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William F. Buckley’s Pet Killer

What troubles is not that Buckley would question a verdict, but that he so eagerly assumed the mantle of friend and confessor to Edgar Smith.
William F. Buckley’s Pet Killer

Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free, by Sarah Weinman, (Ecco/HarperCollins: 2022), 464 pages.

For more than half a century, we have understood that the mission of modern American conservatism is, in William F. Buckley’s famous words, to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.” Such work inevitably brings conservatism into conflict with conventional wisdom, and for the most part, that is all to the good. There can be a dark side to conservatism’s healthy sense of skepticism, though, a willingness to believe the unbelievable even if, or especially if, it cuts against the grain.

This contrarianism created the conditions for one of the more regrettable episodes in the life of Buckley himself. Starting in the mid-1960s, Buckley anointed himself the public advocate of one Edgar Smith, a convicted murderer whose force of personality wrongly persuaded Buckley of his innocence and whose way with words further convinced him of his literary skill. It’s a cautionary tale for conservatives tempted to take up lost causes. 

The Smith affair is the subject of journalist Sarah Weinman’s fascinating new book, which not only recounts the crimes committed by Smith—and finds space to acknowledge his victims—but, more significantly, attempts to account for Buckley’s fleeting, unintentional sympathy for the devil. How did the founder and editor of National Review, a man of immense intelligence, deep perception, and great sensitivity, miss the true nature of a man as dastardly as Smith for as long as he did?

Maybe it was a matter of hubris, including hubris about the superiority of those who claimed, as Smith did from his cell, to believe in conservatism. “We were taken in, I suspect, in part by our unwillingness to believe that anyone who loved NR could be a savage killer,” says Donald G. M. Coxe, an attorney who wrote about Smith for the magazine. Of course, the picture Weinman paints is far thornier—and more interesting.

The essential facts are these: In 1957, Smith, then a 23-year-old ne’er-do-well from New Jersey with a wife, child, an inability to hold regular employment, and a ticket to nowhere, was charged with murdering Victoria Zielinski, a 15-year-old girl whom, he conceded, he picked up for a ride on the night of her death. Given the third degree by authorities in the absence of an attorney in those pre-Miranda days, Smith made a series of incriminating statements, though at trial he maintained that he was not responsible for the death of the teenager, whose horrifically mangled body was discovered in a sandpit. A jury convicted Smith, who was sentenced to death by electrocution.

Then Buckley entered the picture. In 1962, upon learning that the still-imprisoned, newly bookish Smith could not obtain copies of National Review following the departure of a prison chaplain who had subscribed to the magazine, Buckley attempted to arrange for Smith to receive a complimentary subscription of his own. His curiosity piqued by the magazine’s most unlikely loyal reader, Buckley commissioned Coxe, then a contributor to the magazine, to write an article examining Smith’s conviction. “Coxe raised enough questions that Buckley was pleased to print it in the October issue of National Review,” Weinman writes, “and Edgar was even more pleased to read it when Buckley sent him the very first copy of the issue, hot off the press.” In time, Buckley produced his own high-profile defense of Smith, “The Approaching End of Edgar H. Smith, Jr.,” which appeared in an October 1965 issue of Esquire magazine. 

What troubles is not that Buckley would dive into the validity of a verdict—a perfectly legitimate journalistic exercise—but that he so eagerly assumed the mantle of friend, mentor, and confessor to Smith. In correspondence quoted at length by Weinman, Buckley and Smith come across as downright chummy: Smith comes to call Buckley “my friend,” and Buckley pays earnest homage to Smith’s strength of will: “I admire your facing up to the facts of life. Obviously you are under incomparable emotional strain.”

Smith was a quick study, affecting what Buckley called a “Victorian to the point of prudery” tone strictly for the great man’s benefit, and rattling off opinions on Hemingway (“ho-hum”), Valley of the Dolls (“nothing”), and Naked Lunch (“It might be handy on camping trips, to get the fire started on damp mornings”). Buckley had been lured in, writing in a column that Smith entered prison “not far removed from the wasteful class of humanity” but had, in the intervening years, emerged “a profoundly interesting human being, brilliantly self-educated, balanced, witty, cool beyond the point a battery of psychoanalysts could have achieved working on the most plastic personality.”

