The Magazine Reader

Hitchens Soaps Up in Vanity Fair: Oh, the Horror!

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

There I was, idly perusing the October issue of Vanity Fair, when suddenly I was struck by a profound religious revelation, something that doesn't happen to me all that often. An ethereal being whispered in my ear: "See? The Lord works in mysterious ways -- and He's got a wicked sense of humor."

This revelation did not come, I hasten to add, while I gazed at Vanity Fair's cover, which shows Nicole Kidman opening up her shirt so we can all get a good look at her bra. (Although the sight of a scantily clad Kidman does suggest the existence of a benevolent deity.) My epiphany came 200 pages deeper into the magazine, when I happened upon a far less lovely sight -- a photo of Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens naked in the shower, soaping up his portly, pudgy, porcine torso.

Yikes! It's nice to know that Hitchens takes showers occasionally, but did we really need to see the photographic evidence?

Hitchens is, of course, a famous journalistic provocateur who loves to verbally butcher sacred cows. He has penned ferocious attacks on Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger and just about everybody in between. This spring, he took on the ultimate target, publishing "God Is Not Great," a best-selling attack on the Big Guy Upstairs and the folks who worship Him.

I enjoy reading Hitchens, who is smart and funny, so I worried when his anti-God book appeared. I half-expected to read that he'd been the tragic victim of a freak accident -- a bolt of lightning darting out of a clear blue sky and zapping Hitchens on a barstool somewhere, leaving only a smoking spot of grease and half-finished Scotch.

But that didn't happen. God in His infinite wisdom chose not to smite Hitchens. Instead, He chose to humiliate Hitchens in the pages of Vanity Fair. What else could explain that hideous picture of Hitchens in the shower? Or the equally hideous photos of Hitchens swabbed in mud masks and other goop? Or the goofy Hitchens column that the pictures illustrate?

The column is Hitchens's zany account of his wild, wacky misadventures at a fancy California spa, where he was rubbed with mud and wrapped in seaweed and separated from his beloved Scotch and cigarettes.

This genre of story is, of course, one of the oldest cliches in journalism. When feature editors can't think of anything else, they send male reporters out to get weird beauty treatments and dispatch a photographer to document the humiliation. I know this from painful personal experience: In 1979, a sadistic editor at the Boston Herald American ordered me to write a story about getting a facial at a local spa -- and the idea seemed old and tired even then.

So why would a sophisticated, trendy , au courant magazine like Vanity Fair resurrect this moldy old chestnut? There's only one plausible explanation -- divine intervention. The Big Guy arranged the whole thing to humiliate Hitchens.

And it worked perfectly. First, Hitchens was forced to undergo the wretched tortures of mud baths and medicinal scrubs, all of them documented in embarrassing photos. Then he had to write the damn thing, including the requisite self-deprecating "humor," describing his "porpoise-like" body, his "ratlike claws," his "layer of flab" and his "fanglike teeth," which resemble "a handful of mixed nuts."

And the humiliation isn't over yet. At the end of the column, an italic paragraph informs readers that there's more to come: "In the next installment, our correspondent confronts extreme smoking cessation . . . cold-turkey booze withdrawal and ultimate waxing."

Oh, no, not ultimate waxing! That's a fate worse than smiting. Lord, have mercy on this poor sinner.

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