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

Decades ago, Hitchens gravitated to New York, a place he found hard to leave despite a good job offer to write a column for the Nation, plus the allure of descending on Washington to "fight back against the Reaganites." As he readied to quit New York, he felt "a pang" when he ran into Susan Sontag at a restaurant.

"Susan, political as she was, didn't have to lead the very politicized life that I was about to embark upon," Hitchens writes. Arriving in Washington "felt at first like moving to a company town where nothing ever actually got itself made. . . . Dowdiness was a theme: on the streets of New York one's visual sense was constantly assailed and tortured by a fiesta of distraction: in my new home I found I could walk almost the whole length of Connecticut Avenue without having to turn my head for a second look."

Looking back, it's hard to imagine Hitchens as a D.C. newbie, a stranger to its mores. Evoking Oscar Wilde, he writes of being invited -- only once -- to salons hosted by "grande dames" such as Katharine Graham and Susan Mary Alsop.

Decades later, an invitation to a Hitch party is an American translation of a Bloomsbury gathering, so prized and bipartisan that Grover Norquist, the conservative activist, says he left Vice President Dick Cheney's Christmas party early one year for a get-together at Hitch's. "You'll find yourself sitting next to Salman Rushdie, Barbra Streisand, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis," says Christopher Buckley, a Hitchens pal and Washington satirist.

Buckley once got a call from Hitchens inviting him to a dinner and apologizing that he "must be a bit coy and elliptical about the guest of honor." The guest, Buckley learned, was the man Hitchens referred to as "The Inconvenienced One," none other than houseguest Rushdie, in hiding because of a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Norquist met Rushdie for the first time at Hitch's, an encounter that he says led to him becoming the unofficial chairman of the unofficial "Get Salman Off the No-Fly List" committee. Buckley remembers Rushdie and E.J. Dionne, the Washington columnist and Brookings Institution senior fellow, competing to see who could recite more verses of Bob Dylan songs in blank verse with straight faces.

There's always a curiosity in store, and Hitch perpetuates the intrigue. "You're sworn to secrecy," says congressman Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat. They first bonded years ago over poolside bloody marys and eggs Benedict.

Ask any Hitch intimate to reminisce and -- once they've finished raving about his "beautiful mind" (Buckley) or "brilliance" (Cohen) or "raw tenderness of a poet" (former Vanity Fair colleague Ann Louise Bardach) -- the conversation inevitably turns to the dinner table. The natural habitat of The Hitch is a table fat with food and drink, where he holds forth with political observations, dirty limericks, literary recitations.

Graydon Carter, the vaunted editor who lured Hitchens to Vanity Fair, remembers "a glorious night of drinking, eating and smoking" years ago at the "21" Club, a night "enlivened by the fact that Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles and their wives were at the next table." Hitchens arrived without a tie and had to borrow one from the maitre d'.

"It was black with white lettering, and as wide as an AMC Pacer," Carter recalls. "A few months later, I was sitting at the kitchen table editing a manuscript, with the television on in the background. CNN's signature show "Crossfire" came on and Christopher was the representative from the left. I was only half-listening to the debate, and then at one point, I looked up and saw that he was wearing the same tie that '21' had loaned him. He looked quite smart in it, I thought."

Buckley once sat down for lunch with Hitch at Cafe Milano in Georgetown at 1 p.m. -- and left close to midnight. "I happily would have checked into Georgetown Hospital," Buckley recalls. "He probably went home and wrote a biography of George Orwell. He has not a wooden leg, but a wooden torso."

Hitchens, Buckley says, "has the gift of friendship." (Hitch's tendency to mention his famous friends -- with great frequency -- sometimes leaves him open to mockery. "He's just a gift to a satirist," says John Crace, author of the Guardian newspaper's "Digested Read" column. "What a pompous ass." Crace's spoof of Hitchens begins: "Before me is a photograph of Martin Amis, James Fenton and myself taken by the ravissante Angela in Paris 1979 and I am reminded of a letter I sent to Julian Barnes on the publication of Nothing to be Frightened Of, in which I congratulated him on his contrast -- almost certainly unintentional -- between Lucretius and Larkin.")

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