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The Marriage That Shaped American Conservatism
This essay is the latest entry in Lee Edwards’s series on unsung conservative heroes—unjustly neglected thinkers, politicians, philanthropists, and artists who have made vital contributions to American conservatism. Read Edwards’s short introduction to the series here.
Twenty-five years after his death, the legacy of Russell Kirk, the conservative author, historian, and guardian of the Permanent Things, is not just secure but spreading across the country and around the world.
This is so because of the continuing influence of his classic work The Conservative Mind, now in its seventh edition and translated into a dozen languages, as well as the cultural and political insights in his thirty-one other books, especially the widely read The Roots of American Order; the online publication University Bookman, founded by Kirk in 1960 and edited today by author Gerald Russello; a host of Kirk biographies, led by Bradley Birzer’s recent Russell Kirk: American Conservative, winner of ISI’s Conservative Book of the Year Award; the reprinting of such works as Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism and The Essential Russell Kirk; the illuminating essays in Modern Age, the conservative quarterly begun by Kirk in 1957 and still faithful—under its discerning editor Daniel McCarthy—to its founder’s dictum that conservatism is not an ideology but a philosophy; and, far from least, the many programs, conferences, and research of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, led by Annette Kirk, Russell’s indefatigable widow.
The Woman Behind the Legacy
Yet even someone as prominent as Russell Kirk, who gave the conservative movement its name and is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential American intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, might with the passage of time be forgotten or given less attention than he deserves.
Annette Kirk is determined that will not happen. The Kirk Center, which she founded in 1995, the year following Russell’s death, is the means to that end.
According to Jeffrey Nelson, vice chairman of the center, since the 1970s more than 5,600 students have attended programs at Piety Hill, Russell’s name for the Kirk home located in the tiny town of Mecosta, Michigan. About 400 scholars have lived there, taking advantage of a 12,000-volume library and staying in one of the six cottages that compose the Kirk campus.
Typical of the grateful scholars is Dr. Ryan Streeter, director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who first visited Piety Hill as a student in 1993. Five years later, Streeter was “struggling” to finish his doctoral dissertation and arranged to come to Mecosta as a Kirk Center resident fellow. “I was completely unplugged,” he recalls. “It was the perfect setting for a scholarly endeavor.” Today, reports National Review’s John Miller, Kirk alumni work all over the world, including the University of Moscow.
Annette is the primary cause of the expanding Kirk bibliography. She cooperated closely with Birzer on his 2015 Kirk biography and asked author James Person to edit a book of Russell’s correspondence. The result was Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk, which includes correspondence with an amazingly eclectic list of names, including T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley Jr., Ray Bradbury, Richard Weaver, Eric Voegelin, Jacques Barzun, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.
The letters are “far more than mere ‘ordinary notes,’” Person wrote. “They reveal a thoughtful man critical of America’s drift toward social atomism, materialism, and utilitarianism and away from true community and adherence to wise tradition.” Evidence of Kirk’s universal appeal is the translation of his books into many languages. A new edition of The Conservative Mind sold more than 4,500 copies in South Korea, and a Chinese and even a Turkish edition are forthcoming.
All the while, young men and women come to Mecosta to draw from the deep well of Russell Kirk’s wisdom and appreciation of the “permanent things,” about which he wrote:
There are certain permanent things in society: the health of the family, inherited political institutions that ensure a measure of order and justice and freedom, a life of diversity and independence, a life marked by widespread possession of private property. These permanent things guarantee against arbitrary interference by the state. These are all aspects of conservative thought, which have developed gradually as the debate since the French Revolution has gone on.
Beauty and the Bachelor
It seemed an unlikely marriage—Russell Kirk, the introverted forty-five-year-old confirmed bachelor and humanist, and Annette Courtemanche, the extroverted twenty-three-year-old former department store model, high school teacher, and devout Roman Catholic.
