He pinched his cigarette, holding it like a Chicago gangster. His waxed mustache and his tails tendered a note of authority and regal presence. He looked like a British colonialist—he even wore a pith helmet on occasion—but when he opened his mouth, what came out was the voice of the new country. He sounded most of all like a black street hustler who knew how the wheels of the world turn when it’s 2 a.m. in a particularly eventful part of town. Lord Buckley confused people.
What kind of comedy it that never delivered a punch line, that consisted of stories and fables, that raised more questions than it answered? Onstage Lord Buckley would describe loving somebody one moment and then fantasize aloud about killing her the next, like the narrator of some unfilmed film noir. He’d break into a crooned version of “Georgia on My Mind,” alternating the honeyed verses with the rantings of a Southern sheriff lathering up for a lynching. He brought to life the political rally of “Governor Gulpwell,” performing the parts of the governor, the audience, the marching bands, the newsreel narrator, and more. He offered a long and casually disturbing celebration of the Marquis de Sade. Without the gag lines to give the audience a chance to release tension, laughter was intermittent, lonely, and nervous.
Which only made Buckley happy. Laughter was fine, but eyes riveted, eyes that could not turn away, was the finest thing of all.
True story: He is booked to follow Frank Sinatra one night at an elegant nightclub. Somebody has messed up, for comics following singers is tough enough, but following Sinatra is just asking for misery.
Sinatra kills. Then while patrons stand to leave, out comes Buckley, carrying a chair, a saw, and an air of confidence. Sits down, tells the crowd, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Royal Court. It’s hard to follow Frank, but here’s a little something to make you think.” He begins to saw through his shoe, into his foot. Blood spills across the stage as the blade bites deeper into his foot. People are throwing up, people are passing out, but the comic has their attention. Nobody’s standing now. “Thank you. Now you know when you leave here that there’s only one name on your lips, and it’s mine!” Good night and drive safely.
In the 1950s, a great comic—Buddy Hackett, say, or Shecky Greene—thrived or flopped according to how well he worked the combinations: timing, confidence, punch fine. As a patron you knew the yardstick going into a club, and the essential question was how high a mark the performer would hit. Buckley offered an alien metric. He took you out of the club, pulled you through a portal into his scene.
Compared to Bob Hope’s audience, few heard Buckley. But maybe no comic inspired more people to reach for the microphone. “He was my first influence,” says longtime comic Reynaldo Rey. “His was the first album I ever owned. I listened to it and I fell in love. He was way-out!”
Looking at comedy as a whole, you could say that at the beginning of the 1950s, gags is what comics did. There was Henny Youngman, knocking offline after line after line, and if you didn’t like the first 20, try the next 20, or try the veal cutlet. But by decade’s end, jokes developed a slightly bad odor among smart comics. Narrative, social commentary, characters rather than a conveyor belt of punch lines, suddenly became important, and Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Nichols and May, and many more reaped the benefits. But back in the late ’40s, Lord Buckley was already jettisoning gags, speaking in a spontaneous bop prosody that swung like a Dexter Gordon rift.
He was a teller of tall tales, a declaimer in the tradition of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” or maybe of “Rapper’s Delight.” Turning words into music, exploring them for the rhythmic secrets they carried, he was as much a musician as a comic. It’s not accurate to call him a stand-up comic, though that was about the only available job description in the 1950s. “He was more than that,” says director Paul Mazursky, who early in his career performed as a comedian with Buckley. “I think he was an original. He was doing riffs on a kind of universe that only he saw. He was a benign, kinder Hunter Thompson. He was wonderful.”
In the last months of his life he was billed as the Hip Messiah, and nobody who ever heard him questioned the appellation. He had a huge influence on those who encountered him—Jonathan Winters and George Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Robin Williams, Ken Kesey, Henry Miller, Wolfman Jack. Bob Dylan once called Buckley “the fuel to my success” and gives him a place of honor in his recent memoir, Chronicles.
