"I remember serving him and watching his neck as I sat the plate down."
June 20, 2015 1:53 PM   Subscribe

Mr. and Mrs. B. As a young man, writer Alexander Chee served as a waiter in the house of the William F. Buckleys, and recalls the genteel madness of the Upper East Side.
posted by Countess Elena (39 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Terrific.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 2:08 PM on June 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


you may better understand the sentiment as a reaction to experiencing from him a denial that they were even people.
posted by infini at 2:35 PM on June 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


as if one day he had gotten tired and then never quite rested enough.

A cautionary sign to all hedonists posing as intellectuals.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:48 PM on June 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


fascinating read!
posted by supermedusa at 2:49 PM on June 20, 2015


I enjoy these wacky old money aristocrats with anti-democratic ideals when their politically irrelevant and/or safely dead
posted by The Whelk at 2:52 PM on June 20, 2015 [9 favorites]


(also I've heard that line about cater waiters being the gay peace corps a half dozen times over the years...)
posted by The Whelk at 2:57 PM on June 20, 2015


Wow, that was a great read. Thanks for posting it.
posted by languagehat at 3:14 PM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


For those who are unaware: Buckley had a thing for swimming naked with young and/or teenage males throughout his career. I recall a dimly remembered story where he invited a group of (college? High school?) Young Republicans out on his yacht for the same purpose.

This was widely known during his lifetime, and the fact that nobody ever commented upon it is amazing, and testifies to the power of money and influence.
posted by Avenger at 3:31 PM on June 20, 2015 [21 favorites]


I still had PTSD upon seeing policemen after being attacked by them in riots in San Francisco on International AIDS Day in 1990. ... This was an era when it was still shocking to hear that 10,000 Americans had contracted AIDS.

Lest we forget, by the end of 1986, 24,559 deaths from AIDs in the US (and, of course, many more who had contracted it). By the end of 1990, 120,453 deaths.

I don't want to dump on the article, but it was much worse than 10,000. For President Reagan not even mentioning the disease in its first few years, it would have been like Johnson never mentioning Vietnam.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:34 PM on June 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


For those who are unaware: Buckley had a thing for swimming naked with young and/or teenage males throughout his career. I recall a dimly remembered story where he invited a group of (college? High school?) Young Republicans out on his yacht for the same purpose.

This was widely known during his lifetime, and the fact that nobody ever commented upon it is amazing, and testifies to the power of money and influence.
posted by Avenger at 6:31 PM on June 20 [+] [!]


It definitely adds a wrinkle to the whole bar code thing, as the author notes.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:36 PM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


I caddied at a very exclusive golf course as a child. I took me a long time realize that the rich food that makes you fart is also available to poor people.
posted by srboisvert at 3:41 PM on June 20, 2015


Alex was in my year at Iowa. He was furious when the New York Times Magazine misrepresented the essay by claiming he'd been charmed by Buckley's skinnydipping...with no mention of the young men.
posted by brujita at 3:44 PM on June 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


> I don't want to dump on the article, but it was much worse than 10,000.

He didn't say that was the total, he said when it was "only" 10,000 that was already shocking; at least, that was my interpretation. The guy's an AIDS activist, I'm pretty sure he knows the figures.
posted by languagehat at 3:52 PM on June 20, 2015 [7 favorites]


Most of my knowledge of William F. Buckley stems from my study of Gore Vidal when I was in college. Reading this article puts their rivalry in an... interesting light.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 3:58 PM on June 20, 2015 [13 favorites]


The peculiar fetish that so many rich Americans have to behave like old school minor european royalty, on display in this essay, confounds me.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 4:16 PM on June 20, 2015 [11 favorites]


This is fascinating because a male high school classmate did a stint working for Buckley and I had heard a rumor via him about watching Buckley swim naked.
posted by johngoren at 4:19 PM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


The peculiar fetish that so many rich Americans have to behave like old school minor european royalty, on display in this essay, confounds me.

This isn't a particularly American fetish, though. I've seen many a wealthy Southeast asian, Indian and Chinese family attempt to emulate european royalty, as I feel it's a key example many of them aspired to when working and building their fortunes.
posted by kurosawa's pal at 4:37 PM on June 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


It definitely adds a wrinkle to the whole bar code thing, as the author notes.

That and the separate bedrooms. Did this article out Buckley?
posted by indubitable at 4:43 PM on June 20, 2015


Separate bedrooms aren't uncommon in some homes, particularly the wealthy , I hate sharing a bed.

But didn't everyone suspect that of Buckley for a long time?
posted by The Whelk at 4:46 PM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


What an insightful and well-phrased article.

