I could get some work done, or I could reminisce. I met Frank Meyer only once, in 1970. I was moonlighting on the copy desk of the Boston Globe, and someone at the Globe’s magazine allowed that they would consider an article, maybe-perhaps, if I wanted to write one, on National Review’s fifteenth anniversary party. There may have been a mild frisson of horror in whichever editor I talked to. The Globe was as devoted to left illusions in 1970 as the Washington Post is today, with as much sense of humor about its faith.
I didn’t mind going down to New York at my own expense. The girl I’d had a hopeless crush on at The Times as a 20-year-old was married and gone (to Paris, of course). The Tavern on the Green was the venue. William F. Buckley Jr., the NR founding editor, a religious conservative, was going to play Bach on the piano. I supposed I could survive both God and Bach for an evening.
I didn’t have much of a theme for an article. National Review turns 15 and . . . what? I knew nothing of the conservative movement, except that it might have descended in some manner from Edmund Burke (whom I hadn’t read) and maybe Chesterton (whom I hadn’t read) and Russell Kirk (whom I’d barely read); it disliked Ayn Rand (whom I had read), and it claimed social authority in some fashion from religion (which I disliked).But as I talked to a few people that evening and the next day, the theme of traditionalism vs. libertarianism in the movement emerged. Bill Rusher, the magazine’s publisher, recommended that I speak with Frank Meyer, who sought a fusion between those ideological strands. Meyer invited me up to his home in Woodstock that evening. He was with his wife a friendly host, a spare, cheerfully intense man with dark-circled eyes and inexplicable tolerance for a twenty-two-year-old who barely knew a starting question to ask. I should say here that whatever I wrote didn’t make it into the Globe, but the taped interview with Meyer was published a few years later in a conservative magazine, New Guard.
Among the things I didn’t know was that National Review had provided an intellectual home to ex-communists. There had been Whittaker Chambers, of course. But also Max Eastman (who sent John Reed to Russia and faced jail in WWI for counseling draft resistance). Eastman, a National Review senior editor, had died the year before. Senior editor James Burnham had been a Trotskyite. And there was Frank Meyer. He loaded me down with books, which I was too shy to ask him to sign: The Molding of Communists (about which he knew first hand), and In Defense of Freedom, which was his side of a disputation with Russell Kirk about authority vs. liberty in conservative thought.
If only I’d known the right question to ask, what an interview I could have had. I didn’t think much about this for many years. Eventually I read Michael Straight’s memoir After Long Silence. It’s a fascinating tale: a wealthy American whose mother floated The New Republic (and Martha Graham), who could seek guidance from Jock Whitney and Felix Frankfurter, whose Cambridge mentor was Lord Keynes, whose grumpy upstairs neighbor was Housman, who would have tea with Franklin and Eleanor at the White House. But, Straight recounts, he was a Soviet spy, recruited at Cambridge by Anthony Blunt. The memoir has a tone of candor, which some find suspect: was Straight’s spying for a Russian controller in his New Deal days really so minor and short-lived as he describes? That’s a topic for another time. The unexpected gem in his memoir, for me, was his portrait of a young, fierce, Communist firebrand studying at the London School of Economics in the early 1930s, intense, hollow-eyed, compelling, such a troublemaker that the British finally booted him out of the country: Frank Meyer. Meyer’s background wasn’t a secret, except to green reporters like me. How I wish I’d known enough to ask him that evening to reminisce about himself in those days.
October 21 2016