Buckley arrived in Los Angeles in 1950, and though he wandered about, doing short time in Vegas and the Bay Area, for most of the decade he made L.A. his home. Los Angeles gave him material and an audience. Most crucially, perhaps, it gave him benign indifference. Benign indifference was L.A.’s secret weapon, the gift it bestowed on artists like Buckley, Ornette Coleman, Ed Kienholz, Don Van Vliet, and the Whitney brothers. You had the space and the anonymity to build your own Watts Towers, and then watch them bake in the sun.
He was a cold war-era performance artist, and he damned well earned every one of the paltry benefits that painfully limiting title allowed. In 1959, the Los Angeles Times came to a rare showcase performance at the Ivar Theater. This is how the critic wrote it up: “Lord Buckley is billed as an entertainer and, to a degree, this is true. If he were presented as the main attraction at a bar serving 40-cent highballs, tough popcorn and soft pretzels he would be worth the time spent in attendance. But, in a theater with a $3.25 top, this cat ain’t worth the green.”
In L.A. he usually played subterranean strip joints, jazz clubs, and coffeehouses, which made his act all the more radical. Yet among the provocative and disturbing things Lord Buckley spoke of, the most dangerous words came at the beginning of a typical performance: “Beloveds, I don’t want to embarrass you, but I love all of you very much. Please don’t try to love me as much as I love you. It would be unfair competition. All right? Cool.”
Nervous laughter. You could hear the ice rattle in suddenly empty highball glasses. A guy dropping the love bomb in the Atomic Age was asking for a one-way ticket to Camarillo. Love was enough to instantly sober up the drunkest heckler. The Hip Messiah was a prophet of love, shooting an arrow straight into the city’s Jack Webb heart.
But if it took a nervy original like Buckley to bring talk of love and the Marquis de Sade together in L.A., it took L.A. to unleash Buckley’s full power. He arrived here, in one of the most segregated cities in the country, a comic already profoundly involved with black culture. He had traveled with swing bands, and he spoke in the lingo of the black musicians he admired and quietly studied.
When he got to L.A., he sought out the single milieu where blacks and whites came together freely: jazz clubs. On Central Avenue and in the Hollywood spots, races were speaking to one another in voices shaped by slang, the better to keep outsiders from listening in. That talk became the core of Buckley’s art.
Something happened to him here. Before 1950, he was well-traveled goods, a vaudevillian who for years had nursed one showstopping routine. Pulling a group of folks out of the audience, sitting them in a row of chairs, he would manically race behind them, manipulating them as if they were ventriloquist dummies. That was enough to get him a recurring slot on Ed Sullivan’s nationally broadcast TV show. But in no sense was Buckle); in the parlance of the trade, a “top banana.” He was a shtick artist with a crazed look in his eye and, perhaps, a growing sense that the good times had gone.
In L.A. Buckley blew up his act. He took the bits he’d use backstage to crack up the band and made them the focus of his presentation. The physical comedy was pushed to the periphery, and he began to emphasize the energy of a street preacher fulminating the jive.
As a vaudevillian he’d race all over the stage, but now he turned that freneticism inward, holding the spotlight yet radiating more energy than ever. Musician Paul Horn had a good view of Buckley’s act when his band backed Buckley in 1959. “He was pretty wild. The band and I were holding our breath that he wouldn’t have a heart attack onstage. He’d get all red and the veins would stick out in his neck and we thought that could be it.”
The person he was onstage eclipsed the one offstage, pushing him to greater flights of anarchy. Which was a challenge, for Buckley offstage was flipping his wig. Buckley would lead a parade of his loyal subjects naked through a posh hotel lobby. He would ride a bicycle up and down the streets of Hollywood—albeit a bike only he could see. He gathered an exotic entourage around him, and together they’d travel from scene to scene, charming those whom they hadn’t already offended. There was Tubby Boots, a 350-plus-pound transvestite who performed a wicked tassel dance. There was Minkhead, a circus clown, and Cosmo, who worked as a teacher of strippers, and Hollywood actors like Stuart Whitman, Larry Storch, and Paul Burke.
