Everyone, it seems, has a Christopher Hitchens story.
And why shouldn't they? The iconic journalist was outspoken, recognizable, and he traveled everywhere. He was the kind of person you remembered, like a literary character brought to life, refined but vaguely disheveled, perpetually slumped and tired. He often seemed slightly irritated, yet he always had a boyish, mischievous air about him, like he was doing something illicit for a cause -- sneaking a book out of a friend's library to make it a gift to another friend, for example, but only if the second friend promised to return it in equally clandestine fashion -- when what he was really doing was having an argument with a political adversary on a talk show. He moved through social circles and across continents, dropping bon mots, Auden quotes, and Martin Amis stories like bread crumbs on a forest path. It makes sense that a lot of journalists and bloggers would have met the man at some point, and it seems that in the past week everyone with any memory of doing so has weighed in on his passing ("Remembering Christopher Hitchens, in the B Concourse of LaGuardia's United Terminal, on Saturday, June 7, 2003, as I Was Waiting to Get a Starbucks").
As if to prove that everyone really does have a Christopher Hitchens story, I have one, too.
Mine goes like this:
In the late 2000's, Holly Jones, a Washington, D.C. commercial real estate executive, became a bookstore stalker with a purpose. She went to local book store readings by D.C. authors so that in the dedication line she could pass them some literature and ask for their help in building a writing center for D.C. grade-school students modeled on the 826 after-school writing and tutoring centers founded by author Dave Eggers. When Holly buttonholed Christopher Hitchens, he happily joined the cause. And so, in the first years the writing center was laboring to get off the ground, Hitchens held an annual fundraiser in his Washington apartment. Guests paid a couple hundred dollars for the privilege of sharing a tumbler of bourbon with Hitchens and his family and listening to short readings by notable D.C. authors, and whoever else was willing to drop in from New York or elsewhere.
I went to the party held in the early months of 2010, the last one Hitchens hosted. A few months before, Dave Eggers had agreed to make the fledgling writing center -- then called Capitol Letters -- the eighth franchise in the 826 operation. A few months later, Hitchens would learn he had esophageal cancer. I went because I was an 826 volunteer, and I had never been to a fancy literary fundraiser before. I wanted to see what it would be like.
I went with my friend Lucia, a journalist and another 826 volunteer. I remember our walk over to the building, a tall edifice across from the little park that gives the Kalorama Triangle its name. I remember thinking, "So this is where Christopher Hitchens lives." I remember, also, that it was very cold.
We had somehow been told, through a secret channel, the number of Hitchens' apartment, just as in a spy novel. It was on the building's top floor. The apartment was easy to find from the elevator because there was a small crowd at the door, and a coterie of 826DC volunteers taking tickets, hanging coats, and directing guests inside.
We checked our coats, said hello to friends, and made our way down the hallway toward the larger rooms at the other end. Imagine a dolly shot in which the camera enters a sophisticated urban literary party -- hardwood floors, Persian rugs, everyone is elegant and everything gently gleams -- and you have the picture. The women all wore little black cocktail dresses, the men fancy shirts and skinny ties. Everyone was holding a drink, everyone was a writer, or a book person of some sort, or really wanted to be, and half the crowd was famous. I talked to George Pelecanos and Larry Doyle. Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida stood in the far corner of an adjacent room. Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue were behind me, talking to Christopher Buckley, who leaned against the grand piano. Azar Nafisi was also there, along with Matt Klam and his family, and sprinkled among the literati were the friends I had made over the past year volunteering at the writing center. I met, and forgot to get the e-mail address of, a beautiful French film director who was in town to screen her movie in Bethesda, Maryland, and who seemed to be suggesting I visit her in Paris. Behind everything, framed in the windows of the Hitchens' apartment, and just below our line of sight, was the skyline of Washington, D.C.
It took me a few minutes to notice something odd about the apartment: There wasn't any furniture. There were carpets on the hardwood floors, and every wall had a bookshelf -- there must have been a thousand books -- and a grand piano in the center of the expansive living room. And that was basically it. I looked around and counted two footstools which were, in that setting, entirely decorative, too small to accommodate anyone who might want to sit down. In the other rooms there were a few small tables, and one rectangular room may have had a dining table. The apartment was spacious, in other words, and elegantly decorated, but it wasn't clear anyone actually lived there.
It made me wonder: Was this really Christopher Hitchens' apartment? Perhaps we were in a second place he kept for literary gatherings? Was a second apartment an accoutrement of literary celebrity, or had the family carted its furniture and belongings into other rooms we couldn't see? That would be a good strategy, I thought, to ensure the party didn't run too late.
I wondered, also (and how could you not?), where the money came from. It was easily a five-room apartment, maybe more, with a spectacular view and what looked like a very nice piano. How much did one earn writing a weekly column for Slate, the occasional piece for Vanity Fair, and publishing a book every year or so by an independent press? I wandered over to the empty kitchen that had been turned into the apartment's catering headquarters. It didn't look like it was ever used -- more evidence that this was not the real Hitchens residence. There were four or five workers packed in there, preparing hors d'oeuvres and pouring wine. You could see, on the other side of the room, a dark hallway leading off somewhere. Maybe that was where the Hitchens family lived? There were only three of them, after all. They probably didn't need a lot of space. Maybe they also didn't need a real kitchen.
Back out at the party, I tried to chat up George Pelecanos, but without much luck. The Paris film director seemed to like me. For no particular reason, I decided not to try to talk to Eggers or Vendela Vida right away. I was able to join in some writer small talk, in a circle with Hitchens and a professor from the University of Maryland, whose named I can't recall. We were discussing the best time of the day to write.
"I prefer the crepuscular hour," Hitchens said, in his perfect accent, then slipped away to join some other guests. As I made a mental note of Hitchens' casual use of the word "crepuscular," the Maryland professor grumbled in my direction.