Between this post and this one earlier today, it's a good day for behind the scenes looks into the lives of powerful, repressed hypocrites. Sometimes I think most of the misery in this world comes from dudes who really want to bang other dudes but they hate that they want to so they make life hell for everybody else. (So when conservatives say that the gays are ruining everything, I suppose they're right in a way. But what they won't admit is, they are the gays.)

Or the Christmas party where the host took a friend into the coatroom to beat him in private (so badly he had to leave) to punish him for being a jerk to us, the waiters, and then handed out his friend’s cigars to us afterward and said, “My friend said to say he was sorry.”

Jesus. That's like an anecdote from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:37 PM on June 20, 2015 [18 favorites]


Lovely essay. Thank you for posting.
posted by echocollate at 6:00 PM on June 20, 2015


Some of his spy novels are a bit homoerotic
posted by knoyers at 7:30 PM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Loved reading this view into another world. One thing that strikes me, as an outsider to that scene, is the assumption that the cater-waiters are all gay or largely so. I know that hospitality work is, well, hospitable to queer folk, but is that for real? And how? Personal networks in hiring?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:42 PM on June 20, 2015


upper middle class homosociality rests on the absence of women. i think this is less buckley was gay and more buckley was pure wasp--you see it in the novels of Louis Auchincloss
posted by PinkMoose at 11:29 PM on June 20, 2015 [9 favorites]


This sheds new light on Gore Vidal's essay attacking Buckley as 'a sort of right wing Liberace'. Coming from Vidal (well, coming from anybody, in fact), that sort of sniggering innuendo is frankly inexcusable. But where Buckley was concerned, it looks as though Vidal was on to something.

Buckley's spy novel Saving the Queen is full of robustly heterosexual sex scenes, but there is one scene where the hero and his best friend (from Yale, naturally) go to a whorehouse together for a spot of male bonding. It's as though this is the closest Buckley could come to staging a sexual encounter between two men. (Of course the whole spy genre is heaving with repressed homosexuality: see Cyril Connolly's brilliant send-up of the Bond novels, Bond Strikes Camp.)
posted by verstegan at 11:58 PM on June 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


> I know that hospitality work is, well, hospitable to queer folk, but is that for real? And how? Personal networks in hiring?

From personal experience and based on stories from friends, yes, for real. Maybe less now so (??) but Back in the Day, there was a certain amount of Understanding - there were things you might not want to be Known IYKWIM and so you would be discreet regarding Things other people would not want to be Known. And, yeah, you hire in a trusted circle of people.
posted by rtha at 12:08 AM on June 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


That was an excellent read, thank you. I have a fascination for the lives of the very wealthy (my excuse for watching Real Housewives of NYC). The only thing that spoiled it for me was the odd placement of the apostrophes and quotation marks in that font, which I found annoying.
posted by essexjan at 1:47 AM on June 21, 2015


I know that hospitality work is, well, hospitable to queer folk, but is that for real? And how? Personal networks in hiring?

As a semi-insider (I provide audio/visual tech gear & services for a lot of events that are catered, so I've interacted with and people-watched a variety of catering staff), yeah, this is for real - although it probably depends a lot on the catering company/venue/maybe the crew captain.

I'm sure that one reason for this is that hospitality work, especially the kind of on-site catering work described in the article, tends to be a viable source of income for people who are also trying to work in the arts, and the arts, I think, tend to have a relatively high percentage of queer folk. In the U.S., the catering wait staff are almost certainly independent contractors rather than employees, which means they get hired on a per-event basis as needed by the catering company. Any given week you could work no events, or six events, or anything in between. So a person's often got a lot of free time to work on their art (paid work or not), and if you land, say, two weeks worth of a theater gig, or you need to buckle down and meet a deadline for something you're writing, or you've got to do a bunch of prep work for a gallery showing, you just tell the catering company (or companies, plural - I've met people who work for more than one caterer) that you're unavailable those days, and they call somebody else.

(Side note: this set up - plus catering work tending to be night & weekend work - also means that I see a lot of high-school & college students working catering (especially in the summer), and older people needing to supplement their retirement income, and single parents (usually moms); lots of people who need money but have trouble working/finding a job with regular set hours (for a variety of reasons.))