“He lived it. He called it the living theater,” says Doi DeWitt, a friend of Buckley’s in the ’50s. “He always wanted to live on the stage, have his living quarters right on the stage.” Buckley erased the line between theater and life. The same mix of nervous-making dramatics that made Andy Kaufman famous in the 1980s led Buckley ever more to the margins in the 1950s. There was no graspable context for an over-the-top maniac who refused to take off the mask.
Instead, there was only Buckley’s context. Everybody else was expected to bring his mask when in the presence of the Lord. Once, Robert Mitchum told a writer, he dropped by a party and found the comic standing over his guests with a whip, refusing them entry until each performed some talent, thus earning their way in. At home with his wife, Elizabeth, and their children, Laurie and Richard, parties erupted at all hours of the clock. There would be Hollywood stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and musicians like Charlie Parker, writers Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, strippers and circus folk and people who were famous in their own microcommunity or who were not famous at all but in whom Buckley saw a spark. “The Buckleys lived a party all the time,” says DeWitt. “And they lived off the party.”
Under the credo that all ladies and gentlemen are lords and ladies, may I say, Good evening, Your Highnesses. Under the credo that this is not a cabaret or a nightclub but in absolute factual instant truth a modern atomic chapel of the natural church of the theater, may I say, Welcome to High Mass.
M’lords and m’ladies, I recently went on a search for God. I couldn’t pin him, so I thought I’d look for his stash. The great wild beautiful stashes of love, the elongated, the great liquidity, the great worldwide beauty, the lakes of love called God. And who do you think I found guarding them? The people. Ain’t that a gas?
At the core of Buckley’s comedy was a spiritual belief in the power of people to create their own reality and to subvert the limits they thought defined them. He believed in this power so strongly, he identified it with divinity. Buckley believed in a God, all right: a God that existed in every single person on earth.
As he put it in a radio interview in 1959: “All over this world, in the alleys, in the valleys, on the plains, on the mesas, on the mountaintops, on the plateaus, through the sand, to the gulf, through the whole scene of this world—black, blue, green, yellow, and pink—it’s loaded with beautiful people who we never hear a thing about … But they are there. And those people are the protectors and possessors of the vault of love which is known as God.” Not so deep, to be sure, but deep enough and beyond jarring when heard in a strip club at closing time.
L.A.’s receptiveness to new faiths, its acceptance of religions the rest of the country would frown on, was a tonic to Buckley It influenced his act, which featured what is the most beloved of his routines—“The Nazz.” The Nazz was Buckley’s name for Jesus of Nazareth. The most shocking thing about the piece wasn’t that Buckley was talking biblically but that he was, in his own way, utterly sympathetic to the Gospel. He was a beat missionary.
“Like I ’splained to you, he’s a carpenter kitty, got his own lick,” he declared before launching into a description of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
So the Nazz look at them cats and kitties and he say, “You hungry, ain’t ya, babies?”
And the cats say, “Yeah, Nazz.” Say, “We was diggin’ so hard on what you was puttin’ down, we didn’t prepare.” Say, “we goofed.”
So the Nazz say, “Well, we gotta take it easy here. We wouldn’t want to go ahead and order up something you might not like, would we?”
And they said, “Sweet double hipness, you put it down and we’ll pick it up.”
And the Nazz step away a little bit. And he put a glorious sound of love on.
He said, “Oh, sweet swingin’ flowers of the field.”
And they said, “Oh, great nonstop singular song to beauty.”
And he said, “Stomp upon the terra.” They did.
He said, “Lift your miracle the body.” The body went up.
He said, “Lift your arms.” The arms went up.
He said, “Higher.” They went higher.
