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An easy label for Christopher Hitchens? Careful, it could be a fighting word

There's not much to distract from the happy ramble in the apartment, a spacious, sparsely furnished pad with soaring ceilings in the Wyoming, a beaux-arts masterpiece where Dwight Eisenhower once lived, not to mention Betty Friedan and George Stephanopoulos. Visitors invariably are taken to the window, where Hitchens points to the Russian Embassy and the dome of the Naval Observatory in the distance, as well as the former Soviet trade mission office below. He claims that spooks have occupied an apartment beneath him to keep an eye on the goings-on across the street -- "Pretty nice job."

There's a baby grand piano, a comfy couch with deep cushions, a properly worn Oriental rug, a couple of chairs and vast acreage of bookshelves filled with volumes inscribed lovingly to Hitch by a coterie of author pals. It's the kind of place where you could spill a drink and not worry about it. Paintings lean against the eggshell walls, as if he and Blue were just moving in or just moving out. The ambiguity fits.

Blue wanders back in and asks where Hitchens will have lunch today. (Like almost everyone, she calls him Hitch, but never Chris, a diminutive he deplores. In the third person, friends generally call him "The Hitch.") He says he'll stroll down to La Tomate near Dupont Circle.

"You always go there," she says.

He shrugs. "They're nice to me there," he says.

"Oh, Hitch," Blue says. "Everyone's nice to you."

The path to Washington

Hitchens grew up the son of a reserved former British naval officer he jocularly refers to as "The Commander" and a mother, Yvonne -- "the exotic and the sunlit when I could easily have had a boyhood of stern and dutiful English gray," he writes.

"My father . . . bored her," the son continues. " 'The one unforgivable sin,' she used to say, 'is to be boring.' " His mother committed suicide when Hitchens was in his 20s, a tragedy he reflects upon in a section of his memoir titled "A coda on self-slaughter."

In late-1970s London, when the young Oxonian was writing for a lefty publication, the New Statesman, he became a fixture in Bloomsbury at the "Friday Lunch," a boozy gathering of scribes. At the table were friends and icons-in-the-making -- Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and James Fenton. Amis merits an entire chapter in Hitch's memoir; Hitch is the model for a character in the just-released Amis novel, "The Pregnant Widow." Theirs is a complicated relationship.

"I can see why Martin was so attractive to women," Hitchens says, noting that he "doesn't get" the appeal of, say, George Clooney, but does understand the allure of Warren Beatty. He reflects for a moment, and then, as if talking to himself, says: "I did ask myself when I was having an affair with his sister if that did not look a bit 'Brideshead'-ish."

So, do he and Amis have a bromance?

"I wouldn't mind having that said," Hitchens says. He elaborates that he doesn't have bromances with all his buddies. "I can safely say I have no hidden feelings for Salman," he says, in reference to "Satanic Verses" author Salman Rushdie.

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