But in any case, cater-waitering can be a good way to keep a roof over your head while still doing creative work, and I suspect a lot of the networking happens outside of the catering world, in spaces and cultures that tend to be relatively queer-friendly.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:15 AM on June 21, 2015


Yeah it's such an established stereotype that a gay comic I knew dropped a line about how hitting on cater waiters got so much easier once he got a job working in TV without explaination and everyone knew what he was talking about.
posted by The Whelk at 7:31 AM on June 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


The author lived in New York, worked as a cater waiter and made enough to support not only himself but put his sister through college.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:52 AM on June 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I enjoy these wacky old money aristocrats with anti-democratic ideals when their politically irrelevant and/or safely dead

I have to say I prefer my moneyed anti-democratic conservative political aspirants on the intellectual side. However offputting WFB's reptilian charm may have been, he was an educated, thinking fellow who wore his smarts on his sleeve, or at least that was my impression of him growing up, when he'd pop up on talk shows and the like.

Nowadays, the moneyed anti-democratic conservative political aspirants either truly are knuckle-draggers or, worse, pretend to be so for the benefit of the Great Unwashed at whom they aim their pandering populism.

Nope, give me the intellectual elitism of WFB. At least there, what's on the label is pretty much what you're getting. Plus, the quality of the discourse will likely be higher, however much one might disagree with it.
posted by the sobsister at 8:20 AM on June 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


The author lived in New York, worked as a cater waiter and made enough to support not only himself but put his sister through college.

According to a CPI based inflation calculator, $25.00 in 1991 is equivalent to ~$43.65 today. What's the going rate for cater-waiters today?
posted by wuwei at 10:20 AM on June 21, 2015


Plus, the quality of the discourse will likely be higher

I've never seen any evidence of this. Given the opinion in question in the article, I still don't.
posted by smidgen at 1:26 PM on June 21, 2015


For those who are unaware: Buckley had a thing for swimming naked with young and/or teenage males throughout his career. I recall a dimly remembered story where he invited a group of (college? High school?) Young Republicans out on his yacht for the same purpose. This was widely known during his lifetime, and the fact that nobody ever commented upon it is amazing, and testifies to the power of money and influence.

It was widely know, it was unremarkable, and it testifies to nothing so much as the era he grew up in. Buckley was born in 1925. At the time he went to Yale, it was a single-sex schoool and nudity was a normalised part of campus life. Students were photographed nude. Swimsuits were not used in the pool. Halls of residence were bathrobe optional. Streaking was practically mandated. The same was true at Harvard and many other universities.

You can call this a homoerotic experience if it brings you glee to stand in 2015 and do so, but to thousands of graduates, it wasn't homoerotic; it was just Yale.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:59 PM on June 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


What Alex is calling out is the hypocrisy of Buckley's picking out men he didn't know, men young enough to be his son to strip so he could ogle(and perhaps do more with) them......while he had called Gore Vidal a vile queer on national TV and was calling for the equivalent of yellow stars for the HIV positive.

This is NOT the same as swimming naked with one's friends/classmates.
posted by brujita at 9:41 PM on June 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


men young enough to be his son to strip so he could ogle (and perhaps do more with) them

Look, Buckley spewed vile words and vile politics and I am not defending him. But nothing in the text supports what you're saying. There is a statement of fact: "He always invites a male staffer to a skinny dip at the end of the night when there are parties up here." There is no ogling alluded to, and no suggestion of anything more.

While I understand it would be some kind of joyful, ironic schadenfreude if Buckley was a suffering, self-hating, closeted gay or bisexual man, the only things I've read about him suggest that he was a straight, conservative Catholic with a twisted, hateful view of gay people that was truly and deeply held.

There are more than enough reasons to loathe the man, well documented and usually in his own words, without making up more.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:33 PM on June 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Just why would Buckley ask a hot young male STRANGER(who was his social inferior) to swim naked with him if not to get his jollies?

Stop minimizing me.
posted by brujita at 11:28 PM on June 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think it's quite clear what the author was implying about Buckley's sexuality in this essay. I mean, Buckley's a notorious homophobe, skinny dipping nude with a young gay man while his wife is wandering around sad and drunk, making eyes at the half-nude young waiters. If it was a scene out of a novel, we might say it was too on-the-nose!

I can't say if the other posters are experiencing schadenfreude here, but seeing Buckley in this light sure doesn't bring me any joy. It makes me sad and angry. It gives my contempt for the man a little extra juice, to think he was spewing homophobic garbage in public while in private he was enjoying naked pool frolics with handsome young boys.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:58 AM on June 22, 2015


It makes me sad and angry. It gives my contempt for the man a little extra juice, to think he was spewing homophobic garbage in public while in private he was enjoying naked pool frolics with handsome young boys.

Well I think the implication here is that his proposal might have come from a (selfish) terror and privileged sense of self preservation, if not also self-loathing. Doesn't make him a better person, but more complex.
posted by atoxyl at 1:52 AM on June 22, 2015


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