He said, “DIG INFINITY!” And they dug it!
And when they did, Whap! There was a flash of thunder, and they looked. In one hand was a great, big, stuffed, sweet, swingin’, smoked fish.
And in the other a long gone, crazy loaf of that Southern, homemade, honey-tastin’, sweet bread.
Why, these poor cats flipped!
The Nazz never did nothin’ simple.
When He laid it, He laid it.
Around 1954, Buckley and his family were stranded in a downtown flophouse when he got a call from Bob DeWitt, an artist and realtor living in Topanga Canyon. DeWitt knew a place where Buckley’s family could stay, and he had, at the health food restaurant he and his wife ran, a stage for his ravings. At the DeWitts’ Topanga enclave, Buckley established a brand-new faith.
Today the DeWitts live in Mariposa, California, a hamlet near the southern edge of Yosemite that bears a striking resemblance to Topanga, without all the people. Sitting at his kitchen table, Bob DeWitt, who is 92, wears a baseball cap that says I HAD A BALL AT THE TESTICLE FESTIVAL. His wife, Doi, who is 93, hovers nearby. A bohemian curmudgeon, Bob glowers over the course of a morning visit. “You’re asking questions just like all the other squares,” he barks.
He describes Buckley’s plan to make his atomic chapel more than talk, to give it form as the Church of the Living Swing. “It wasn’t like the Methodist Church,” he says. “This was the headquarters of the Church of the Living Swing. And if I have to explain swing to you, well, it’s just too late. Buckley didn’t have a routine. Everything was so fresh it’d scare you. And it scared the cops, because they didn’t know what was going on. We were under constant pressure from the cops.”
Churchgoers sat on railroad ties and got a weekly blast from their pontiff.
“The service was, he would talk—it was just a big, hip sermon from him, about humanity and love and treating each other well,” says actor Mel Welles. “It was purely cosmic—not about ‘Christ’ or ‘our Lord’ or ‘Savior’ or ‘God.’ It was about the universe, the cosmos, and the soul. He was very big on the soul, on the energy within people. He talked about supreme intelligence, but he never gave it a particular shape.” There were strippers and music in addition to Buckley’s musings. Welles says the police raided the first service and 52 people were holding.
The Buckleys stayed in a small cabin nearby Doi DeWitt stockpiled fabric for her job sewing costumes for visiting dance troupes. She donated to the Buckleys a heap of red velvet drapes discarded from the Knickerbocker Hotel. The next time she visited their cabin, she discovered the ceiling, walls, and floor were covered in red velvet. “The Jewel Box,” Buckley called his canyon home.
At night there would be parties and performances. The DeWitts would also have fight shows, of an intensity that foreshadowed the psychedelic ’60s by more than a decade. A young couple poured colored inks across a plate of glass and projected the image onto a surface. “We’d light the whole damn canyon up,” says Bob DeWitt. “The whole canyon would be on fire.”
The visitors would also be aflame. They maintained an endless supply of booze and pot, and harder stuff than that. “We all had access to peyote,” says Welles. “It wasn’t on the narcotics code at first. There was a place called Exotic Gardens in El Paso, Texas, and you could buy a crate of peyote for $5, and they would ship it to you. They’d send the whole cactus. You’d have to cut the buds off and boil them down.” Thus a bohemian scene in Topanga Canyon took wing. Bob DeWitt had already laid the groundwork, having previously sold land to blacklisted actor Will Geer (the site of today’s Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum). DeWitt saw a footloose guitar player walking down a road one day and invited him in to play. So began Woody Guthrie’s prolonged stay in the canyon; at the foot of the Mariposa property, beside the mailbox, rests a rusted orange pickup truck. On its side in fading paint it says WOODY GUTHRIE TOPANGA EXPRESS.
