A formidable lineup of writers, editors, actors, scientists, and assorted intellectuals gathered at Cooper Union's Great Hall, at 7 East 7th Street, to revive for one last occasion the voice of Christopher Hitchens, which was silenced by esophageal cancer on December 15, 2011.
The novelist Martin Amis delivered a heartfelt but unsentimental eulogy, praising his late friend's good looks ("More handsome than a man has a right to be, he liked to say") and voice ("He had none of the poncey affectations that I can't seem to eradicate") but gently mocking his self-mythologizing tendencies. Noting that Hitchens' habit of referring to himself in the third person was in no way a sign of mental illness -- "Hitch was penetratingly sane; he knew who he was" -- Amis nevertheless observed that Hitchens, who hated to go unrecognized, once endured 15 painful minutes of not being stopped by admirers, causing him to conclude that everyone in the vicinity was hopelessly uncultured.
Above all, however, Amis spoke admiringly of how Hitchens, unlike so many journalists, refused to fall into the trap of impartial observation. "He made intellection dramatic," he said.
Most of the afternoon's presenters -- including Hitchens' wife, Carol Blue -- were content to let the late journalist, author, debater and "scallywag" (host Graydon Carter's word, not mine) do the talking. They sampled his vast output of books and articles from the past four decades, summoning a torrent of impossibly eloquent words aimed against his cherished targets (Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, God) and in favor of his revered ideals (skepticism, liberation, civilization).
The playwright Tom Stoppard read a dispatch from Prague, where Hitchens was arrested at a meeting of reformists; the author Salman Rushdie read a virtuoso takedown of religious injunctions against eating pork, adding, "Christopher always appreciated the loss of my porcine virginity"; the actor Sean Penn read from Hitchens' exposé on the biological horrors inflicted on Vietnamese civilians by America's deployment of Agent Orange; the editor Cary Goldstein read Hitch's frank and funny words of advice about drinking (doing it alone is perfectly acceptable, but never mix, never drive, and never combine booze with narcotics); and the actress Olivia Wilde -- whose parents, journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, relied on Hitchens as a babysitter -- read a heartbreaking report from post-earthquake Haiti.
British multi-hyphenate Stephen Fry prefaced his reading with some amusing remarks about his sometimes contentious relationship with Hitchens. After quoting Hitchens' declaration that "the four most overrated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics," Fry, who is gay, remarked, "Three out of four isn't bad."
James Fenton read his poem "For Andrew Wood," which begins by asking, "What would the dead want from us," and the scientist Lawrence Krauss spoke proudly of having once identified himself as Hitchens' "personal physicist." And the filmmaker Alex Gibney produced a gripping montage of Hitchens jousting in public and on TV, not omitting the moment when the great verbal swashbuckler resorted to giving Bill Maher's audience the finger and shouting, "Fuck you."
There were more luminaries in the audience, including Steve Kroft, whose 60 Minutes profile of Hitchens turned up in Gibney's montage; SNL player Jason Sudeikis, who is dating Olivia Wilde; former U.S. Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, with whom Hitchens formed an unlikely alliance during the run-up to the Iraq war; and a full contingent of Graydon Carter's fellow Condé Nast editors, including The New Yorker's David Remnick and Vogue's Anna Wintour.
In the end, it was Carter who had the last word. After reading the transcript of a hilariously brutal phone message that Hitchens once left for an unlucky detractor, he sent us all off with a very Hitchens benediction: "As Christopher would say, may you all thrive."
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