I have recently returned from Stamford, where I had been scheduled to play Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for WFB and his friends on Wednesday night. Instead, I found myself sitting down to write this tribute to my dear friend and mentor. He knew well that he was the most important person in my life after the two people who had actually given me life. I will cherish hundreds of memories of his boundless acts of generosity, which changed my life forever.
Bill and I had dinner on Tuesday, the night before he passed away. I have chosen to write about this because I’d like for his family, friends, colleagues, and readers to know that it was just like any other Buckley dinner — i.e., it started with cocktails and ended with cognac.
I arrived at Bill’s at about six in the evening in order to run through the performance I was to give the following night. Bill and I had a tradition where he would choose the next work for me to learn and perform for National Review editors and friends. Over the years, I have played at least a dozen recitals, featuring Bach’s majestic C-minor partita, the heart-wrenching E-minor partita, Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, as well as the last three Beethoven Sonatas, among other pieces.
I left my bags in the appointed room and approached the music room’s doors with trepidation, as I had heard that Bill wasn’t feeling well — but knew he might have ventured for a meal to this room he so adored. I heard his oxygen machine roaring over the sounds of the evening news on the projection television. Opening the door, I saw Bill tinkering with the remote control, a soda and a mixed drink with orange juice on the table nearby. The music room has a glorious harpsichord and a large sofa, and its walls are lined with bookcases all around, save for the large windows offering breathtaking views of Long Island Sound.
I gently placed my hand on Bill’s shoulder and he looked up. In his trademark style, he uttered “Hey buddy,” a salutation his friends know well. I replied, “Hi Bill, it’s great to be back.” He immediately asked what I’d like to drink and I chose red wine. He rang the kitchen staff to bring the wine. Dinner had officially begun. I made myself comfortable on the couch next to Bill and we chatted about some odds and ends.
My mother, Celia, and I had ventured out to Bill’s last week so that I could “premiere” the Diabelli Variations for Bill and members of his family. He loved this piece and convinced me to learn it after an initial hesitancy on my part. I mentioned to Bill what an honor it was for me to perform it for him, and he conveyed his delight and noted the impression that my “sweet” mother had made on the gathering.
The first course arrived and it was simply red caviar and crème fraîche on toasted baguette. Bill inquired, “Would you like some vodka?” I replied in the affirmative. Bill then raised his shot glass and I mine, which followed with a clink and swift consumption of the perfectly chilled vodka. I found it incredible that here we were toasting with chilled vodka while watching news footage of the New York Philharmonic’s visit to one of the last vestiges of communism.
My parents and family fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s and I was the first American-born child in my family. I wrote to Bill at the age of 18 expressing my gratitude to him for having emboldened Soviet Jews to come to this great nation, and asking for the opportunity to express my gratitude to him by playing the piano. Now, here we were, 14 years later, toasting to all good things with vodka and red caviar. It was very special and soon our glasses were refilled.
The second course arrived as the sounds of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto filled the room. This course consisted of wonderful fish, green beans, and some of the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever had. Bill reminisced about concerts he had heard in the 1930s. Specifically, he mentioned hearing this, his “favorite” concerto, performed in London in 1938. He then turned to me and asked, “Do you think the harpsichord is today facing its greatest challenge as a concert instrument?” This was classic Bill and although far from being an authority on the harpsichord — he was one — I agreed with his observation. In front of us stood one of Bill’s harpsichords, indeed one of his prized possessions.
Our conversation ranged from politics (e.g. North Korea and the primaries) to culture to mutual friends — James Panero, for one. James and I met on Bill’s boat Patito in 2001. We were 25 and are best friends to this day. I mentioned to Bill that, if not for him, James and I wouldn’t be friends — and noted that many friendships were created as a result of his largesse. He remembered our sail to Oyster Bay. I then told him that James and I had tried to live the “Buckley life” for a period time. We defined the “Buckley life” as waking at 5:00 AM and heading to sleep at 10:00 PM — Bill’s incredible regimen. I explained to Bill that, in order to make it work, James and I would call one another at 5:00 AM to make sure the other was awake. It lasted for barely two weeks. Bill roared with laughter.
Bill soon said, “We must talk about your performance. The issue of repeats in the Diabelli. What do you think?” The Diabelli Variations is an hour-long epic work and almost all of the 33 variations are repeated. Bill’s question brought a smile to my face and I said, “Bill, I’ll repeat only the best variations and it should clock in at about 40 minutes.” He then told me about the guests who would attend, asked of my preference to play before or after dinner (I always played before) and, finally, asked if I would like some cognac.
We finished up dessert, which for me consisted of a lemon tart and for Bill a plate of fresh watermelon. The lighting in the music room and throughout the house always created an effect that I can only describe as that found in Victorian-era paintings. Bill gave his two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels the chocolate chip cookie they obviously had been expecting. One played with the cookie on the floor between the two of us. Bill adored his dogs, and the newest addition — “Isn’t he a champ?” — was just five months old.
Just after eight o’clock, Bill bid us goodnight and I helped him to make his way to his room.
The Diabelli Variations were not performed on Wednesday night. But I was honored to have ever played for “Mr. Buckley,” who, on his insistence, became my friend “Bill.” His love of music was second to none — he was the most dedicated member of any musical audience, whose empathy was almost tangible as you worked your way through a performance. He was and is in the pantheon of great men, intellectual giants, and artistic geniuses.
It was all a great honor — to have had my life changed and enriched by William F. Buckley Jr., a second father, encouraging mentor, and honest friend.