In the congregation at the Church of the Living Swing were itinerant Hollywood actors, leaving the Industry behind at day’s end. Also present was Eden Ahbez, the barefoot, longhaired free spirit who cowrote the pop hit “Nature Boy” for Nat King Cole and who was called Nature Boy by the local press. There were gypsies, jazz musicians, seekers, and belly dancers.
Casting vivid shadows on the walls of the canyon, Buckley had the charisma, and certainly the voice, to command a mass movement. But this hip prophet was not a joiner; he was an individualist who sought fresh ways to melt into the masses, an electric revelator who told his followers they didn’t need leaders.
“He didn’t have a politics, absolutely not,” says Bob DeWitt. “But he was politics. It wasn’t like Democrats and Republicans. With Buckley, it was people who were alive and people who were dead. And most people were dead in his book.” Those who were alive crossed his doorway and watched the canyon burst into flame.
This April in Buckley’s hometown of Tuolumne, California, a small group of admirers met in a museum to celebrate what would have been his 99th birthday. The party was organized by a local teacher named David Simerley, a 52-year-old transplant from the Bay Area. “Welcome to the Bethlehem of Bop,” he beamed.
Afterward, Simerley walked around the town and pointed out the landmarks. He noted a downtown spot where Buckley and his sister danced for coins as children. The West Side Lumber Company building is being renovated; while timber was once the big employer, Tuolumne these days is coming back, thanks to an Indian casino on the edge of town.
Simerley became enraptured with Buckley while studying at Stanford in the ’70s. Since then he has devoted much of his time to honoring his adopted town’s most famous citizen. “I’m not one for visions, but I swear to God I was over at the ballpark one day, and I heard Buckley’s voice telling me, ‘Dig it here,’” says Simerley. So he has.
Simerley is representative of the huge number of modern-day fans who annotate Buckley’s every routine on Web sites and pass rare recordings to the like-minded. Dressed in tails, his silver ponytail bobbing as he charges down side streets, Simerley speaks in ellipsoid bursts. He ponders the influence of the Moorish Science Temple of America, a black nationalist cult in 1920s Chicago that he feels must have had an impact on Buckley’s worldview. (The Moorish Science Temple believed the lowliest were divine.) He describes the Clampers, a still-going benevolent society that formed a Sierra chapter in the 1850s, and ponders their influence. (The Clampers parodied the solemn rites of Masons and other groups and embrace lampoonery.) He notes that Bert Williams, perhaps the greatest comic America ever produced, worked the lumber camps.
He points out the street on which Buckley grew up; the house is long gone, but the block feels appropriately peripheral, backing into a hill with a creek running alongside. Locals come out of their wood houses to stare at Simerley, and his talk of secret societies and subcultures startles those on their way to their casino jobs. Back downtown, he points to the town square, a patch of well-tended green. That’s where he’d like to see, someday, a statue dedicated to Tuolumne’s son.
Richard Myrle Buckley was born in 1906. There were eight children in his family, and Buckley, the eighth, was delivered on an Indian reservation. Thus perhaps grew the widely held misconception that he was an Indian. In fact, Buckley’s father was a miner from England; his mother’s parents were also English.
As a teen Buckley would climb to the tops of trees and set riggings for loggers. The timber and mining trades of the area were hotbeds of activity for the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, as members were known. At the beginning of the 20th century the union espoused a populist, anarchist-tinged socialism; free speech was a key part of the Wobbly creed, and they staged a famous free speech protest in Fresno, not far from Tuolumne. The union cast a long shadow over the American West, and you can hear its idealism—and its love of a good rant—in Buckley’s act.
He left home in the mid-’20s, teamed up with a guitarist in Galveston, and got the show business bug. Known as Dick Buckley, he settled in Chicago, where in the mid-’30s he be came a master of ceremonies at dance marathons and walkathons, grueling days-long events in which the last couple standing won a prize. These entertainments needed emcees with great stamina and a knack for improvisation. He would swing from a rope and pelt the crowd with raw eggs. There was a nihilistic quality to these grim endurance events—the audience watched couples drop from exhaustion. Sometimes working with Red Skelton, Buckley in the ’30s cultivated a mayhem that featured a sadistic edge.