"Those sound like the words of someone who hasn't done any writing all day," he said.
Suddenly I imagined Hitchens in his apartment, watching the sunset after a day lost to ruminations and the taste of scotch, pounding out a Vanity Fair essay on why Orwell mattered or why women aren't funny.
The main event of the evening was a series of short readings by some of the famous guests. I remember that Azar Nafisi read part of an impassioned essay about the nobility of literature, that George Pelecanos read part of a story that (I think) took place in a prison, and that Christopher Buckley read an excerpt from one of his novels, maybe Thank You for Smoking. I remember that Eggers dropped the pretense of giving a reading and just gave a rousing speech asking all of us to promise to help the writing center.
That is all I remember of the readings. The rest of my memory is occupied by the eloquent introductions Hitchens gave of the authors who were reading -- Nafisi, Pelecanos, Buckley, Eggers, and there might have been one more.
Here is how it went: Hitchens stood before his guests, lazily holding a tumbler of bourbon, waiting until he had everyone's attention. He was practiced at this. After he scanned the room in silence for a moment, he delivered a witty, perfect introduction. He spoke without notes, seeming to muse as he went along, composing tiny essays on the spot for each author we were about to hear. It was like the literary academy scene from a sentimental British film. Surely he had gathered his thoughts at some point in the evening? And yet it really did seem that he was completely winging it.
He told anecdotes about Azar Nafisi, and Christopher's famous father William -- things they had done together, places they had been, other famous writers they had known. He tossed in reminiscences about his childhood in England, and about when he and Martin Amis were young lions at The New Statesman. He quoted Auden, and Larkin, too, I think. He was holding court (it was really the only time I've seen anyone do the thing we mean by the phrase "holding court") in what may or may not have been his real apartment, clearly loving the attention. I looked over at Carol Blue and she was smiling. "She knows this is what makes him happy," I thought.
At one point, halfway through an amusing introduction of the Simpsons-writer-turned-novelist Larry Doyle, which had everyone momentarily confused, Hitchens stopped himself.
"Oh, dreadfully sorry," he said. "Larry, you're not reading tonight, are you?"
Everyone laughed, and Hitchens passed Doyle over and got on with things.
Watching him, it dawned on me. Hitchens had arranged everything about the evening perfectly, and modestly, to make himself the center of attention.
A short while after the readings it was time to go. As I was leaving with Lucia, and another friend, Sandra (a poet), to get drinks at the Russia House, Hitchens stopped us at the door. There we stood for 10 or 15 minutes as Hitchens charmed my female friends with the jokes, stories, and literary references and associations he could so effortlessly weave into any conversation. He told a joke about religion that I wish I could remember. He did all this while politely, and diplomatically, ignoring me. At one point he reached behind his back, into a box of his books by the door (there were books everywhere), and pressed one of them into Sandra's hand. As we were leaving he took my shoulder and looked me in the eye. "Take good care of these two," he said, and then we were off.
Later it occurred to me the entire evening had been a kind of literary performance. The lure of the fundraiser had been the chance to have drinks in Christopher Hitchens' apartment, but had we really been in his apartment? Meeting Christopher Hitchens, as I finally got to do as we were leaving, was like meeting the television Christopher Hitchens brought to life. He was just as dashing, just as articulate and well-versed, only he was larger, and there in front of you in three dimensions. Did Hitchens really have the canon memorized, as it seemed, or had he memorized a few lines from Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Yeats, and a dozen stories about Martin Amis and Ian McEwan? He was either a genius or a literary magician, but which of the two I couldn't tell.
Now, as I look back on that evening, I think I know why Hitchens was so popular among journalists and writers. It was because, for them -- for us -- he was the living personification of a literary ideal. The hard-drinking, globe-trotting, debonair man in a trench coat, an encyclopedia of literary references in his head, just there to get the story and tell it with a little style. Another way to put it would be to say that literary culture is ephemeral, but Hitchens made it tangible. He gave a center -- a living example -- to something that is essentially elusive. He did this by meticulously crafting a persona -- the persona of a sporting literary gentleman in love with politics -- and playing the role of that persona in his real life. To the casual observer at his apartment for a literary party, it wasn't clear where that persona ended, or if it ever did.
And yet, despite the trappings of the event, and the performance on display, I remember, too, the affecting warmth and sincerity of everything Hitchens did that evening. He must have hired the catering staff and paid for all of food and wine. He enthusiastically matched wits with his guests, treated the evening like a cause celebre, and made everyone feel welcome in his home. Or what might have been his home (not to belabor the point, but you really couldn't tell). He devoted a long evening to raising money for a writing center no one had yet heard of, only because he loved literary culture and wanted to make it strong. He made us love our love of writing.
We said good night around 11. Hitchens was clearly worn out, from telling stories, from dropping names, from the glasses of bourbon he had been carrying around all night and the cancer he didn't yet know he had. When he told me to take care of my friends Lucia and Sandra as we were leaving, it was, after all, a nice gesture. I smiled, took his elbow, and shook his hand. As we were leaving, he waved and looked me in the eye.
Now he's gone, and everyone it seems, has something to say. The pieces I've read generally fall into two categories. There are those who admire Hitchens, almost idolize him, for his charm, his companionship, and for the life he lived, and there are those who castigate him for the cheap journalism he sometimes wrote, for supporting and defending the Iraq War, for never really standing for anything, for ending his career in thrall to money and power.
Was Christopher Hitchens a good friend, an entertaining comrade, and the embodiment of a journalistic ideal? Or was he a writer of tremendous gifts who never quite found the true north of his compass, who somehow let his best chances to write for eternity pass him by?
Even in that one evening in Washington, I think I saw the answer: He was both.
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