I found my way back to my office and then home for a nap, a bit fuzzy about what I’d just experienced, but fully aware I’d likely never experience another editing session like that. And so it’s been.