There are a few people you read on the web, hear on the radio or see on TV and think, “I’d really like to meet that person.” When I moved to DC in 2001, I had a mental short list of those people, and Christopher Hitchens was right at the top.
A lot of people on that list didn’t live up to the expectations I created for them in my mind, but Hitchens exceeded them.
I met him through my then-boss, Grover Norquist. I saw “Drinks with Hitchens” on his calendar and immediately ran into Grover’s office to ask if it was Christopher Hitchens, or just some other Hitchens. He informed me that it was the Hitchens.
I knew I couldn’t weasel my way into that session, though I wanted to. So I asked Grover if he thought Hitchens would come be a special guest at a monthly happy hour I had recently started. All these special guests – always notable conservatives or libertarians – had to do was show up and hang out with a couple-hundred like-minded young people. No speeches. Just beer. Or, in Hitchens’ case, Johnny Walker Black.
Hitchens agreed immediately. Christopher loved talking to anyone about virtually anything.
I stood outside the bar nervously that night. I didn’t know if he’d show or when. But he did appear … right on time. The crowd was huge and a rumble of excitement rippled through the room as he entered. Over the years, most of the guests at that happy hour – luminaries such as Grover, Michael Steele, Ralph Reed, Speaker Boehner – came in and worked the room. With Hitchens, the room worked him. He didn’t make it 10 feet in the door the whole night. People came to him in seemingly endless waves.
He stayed the whole night when all I asked for was an hour. That’s just how he was. I remember him telling me to quit smoking, that he just had and felt great (it, unfortunately, didn’t take). But most of his time was consumed by other people there. That was fine with me. I had his email address, I thought. I could contact him whenever I wanted.
Turns out it’s much easier to email someone you look up to when you have something specific to ask rather than to just shoot the breeze. A few months passed and I sent nothing. What could I send? The guy intimidated me. He intimidated everyone – not intentionally … just by being so damn smart.
He was always the smartest person in the room, but he never made a point of pointing it out. He just was, and everyone knew it. The intimidation was their problem, my problem, not his.
Over time I ran into him at other events. He always remembered me and approached me, even though he had no reason to. And over time, I finally felt comfortable enough to email him to ask his opinion on this or that. His emails were always short and to the point. He’d directly address the issues or questions I raised, then add well wishes. But beyond that, nothing … not a single wasted word.
Later, I would invite him to a different event. He responded he wished he could go, but it was a Jewish holiday and he would be in Temple. He added “(I know, I know.)” This was, after all, at the same time his book, God Is Not Great, was on the bestseller list.
This might seem like hypocrisy, but it wasn’t. Christopher’s wife, Carol Blue, or just “Blue,” is Jewish, and she wanted him go go with her. Christopher’s family was Jewish, though he didn’t know it growing up. So maybe it also was his way of nodding to his family. I don’t know, I didn’t ask. But that’s how he was. Accepting.
He was a devout atheist, if there is such a thing. But he wasn’t militant about it. He was curious about what others believed, but he didn’t judge you for it. The old adage “you can disagree without being disagreeable” certainly applied to him. That’s something we’ve lost along the way. Though he could certainly be disagreeable when the situation called for it.
You wouldn’t find Hitchens getting bent out of shame like the talentless Bill Press, who can’t control his anger at even Tim Tebow of all people. Although Press and many others want Tebow to “STFU” with his praying – and would love to shut him up (in a tolerant way, naturally) if they could – Christopher interacted with people who thought differently than he did. He wouldn’t care if someone prayed or danced the worm in the endzone like a fool (a celebration those attacking Tebow don’t seem to have a problem with). He was interested only in whether someone was interesting.
I invited him to an event on the National Mall – a Tea Party event. But I found I was unable to attend at the last minute. Although he was hardly a Tea Partier, he went anyway, just curious about the event and the people who would attend. He emailed me later to ask if I knew who the “British fellow” on stage who talked disputed global warming was. It was Lord Monckton. I tracked down his email address for Christopher so they could talk. That’s how Hitchens was. He wanted to talk to people from every point of view, not silence them.
Speaking of emails, I remember one that he signed, “Wishing you well in this toad-filled season.” I thought, “What the Hell does that mean?” I Googled it, I asked everyone. I found nothing to explain it. Finally I asked Grover if he knew what it meant, because I didn’t want to ask Hitchens and risk looking stupid. Grover looked up from his desk and said, “I don’t know. Maybe he’s just some place with a lot of toads.”
The next time I saw Christopher I asked him because I had to know. Was this some obscure literary reference? Some English saying I’d never heard? Some new catch phrase soon to sweep the nation? Nope. He was in California at the time and there were a lot of toads around when he wrote it.