It was love at first sight, however, when Kirk spoke at a New York City conference in February 1960 and could not take his eyes off the beautiful black-haired Molloy College junior in the front row. It took him four years of courtship through letters, tape recordings, and books like The Mind and Heart of Love by Martin D’Arcy to win the “beauteous” young woman and intellectual who, with her brother Regis, would “haunt” Manhattan and Long Island coffee shops on weekends, reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
At last Annette wrote Russell that their union was inevitable. “Like death and taxes?” Russell quipped. According to Annette, they “envisioned marriage as a vocation, an opportunity to serve not only each other and one’s family, but one’s community, one’s culture.” They agreed that theirs was as much a partnership as a marriage, dedicated to the preservation and promotion of what T. S. Eliot called the Permanent Things.
Russell and Annette were married on September 19, 1964, in our Lady of the Skies chapel at John F. Kennedy Airport. (The once-skeptic Russell had been baptized and accepted into the Catholic Church earlier that year, something he had been meaning to do for some time.) Annette the quintessential New Yorker moved to Mecosta, Michigan (population five hundred), to start her new life with Russell in his ancestral home, Piety Hill.
Before marriage, Russell Kirk had been nicknamed the “Monk of Mecosta” by friends. When Annette gave birth in short order to four daughters—Monica, Cecilia, Felicia, and Andrea—a Philadelphia Society colleague remarked, “Some monk!”
Annette Yvonne Cecile Courtemanche was born on May 20, 1941, in the Springfield Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York, to devout Catholic parents. Her father, Regis Henri Courtemanche, worked in a variety of jobs, from doorman to jewelry designer to bursar of a private school. Her mother, Mary Cullen, instilled in her children a strong interest in conservative politics and community service, especially the improvement of schools. She formed the only bloc of delegates pledged to the presidential candidacy of General Douglas MacArthur at the 1952 Republican National Convention.
Annette attended Molloy College, a Catholic school in the Thomist tradition, where she studied English and was a campus leader, serving as student body president in her junior year. The curriculum was designed to introduce students to first principles, Annette recalls, “to both the life of the mind and the realm of the spirit.” Unlike most of the young men she knew, “Russell enjoyed discussing the essential questions in which I was interested . . . the proofs for the existence of God, the meaning and purpose of life.”
Possessed of seemingly boundless energy, Annette helped start several youth organizations including Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). She was one of half a dozen young women at YAF’s founding meeting at William F. Buckley Jr.’s home in Sharon, Connecticut. She served as secretary, typing what became the Sharon Statement, an iconic declaration of conservative principles.
Following their four-year courtship and “inevitable” marriage, Annette began running the household while Russell produced a mighty flow of books, short stories, essays, newspaper columns, and letters on his manual and later electric typewriter. She became the keeper of the tablets, carefully preserving every bit of Russell’s writing. She organized his lecture and travel plans, sometimes traveling with him. Disdaining most of modernity, especially television, Russell boarded a plane when he had to but left any driving to Annette.
Unwed Mothers, Vietnamese Families, Ethiopians
The doors of their Italianate residence were always open to the poor and the needy, including Vietnamese families, waves of Ethiopians, Poles fleeing martial law, freedom-seeking Croats, students unhappy with their colleges—what Russell called “a diversity of waifs and strays from Progress.” Also welcomed were unwed mothers, a reflection of the Kirks’ strong pro-life beliefs. Sometimes, white-masked, Annette supervised the birth of babies in the local hospital and then arranged adoptions.
Charity began but never seemed to end in their home. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, a Vietnamese military officer and his ten dependents were lodged for three years in a house next to Russell’s library before settling in Southern California. Russell arranged, with the help of friends in the Reagan administration, to “extricate” dissident Rett Ludwikowski, a Polish professor and author, along with his wife and their children. The family lived for two years next to the library, before the father obtained a teaching post at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Unwilling to say no to almost anyone, Russell and Annette were in danger of being eaten out of house and land. It became necessary to sell property, but the Kirks sought consolation and confirmation of their faith in the motto above the entrance to their home: “God helping, work prospers.”
