It was not a slow news day. US troops handed over the last military base in Iraq. Golden Globe nominations were announced in Hollywood. The International Monetary Fund warned the world was heading into a “1930s-style slump.” But the top item on the Google News feed—and the New York Times and Guardian web sites—was the death, hardly unexpected, of Christopher Hitchens. Which I suspect would have given him considerable pleasure.
And might still. By no means the least of the consolations now available to the unbeliever, and to those who live outside the lines of conventional virtue, is the thought that if we turn out to be mistaken in our Cartesian wagers, and find ourselves in the long, long chute to a smoke-and-brimstone-filled afterlife, Christopher will be there at the bottom to welcome us with a drink and, why not, a cigarette.
Trying to absorb the news this morning, I kept thinking of the Zanzibar Club, near the old New Statesman offices, where I first met Christopher in 1979, bearing an introduction from Amy Wilentz, late of these pages. “Tell him I said he’s a worldly wise man who will tell you everything you need to know,” she wrote to me. So I did, and he probably did, though after a futile effort to match him scotch for scotch—I gave up after 8, though Christopher kept on a good while longer, until he rose, steadily, and explained apologetically that he still had a column to write—I couldn’t remember much wisdom.
What remained indelible, though, was his wit, his bonhomie, his beauty—he looked like I’d always imagined Puck, or like a pre-Raphaelite fairy gone slightly to seed—and his kindness. At the time I was a graduate student with a single Nation book review to my name, yet Christopher insisted on introducing me to everyone in the club—which turned out to be pretty much everyone on Fleet Street—as a “distinguished American critic,” and on getting me an assignment from the Statesman.
Five years later he got me out of trouble in Cyprus after I’d crashed a rented car into a police Land Rover, telling the authorities I was “an influential American journalist”—a fib that not only gained my freedom but resulted in a free hotel room as well.
The last time I saw Christopher was in the summer of 2009, when he materialized at the edge of the audience after I’d done a reading at Politics and Prose in Washington. There had been a kind of froideur between us over various matters, some personal and some political, and I was deeply touched that he’d come. After we exchanged kisses, he asked if I was free for dinner and I explained that I was going out with my cousin and her daughter, who’d just finished her first year as a midshipman at Annapolis. After we parted, my young cousin said, “It’s so cool that he came.” And it was.
Agreeing—or disagreeing—with all of Christopher’s positions over the years was impossible. But he was always very easy to love. The last e-mail he sent me to was to correct my mistaken attribution of a quotation. And the last e-mail I sent to him was to ask him about a phrase he’d written in Vanity Fair: “Heroism breaks its heart, and idealism its back, on the intransigence of the credulous and the mediocre, manipulated by the cynical and the corrupt.” If we are all lucky, I wrote, “and you recover, I’d love to ask you to unpack that epigram someday. But frankly I’d settle for your being well enough to tell me to go fuck myself.”
Read D.D. Guttenplan’s review of Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22.”