When, in 1966, Smith announced in one of his letters that “I believe I have finally convinced myself that I am capable of writing a book,” Buckley believed him. So did Sophie Wilkins, a Knopf editor who, having read and bought into Buckley’s Esquire piece, had already deposited money into Smith’s defense fund and had expressed her publisher’s interest to Buckley in bringing out the literary debut of the death row inmate. “Intellectually, you are to me as champagne to a guy who never has had anything stronger than Coke,” writes Smith, who was egged on by provocative missives from Wilkins, such as: “A man like you should have more than one woman in his life . . . by a man like you I mean a born lover, gifted that way.”

In attempting to explain away this hot-and-heavy correspondence, Wilkins variously implied that she was either doing so to induce Smith to complete his book or out of plain old sympathy for a lonely, apparently innocent man facing wrongful execution. What’s beyond question is that Buckley and Wilkins’s indulging of Smith had real world consequences.

Eventually, Smith produced Brief Against Death, published to considerable attention by Knopf in 1968. PEN America made Smith its only member who also happened to be an incarcerated killer; he even churned out a well-received novel, A Reasonable Doubt. Smith’s newfound gravitas, and the increasingly widespread sentiment that he had been wronged, undoubtedly helped his chances in court, and in May 1971, he managed to convince an appellate judge that his years-ago incriminating statements had been induced by coercive means and therefore should not have been held against him at trial. A retrial was in the offing, but in December of that year, after agreeing to plead no contest to the crime—out of expediency, he claimed, rather than genuine guilt—Smith was paroled.

Upon his plea, Buckley saw to it that a limousine ferried him from Trenton State Prison. Inside, Buckley provided Smith a paper cup with rosé wine and paper bags full of roast beef. The next stop was the studio where Firing Line was filmed; Smith was to be the star guest on not one but two episodes. It should give admirers of Buckley no pleasure to say this, but if Tom Wolfe had skipped Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers, and merely tagged along with Buckley and Smith that day, Wolfe still could have written his classic piece about radical chic.

Soon, in the immortal words of Irving Kristol, Buckley, Wilkins, and a host of others were “mugged by reality.” Smith secured freelance writing gigs at the New York Times and Playboy, but his nonfiction book Getting Out was largely lashed in the press, even by Buckley, who judged it “anemic stuff, larded with Spiro Agnew jokes.” Financial problems ensued. His intense involvement with Wilkins long over, Smith married for a second time, moved to California, and found work in a series of dead-end jobs, including as a security guard and dishwasher.

Finally, in 1976, Smith again showed his true colors. In an incident with parallels to the Zielinski murder, Smith kidnapped Lefteriya Ozbun in a parking lot, tormented her with a knife as they drove (“I’m going to take your damn money, and I’m going to stick a knife in you”), and finally stabbed her in her stomach; with the car stopped, she managed to escape his grip and somehow survive; her heart was spared by just half an inch. Smith, who in his new trial admitted he was guilty of killing Zielinski, was convicted of charges related to the attack on Ozbun and sentenced to life in prison; he was eligible for parole but died in 2017 without ever being released.

Of course, Buckley was traumatized by this turn. Still, as late as 1979, he maintained that Smith’s qualities, including his “social savvy and wit,” “won him friends and partisans among persons who had never dreamed of meeting, let alone befriending, a convicted murderer.” In 1998, Smith again reached out to Buckley, this time with news of a fresh manuscript (subsequently printed by a vanity press). Buckley answered, and Smith in turn replied: “You provided me with a greater opportunity in life than I could ever have hoped for and, being the schmuck that I am, I let that opportunity slip through my fingers.” Thus the regret of someone who had been given a chance to get away with murder but fouled it up.    

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from the intelligentsia courting Smith is a simple one: trust your instincts. “Frankly, is our friend psycho?” Wilkins wondered in 1968, and many lives would have been spared much pain had Wilkins stuck with her gut reaction. Credit, too, to Buckley’s socialite wife Pat who once objected to the presence of Smith in her home in her inimitably frank fashion: “Get that murderer out of my bedroom.”

If only others could have seen things as clearly as Pat. It is a romantic mistake to imagine that prison is full of noble poets, a mistake notoriously repeated by Norman Mailer in his support of the murderer Jack Henry Abbott. Of course, we ought to work to free those who have been wrongly convicted or are deserving of mercy. But this unsparing book makes clear how very careful we ought to be in making such judgments. 

Peter Tonguette is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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