He jumped to the vaudeville circuit. According to one story, he worked at a mobbed-up club in Chicago, where he convinced all the ladies in the house to pile their furs into a heap in the middle of the room. Buckley doused the furs with gasoline, set them on fire, tap-danced on the bar, and then ran out into the night.
Hostility is a by-product of comedy, particularly among those who do the same thing over and over. Before Los Angeles, Buckley’s stage show depended on set pieces: the chair routine, a gag where he’d quickly switch funny hats with patrons, a human pyramid with audience members. Those were his bread and butter, and they landed him a USO tour with Ed Sullivan, which led to a friendship with the TV host and appearances on Sullivan’s variety show for the rest of his life. (It was invariably the biggest check Buckley would see all year. The downside was that as late as his final appearance, in 1959, Sullivan made him perform the dated vaudeville stuff.)
The microphone arts have had few more talented students. From his days as a walkathon emcee he had learned how to work in cavernous places that might not have a public address system. He was blessed with a barrel chest, and from that chamber boomed a voice tooled to move folks who had been on their feet for hours. He was billed as “California’s Chatterbox, Dick Buckley,” and for a good long while he was able to make a living at it.
On moving to New York in the mid-’40s, he created his “Royal Court”—a saturnalia in motion, friends with a shared sense of brinkmanship who congregated in Buckley’s apartment. They developed a mutual aesthetic that was both savage and suave. His lack of money was no obstacle; Buckley would tell the butcher he was throwing a party in his honor—and be sure and bring some steaks for the festivities. Then he’d visit the baker … Among his court Buckley bestowed titles that came straight out of his Chicago jazz club background and the era when musicians had names like Duke and Count, and Lester “Prez” Young would hand out honorifics to those in his inner circle.
By the late 1940s, however, TV was on the way, vaudeville was a corpse, and guys like Buckley were competing for ever-diminishing nightclub gigs. Which might have been okay with the comic, for in truth he was probably getting tired of the chair gag. When his wife urged him to try out the wilder stuff he’d been doing in the dressing room and at home, he gave it a shot. In the late ’40s, he started telling children’s stories in hip talk, and the crowds liked the way familiar texts were named into secret code. He began to develop a way of talking he called “hipsemantic”: If you had to ask what it was, you’d never know. By 1949, he was listed in the New York phone book for the first time as Lord—not Dick—Buckley. And then he moved to Los Angeles.
If there was a specific impetus for Buckley’s change of scenery, nobody seems to have recalled it, other than his wanting to make a go at Hollywood. Buckley did get a part in We’re Not Married, a 1952 comedy with Marilyn Monroe. The film’s crew was so taken with the actor’s regal politesse that all over the set gaffers were bowing to grips and cameramen were saying, “No, m’lord—after you!” to script assistants. But it’s hard to imagine Buckley having had a career before the cameras. He was destined to destroy a schedule, a guy who’d disappear for days on end. A terrific actor, he was gifted at being himself and hadn’t built a reputation that would have studios crafting vehicles for him.
Instead, he was building a reputation for a feral lifestyle. After leaving the Jewel Box, Buckley and family moved to a Spanish-style mansion in Whitley Heights. Buckley had scoped out the place, which was owned by an octogenarian widow who was living in a tiny room in a Methodist home. He talked her into giving him the run of the mansion. Formerly owned by silent-movie star Barbara La Mart, one of Hollywood’s first heroin casualties, the house became the Castle, and it was where some of Buckley’s craziest parties happened. He had a throne built for himself and designated the most outre members of the court to be his greeters.