That was when I knew Hitchens says, or said (it feels wrong to past tense him, but…) exactly what he thinks. He was a very literal person. Bushes ran no risk of being beaten around with him. Which makes my favorite Hitchens story all the more funny to me because I could have avoided it had I just remember this fact.
He invited me to his home for the Vanity Fail after party at the White House Correspondence Dinner a few years ago. It was the “IT” party. Needless to say, my date and I were excited. We get to his apartment at whatever time it was – we’d had a few drinks already so clocks weren’t an issue – and were immediately greeted by Christopher at the door.
After pleasantries, handshakes and hugs, he asked us what we drank. My date said “light beer” because she drank light beer, I said “vodka” because I drink vodka. I thought nothing of it, but Hitchens put up his finger and said, “One second,” and walked away. We stood in the doorway, talking, wondering why we were waiting there while the party was happening just feet away. But our host told us to wait, so we were going to wait.
In the minute Christopher was gone we saw Katie Couric talking to the cast of The Wire, Tucker Carlson in the background and Salman Rushdie walking by. This was a luxury apartment behind 2 separate guard posts filled with famous people. I turned to my date and said, “We have no business being here.” She returned an agreeing laugh as our host returned.
Christopher came back with a light beer in one hand and a champagne flute filled to the top with room-temperature vodka. She’d asked for light beer, and I’d asked for vodka. Not vodka and orange juice or vodka and Diet Coke – my favorite drink. I just said vodka, and vodka I got.
I took my drink with a look of amusement and horror. I tried to hide the horror, of course even though the only drink more disgusting than lukewarm vodka is a large glass of it. I thanked him and took a sip. I smiled an uncomfortable grin.
Christopher smiled back knowingly, bowed his head in the way people do to usher someone inside, swung his arm toward the room and “Come on in. Enjoy!” And in we went.
Safely out of Christopher's earshot, I immediately told my date we had to find the bar so I could get a bigger glass with some ice and a mix, which we mercifully did.
I learned that night when you tell Christopher Hitchens what you want, say exactly what you mean. Don’t mince words, or you’ll end up negotiating your way to the bottom of a huge glass of lukewarm vodka.
That story always makes me laugh today. I can only imagine the look of horror on my face when he handed me that glass, and I still remember the mischievous look on his. I never brought it up with him, but I’m sure he knew.
As he lost his hair, lost his voice and was slowly losing his life, I never knew him to lose himself. He was a writer. He once said, "Being a writer is what I am, rather than what I do." He also was a journalist. He may be the last of the hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-working journalists who threw themselves into the middle of Hell to get a story and managed to write it in a way that made going from one word to the next a joy.
It’s sad to think the next generation will grow up thinking the current group of “journalists” – people such as Matt Taibbi – are cool. The current crop of “journalists” want us to think they are gonzo and balls to the wall. They comb their hair like James Dean and buy replicas of the red jacket from Rebel Without a Cause because they think that’s all there is to being as cool as James Dean. A red jacket and a DA hairstyle don’t make you cool. Being cool makes the red jacket and DA hairstyle cool. And Hitchens was cool.
I emailed with him when he was in Texas getting treatment over the summer. He was hopeful. The doctors were hopeful. But he still knew the odds were long. The esophageal cancer he was fighting had taken his father. He knew how serious it was. But he didn’t let it change him.
As he did often, he changed the subject line of the email exchange to “Die Another Day? CH.”
That’s how he was.
I'm near the end of almost a year of chemotherapy and radiation (in Houston for the past few weeks: quite enjoying being an honorary Texan) and can't safely take any more. But they tell me the tumors may be feeling the same way...
What a wager!
Hope you thrive.
It was hopeful, but not to be. Still, “Hope you thrive” stuck with me, sticks with me to this day. Having gone through a Hell unknown to anyone who hasn’t, he didn’t lose who he was.
The last contact I had with him was on Nov. 17. I wanted to see how he was doing, if he was around and up for company, as a good friend had just asked if it was possible to meet him. The last thing he wrote to me was “I don't think I am up for any events yet. Thanks also for kind words.”
That “yet” gave me hope, as he was not one to use words superfluously. It was, unfortunately, not to be.
There were many more exchanges full of colorful metaphors and language that would make a drunken sailor blush, but those will remain locked where they are. Countless others knew him better and knew him longer. I’m just honored to have known him at all. I was lucky. I am lucky.
Christopher Hitchens was a good man, a friend, a writer, maybe THE writer of the last 100 years, and a man who was exactly who he was. Think what you will of his politics, his atheism, his whatever. In the end, to the end, he lived exactly as he wanted. Bravely. Boldly.
Sixty-two years wasn’t enough. He is missed.