The Buckley portrait . . . you know I had never met or spoken to him but he was causing a great stir in NY at the time, National Review, then running for mayor. A reporter asked what he’d do first if he got elected. He said, “Demand a recount!”
And me being me, in my mid-twenties, I wrote him a letter. I had decided I wanted to paint portraits of interesting people I admired, he answered and we went from there. When I went to meet him the first time I was heavily pregnant. The first sitting included holding Trevor, who was in a bassinet behind me, to keep him from crying. To which Buckley said, ‘That’s got to be a first.’
Buckley himself was actually totally charming, sort of swooningly charming, a lovely man. The terror that was mine was more along the lines of Oh my God what have I gotten myself into here and can I possibly pull it off and not disappoint. It’s one thing to chat about working miracles when you’re still a novice, and another to do it.
I was living on the second floor-through of a cold water flat on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn; Black Panthers in the store front one floor below. There was no heat but hot water. The newly widowed landlady (youngish, Greek, head to toe black clothing) would come by for rents, never filled the boiler, I kept the stove going and literally ran the shower for steam heat. Hot water, on a separate system. Trevor was about six months old. I was waitressing. I had two dogs and maybe thirty cats. And a rooster, living in the one closet with a chicken wire door I’d made. Don’t ask.
There was a big kitchen with a room in the corner I’d built for the cats, and a smaller bedroom for more cats, and Trevor in a crib in the kitchen and my mattress on the floor and easel and paint set up in the front room which had the best light. Holy shit. I did the whole portrait there, then moved.
I wish I’d gotten more feedback at the delivery stage, the end, than I did. It apparently went to Buckley’s home in Connecticut but I have no idea if it’s still around or how he really felt about the outcome.
William F. Buckley, Jr 1925 – 2008
Oil on linen, Life-size
[B/W photo of original painting]
Artist’s Catalog Description
I painted a portrait of William F. Buckley, Jr. from sittings, many years ago. The man was a phenomenal wit and intellect, used the English language exquisitely, and was a thoroughly charming and towering human being.
I was in my twenties and had the cheek to write him and ask if I might paint his portrait. I said we were both questing for the truth.
His famous & phenomenal secretary, Frances Bronson, wrote back and said WFB asked three questions needing answers:
1. Might he read during sittings
2. May he bring his cocker spaniel
3. How much will it cost . . . IF he likes it
We worked out the particulars and he came to my studio in Greenwich Village, New York for sittings.
He was very famous, doing radio, tv and publishing his magazine The National Review. Buckley was a beacon of conservative thought causing trouble, uproar, and having an enormous amount of fun. The author of over fifty books. He ran for mayor of New York once, and (expecting the outcome in advance) when asked what he’d do first if elected, said, he’d “demand a recount!”
He debated everyone with equal intensity and mischief, and had a fabulous time with sailing around the world, writing essays and books filled with his astute observations of American politics. When he turned 50, he decided to learn the harpsichord and ended up giving public performances. At the same half century mark he started writing fiction novels – spy stories reflecting some early work of his own.
He was reviled and adored in equal measure, not a bad outcome for a life fully lived. Meeting him and painting his portrait has always been one of the highlights of my life. Totally gracious, charming, eloquent, brilliant man. I miss him already.
Regrettably, this is the only photo I have of the finished portrait, and it’s black & white.
Addendum: There are so many tributes now appearing about William F. Buckley’s life and wit, and this is typical, and so good, a comment made by Ronald Reagan in 1985: “Once when Bill was asked what job he wanted in the Administration of his friend the President, he replied in his typically retiring and deferential way: ‘Ventriloquist’.”