And so it did until almost the last days of conservatism’s master of letters.
When an assistant to Russell asked why he and Annette had such a happy marriage, he replied that it was their agreement on first principles, like the need for limited government and maximum individual responsibility and faith in a beneficent God. There was also a deep mutual respect for each other. They talked ideas daily as Russell described what he was writing and sought Annette’s reaction. Theirs was a marriage of mind, body, and spirit.
Adventures in Politics
The Kirks’ forays into politics included campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1964 (Russell ghostwrote a speech for Goldwater that the presidential candidate delivered at Notre Dame); counseling an inquiring President Richard Nixon, mired in Vietnam, to read T. S. Eliot’s “Notes Toward the Definition of Culture”; and Russell serving as general chairman of paleo-conservative Patrick Buchanan’s presidential campaign in the 1992 Michigan Republican primary.
Because Russell was usually on the road, lecturing somewhere in America, the running of the Buchanan campaign was left to Annette, who did not complain—she loved the role. The Kirk kitchen became campaign headquarters, noisy, frenetic, filled with ethnic Catholics and even members of the United Auto Workers union. Despite limited resources, the paleo-conservative Buchanan received 25 percent of the Michigan primary vote, and the Kirks helped give voice to the Middle Americans who, years later, would form the Tea Party.
Like most conservatives, the Kirks celebrated Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory, and then Annette, not Russell, got a call from the White House. President Reagan and Education Secretary Terrell Bell created a commission to investigate America’s Deweyite education system. Annette readily agreed to serve on the National Commission on Excellence in Education. When it became clear the commission would not recommend a smaller governmental role in education or endorse reforms like tax credits and vouchers, conservatives pressured Annette to resign or denounce the commission’s liberal recommendations.
Instead, Annette and like-minded commission members adopted a prudential course, working hard to include conservative principles in the final draft. Released in April 1983, the report was titled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Highlighted were the words: “Parents are the first and primary educators of their children.” The author of this simple but powerful sentence was Annette Kirk. The commission’s report became one of the most widely read and cited government documents of the Reagan years.
Annette’s participation in the National Commission was not her last foray into the field of education. From 1984 to 1987 she was a member of the Committee on Education within the United States Catholic Conference. She was also a board member of the Education Freedom Fund, dedicated to awarding scholarships to low-income students in Michigan. “Russell and I . . . both hoped to inspire the young to appreciate the ancient ends of education, described by Plato as ‘the acquiring of wisdom and virtue.’”
All of his life, Russell Kirk wrote at a pace that would have exhausted most writers, committed to preserving the fundamental ideas that sustain civilization. He never expected to become the face of a new kind of conservatism, Annette explains. When he wrote The Conservative Mind, he did not think it would do well because there wasn’t at that time a conservative presence of any measure, “let alone a mind.” Yet, she says with quiet satisfaction, with that one book, “he gave the conservative movement its name, its identity, its genealogy.”
Not Goodbye, But Farewell
After forty years of nonstop writing, teaching, and traveling, Russell Kirk was at last forced to slow down because of congestive heart failure. At one of the last gatherings with his daughters, Russell blessed each of the girls, said he would pray for them in heaven, and made them promise to care for Annette. On April 29, 1994, Russell passed away quietly in his own bed while Monica, his oldest daughter, sang the lullabies he had sung to her as a little girl.
A decade later, on the fortieth anniversary of the Philadelphia Society, Annette spoke at the traditional Saturday luncheon about the critical role of the rising generation. She conceded that the challenge of young conservatives to “reclaim the culture, to redeem the time” was great. Yet, she said, “If we, their mentors, teach them to love and desire to defend the permanent things, they will take up this task enthusiastically and perform ably.”
Russell would have led the applause for Annette Kirk, unflagging in her mission to preserve the legacy of Russell Kirk for this generation and generations to come.
Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and the author or editor of twenty-five books, including Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution, William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement, and his memoir, Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty.
Image via the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.
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