“Those parties were the way everybody imagines Hollywood parties. By most standards they were depraved,” says Welles. “There was a lot of pot smoking and drug taking and a lot of sex, because in those days sex was not life threatening. There was always great jazz music going—Benny Carter and Chico Hamilton and a great pianist named Calvin Jackson used to stop by Buckley was always holding court in the bathtub. There’d be 15 people crowded in the bathroom.”
Next door lived Beulah Bondi, an actress who had starred in It’s a Wonderful Life. Every morning Buckley would greet her from his balcony naked and singing, “I dig Hollywood every moment, every moment I dig it. Why do I dig Hollywood? Because all my friends are here.”
Buckley was married some six times, the last to Elizabeth Hanson, Lady Elizabeth, who taught a dance technique she called Ballet for Living. She was the willing, enduring anchor for the chaos of Buckley’s life in Los Angeles. “What was it like having Lord Buckley as your dad?” says Richard Buckley Jr., an actor and musician. “Redd Foxx was my baby-sitter.” As if that settles the subject, which maybe it does. Around the house Dad wasn’t always speaking the hep talk. “It wasn’t like he’d say to the waitress, ‘Hey, knock me some more java, m’lady,” Richard says. “He was actually kind of a stern dad at home.”
It could not have been easy growing up in the shadow of such a redwood on a bender. Buckley filled up the moment, giving little thought to his career, his health, the family Elizabeth made what she could from her lessons, and what the gigs didn’t pay for he scammed from the friends who came around. It’s amazing he wasn’t in jail far more than he was; his only known citations are for drunkenness and possession of marijuana.
“He was interested in taking care of his wife and kids, but he wasn’t doing too well,” said Prince Lewis Foremaster, a Royal Court member. “I spent a lot of my money on the scene.”
In 1959, Buckley met Oscar Janiger, a psychiatrist who frequented Club Renaissance, a Sunset Strip coffeehouse on the spot where today stands the House of Blues. Janiger was studying the effects of LSD, and in Buckley he found a most eager laboratory subject. One night Buckley, the actor James Coburn (another of Janiger’s test pilots), and friends went to a cabin at Lake Arrowhead and took an acid trip. The results, according to legend, were extraordinary, with Buckley free-associating in a variety of voices for some 18 hours. The legend further goes that much of those 18 hours were recorded on reel-to-reel tape and have been stashed away ever since, though nobody, of course, knows exactly where.
Those were some of Buckley’s best times in town. He was living among Hollywood royalty and being treated imperially by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Stuart Whitman, and Bette Davis and husband, actor Gary Merrill. It was intoxicating, and illusory, for the worship was purely symbolic. Buckley couldn’t pay the rent on the Castle and was fending off the owner, eventually selling the furniture behind her back to keep a roof over his head. As tended to happen wherever Buckley lived, the family was asked to leave.
Soon they moved to a shack in Silver Lake known as the Crackerbox Palace, later memorialized in a song of the same name by George Harrison. (A Buckley fan, Harrison sang, “Know that the Lord is well and inside of you.”) Even there the spectacle rolled on: One night Ornette Coleman fell by, and another time Greer Garson braved the long, rickety stairs to hear Buckley perform “The Nazz.” When it was done, Garson was in tears.
Dick Nixon was a Lincoln cat. You could tell that from his speech on Lincoln Day, February 12, 1952. The talk was titled “The Hundred Billion Dollar Question,” and the question in question was how his Republicans could wrest power from the Democrats in the White House. Sponsored by Los Angeles’s Lincoln Club, Nixon gave the keynote for the elaborate holiday festivities, but there were many events all over town. In West Los Angeles a nine-member firing squad shot a volley over the American flag, and in the Valley actor Robert Barrat (Son of Ali Baba) delivered the Gettysburg Address.
Meanwhile, at some strip joint or jazz club, Lord Buckley was reciting his own rendition. It was one of his most famous routines. “Four big hits and seven licks ago, our before-daddies swung forth upon this sweet groovy land,” Buckley began his tear that transformed Lincoln as much as it translated him.
