Pup did not travel light. His and Mum’s annual departures for Switzerland were a mirth-rich anecdotal environment. They would present themselves at the Swissair check-in counter with enough bags to fill the entire hold of a C-5A Galaxy, along with at least three dogs, including a malevolent Pekingese named Foo. At which point Pup would deploy full-frontal WFB situational charm. So, Monsieur Buckley, we have today, oof . . . 18 baggages? In addition to the dogs?
Is it that many? Heavens. Ha, ha. Well [eyes twinkling] I would never disagree with a Swiss on the matter of accuracy, especially as my own ancestors were Swiss.
Ha, ha. . . .
Also at Macleans.ca: An interview with Christopher Buckley
Pup’s mother’s maiden name was Steiner. Her grandfather, a boot maker, had immigrated to New Orleans from the canton of St. Gallen. At the end of the negotiation, Pup would have bargained Swissair down to charging him for only one extra bag and one malevolent Pekingese. He would relate his victories in the field of excess baggage surcharge with the pride of a general who had just turned back a German tank offensive.
It was during those 40-odd winters in Switzerland that Mum and Pup were, perhaps, their best selves together.
For a quarter century of those years, they rented a château in Rougemont, near Gstaad— a tenth-century castle at the foot of a tall alp called the Videmanette. Pup wrote his books, and Mum turned the pile of stones into a salon. Everyone came. After one of [long-time cook and house manager] Julian’s excellent dinners, they and the guests would descend to the ground floor, where a painting atelier had been set up. In one photo, you can see Dame Rebecca West slapping paint onto a canvas alongside Princess Grace. There’s even a photo of Teddy Kennedy and Pup painting together. At evening’s end, he asked if he could borrow a car to drive himself back to Gstaad. Mum shouted out, “Don’t give him one—there are two bridges between here and Gstaad!”
In almost every photo taken during the painting sessions, you can see David Niven, wearing his smock, painting seriously. He was good. Marc Chagall dropped by one night. Pup—he told this story with appropriate mortification—showed him one of his paintings. Chagall remarked, “Pauvre peinture!” (Poor painting!) Ken and Kitty Galbraith, Greek shipping magnates, various Romanovs, Charlie Chaplin, Nabokov, James Clavell, German Grafs, a Danish queen, King Constantine of Greece, Spanish ministers, English swells, Oxford dons, Swiss art dealers, the whole jumbo jet set—they all came to Mum and Pup’s château to be wined and fed and laugh. (In addition, that is, to the painting.) It was there, perhaps more than in New York and Stamford, that I saw most close up the binary energy that the two of them put out. People just wanted to be around them. They were the fun Americans: the cool intellectual who wrote spy novels on the side and his beautiful, witty, outrageous wife. They had—how to put it?—class.
One night, as they were getting ready for dinner, a chimney fire broke out and swiftly consumed the entire château. The Rougemont fire department arrived late, and drunk, and unable to cope. Mum lost everything, including her recently deceased mother’s jewels. Pup organized a sort of bucket brigade to rescue his book-in-progress and office library. David and Hjordis Niven, driving to dinner there from the town where they lived, noticed an orange glow as they approached and wondered, What could that be? Another guest, the painter Raymond de Botton, driving from the other direction, also noticed a glow above Rougemont. I still have the painting that he did of it. It’s called Château Brûlé. No one was hurt, but Mum went into a bad depression. Jerry Zipkin, staying in Paris, went out and bought her an entire new wardrobe and arrived on the train from Montreux bearing a zillion shopping bags. The immolation was the second trauma of their Swiss days. In 1965, Mum broke her leg skiing—broke it badly. The bone splintered into a dozen pieces. The plate the surgeons installed was a foot long and contained dozens of screws. The X-ray of it, which I have just tossed into a Dumpster, looks like something they study in med school. She was on crutches for two years.
The surgeon who did the operation became a friend. He was an avid mountaineer and many years later froze to death alone on a mountain after falling. The last time I visited them in Switzerland, in 2000, Pup called me a few days before I was to arrive to say that he wanted to visit Auschwitz. He was writing a novel about the Nuremberg trials and needed to see it for himself. So we went, and my last memory of seeing Mum and Pup amid the beau monde of Gstaad is a confused one, mingled with images of the worst place on earth.
Excerpted from Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir by Christopher Buckley. In stores now. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.