In Buckley’s version, which he created in L.A., Lincoln’s words became “We here want it stuck up straight for all to dig that these departed studs shall not have split in vain, and that this nation under the great swingin’ Lord shall swing up a whopper of endless Mardi Gras, and that the big law by you straights, from you cats, and for you kiddies, shall not be scratched from the big race. And there’s why I’m a Lincoln cat.”
For Buckley, equality and freedom amounted to the same thing—an “endless Mardi Gras,” a party without boundaries, a kiss blown to Beulah Bondi, and a gift that anybody with flair and grace, anybody alive, anybody not dead, could grab. His children had to memorize the Gettysburg Address twice: the way Lincoln told it and in hipsemantic.
Driving through L.A. in a bright red car with the American flag flying, Buckley loved his country and understood its promise better than most. “He was definitely a patriot,” says Welles. “He adhered to the idea that our founding fathers recognized that they were a part of something bigger than themselves. He used to say that a lot. He thought that America and the principles for which it stands in the world was something that was bigger than any of us. Before it was popular, there was always a flag on the wall in his house. He was very much in admiration of people who were true patriots.”
Buckley didn’t participate in the great national pastime of founding-father phrenology, enlisting the words of former presidents to serve his own ends. Buckley put himself at the service of the Gettysburg Address and then did a slow fade. He was a Lincoln cat.
He was instinctively a believer in the notion that rights withered away if you didn’t test their limits. He asserted his rights with the weapon at his disposal, a love of the American voice. The Korean War may have ended in 1953, but there was a new war on, fought in Los Angeles as bitterly as anywhere. It was between those who spoke Just the facts, maim and Are you now or have you ever been? and those who shouted Caledonia! Caledonia! What makes your big head so hard? It was the squares against the hipsters, fighting in the shadows of the city. The mother tongue, English as it was spoken in Los An-guh-leez, was ground zero.
It’s been frequently noted that Buckley sounded like a black hipster—the ultimate “white negro,” to quote a famous Norman Mailer essay of the period. But actually as he talked, a funny thing happened. He might well start from a black place, even sounding at times like a throwback to minstrelsy But the more he spoke, even within the expanse of a single routine, a wide variety of types tumbled out of his mouth. You could hear an anthology of American marginal voices: the carny; the grifter, the jazzman, the snake oil salesman. In a city that pretended to speak with a single voice, the uninflected sound of progress on the march, Buckley reminded one of all the other voices out there. He was an evocation of what writer Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America.”
The end of the 1950s only heightened Buckley’s contradictions. On the one hand, he was a visionary astronaut beloved by the Hollywood cognoscenti. He was also a wasted hulk who had to scam his friends and admirers to keep food on the table. The better his work got, the smaller the crowds became.
In 1960, Buckley set out with aide-decamp Prince Lewis Foremaster in a red Volkswagen microvan, performing at the Gate of Horn in Chicago and then hitting New York. Some say he appeared to suffer a mild stroke onstage in Chicago, but a recording from the Gate of Horn features Buckley at the top of his powers, playing for a receptive audience that included founding members of the Second City troupe. That fall he was well received by New York audiences. Had he lived, he might have found the popular following that had always eluded him, what with the ’60s bubbling up from the Greenwich Village clubs he was playing. But in New York the police, citing his arrest record, pulled his cabaret card, a license performers were required to have in those days. Then he fell ill and holed up in a flophouse with, it is said, a young girl and a bottle of vodka mixed with mescaline.
Appropriately, there are a dozen or more twisted tales of what happened at the end. It is said that Black Muslims did him in, that he was involved in a counterfeiting scheme and then betrayed by a partner, that he was poisoned or done in by undetectable martial arts blows. But in the end he was still dead, of “natural causes,” according to the death certificate, and in the end it was Elizabeth who had the last word. In the space marked “occupation” on the death certificate, she wrote “artist.” Buckley himself was never this succinct.