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

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; C01

"Help me do something bad," The Hitch asks, as a welcome into his Kalorama apartment.

Now there's an invitation. Who does bad better than Christopher Hitchens? Maggie Thatcher, the British prime minister whom Hitchens declared "sexy," once dubbed him a "naughty boy," and there's always someone on the left or the right -- or both -- calling him worse.

At this moment, though, Hitchens only needs an accomplice in the naughtiness of smoking a cigarette inside his apartment. That violates what his wife, Carol Blue, later observes with both affection and exasperation, is an "alleged" and frequently broken vow. Together, we slide a round, marble-top table over to the window, seeking ventilation, careful not to upend glasses of Johnnie Walker Black Label that Hitchens has deemed suitable refreshment because it's just past noon.

Hitchens swore off smoking a couple of years back in an orgy of self-improvement concocted by Vanity Fair, whose editors talked him into writing about getting a Brazilian bikini wax and prettifying his "British teeth," which he remembers as "crooked and jagged snaggle-fangs." He returned to the indulgent crutch of nicotine last fall during an all-nighter wrestling with the final chapter of his memoir, "Hitch-22," which debuted this week. "The book made me do it," he says through a cumulus of smoke.

His exhales hang in a muggy Washington afternoon and Hitchens sweats through a blousy cotton shirt. His hair flops disobediently into his eyes and he gathers it up from time to time with a swipe. His complexion has the pinkish hue of a man who has been known to smoke in the shower and takes his cocktails early and often. He is handsome in a rakish, though puffy, way. He has described his body -- quite accurately -- as "porpoise-like" and written of his "respectable minimum of secondary and tertiary chins," all of which survived his short-lived fitness regimen.

He confides that he considered titling his memoir "Both Sides Now." Hitchens, now 61, could probably argue any position, like the ultimate debate club champ. Over the years, he's battered away at Henry Kissinger ("war criminal"), Bill and Hillary Clinton ("liars"), Mother Teresa ("fanatic fraud") and many more. He's been an avowed socialist, skewered organized religion in the best-selling "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" and defended the Iraq war, a position that alienated much of the left.

With Hitchens, fighting is animating.

"I'd rather have an argument than be bored," he says between puffs. "It's some insecurity of mine -- I find it hard not to win. I'm not good at conceding. That hasn't made me easy to live with."

Try to find a label for him and he'll argue that, too. He once wrote a book called "Letters to a Young Contrarian," but he regrets the title. He's not a contrarian, he says. "They say I picked a fight with Mother T. or Bill Clinton. Nobody ever says I wrote books about Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell. They call me a polemicist, a street fighter. As if I went looking for these fights -- they actually found me."

A conversation with Hitchens mimics a trip through Wikipedia. Every thought is hyperlinked, with one subject slaloming into the next in ways baffling and enlightening, confounding and profound. In just a few minutes, sipping by the window, he invokes Kingsley Amis, Julian Barnes, Evelyn Waugh and Eric Idle, to name only a few.

The statue across the street of Civil War general George B. McClellan reminds him, naturally . . . of Karl Marx. "Did you know Marx's best book was about the Civil War?" he says. He prefaces a recollection about something Barnes once told him by saying, "This is showing off." Monty Python figures into the conversation because Hitchens once sang "The Philosophers Song" onstage at the Sydney Opera House during a book festival, and he's pleased to reprise his performance.

"Plato, they say, could stick it away," Hitchens half-sings, half-recites. "Half a crate of whiskey every day/Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle/Hobbes was fond of his dram/And René Descartes was a drunken fart/I drink, therefore I am."

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.

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.")

But, for all his enduring friendships, part of The Hitch's legacy will always rest on a few broken ones, especially his falling-outs with Gore Vidal over Sept. 11 conspiracy theories and with former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. In 1999, Hitchens issued a sworn statement saying that Blumenthal had called Monica Lewinsky "a stalker." The comment led to Republican calls for a perjury investigation of Blumenthal, and though he was never charged, the ensuing hubbub ended their chumminess.

Much of Washington's establishment left considered him a betrayer. "There was this terrible chill; there were people who weren't talking to him because of it," recalls Bardach. "It pained him tremendously. He's a very loyal person. Some people, at the time, hazarded that it was going to be in his obituary. It's a tremendous testament to him that he came back from the Sidney thing because it had fractured his universe of friends in the Washington left."

Later, he received a letter from Lewinsky, saying, in Hitchens's rough paraphrasing, "Thank you for pointing out what my boyfriend was like."

'A loophole in everything'

At La Tomate, waiters usher Hitchens to the covered patio, where he immediately lights a cigarette and orders another Scotch. A passing professor leans over the railing to say Hitchens's books are on his syllabus, and the author smiles warmly.

"It was absolutely revolting what the Clintons tried to do to Monica Lewinsky," Hitchens says, picking up where he had left off. "They tried to make it seem like she was a nut bag. That was the beginning of my strain with the left."

But that doesn't mean that he's now a creature of the right, he says. "I like to keep it ambiguous. I don't have any ideological leanings anymore."

Much of his freed-up energy is now directed toward debating religion -- Hitchens and fellow skeptics Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have become known as the Four Horsemen. Hitchens's next book, he says, will be about the Ten Commandments.

"There's a loophole in everything," Hitchens says. "You can always fool God. Many is the Muslim who says, 'We can't have wine. Would you like a glass of Balvenie [Scotch]?' I think religion is theology with the questions left out."

Somehow he continues, without a hint of slurring: "My propositions are very simple. We are a primate species. We're half a chromosome away from being chimpanzees."

Hitchens beckons the waiter for wine and recoils when asked whether he wants a glass or a bottle. "Wine by the glass is a false economy," he says.

Between the first bottle of pinot noir and the second, Hitchens excuses himself from the table. When he returns, an attractive young woman calls out to him from a neighboring table.

"What do you think of Mark Lane?" she asks, referring to the author, lawyer and Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist.

"He's a crackpot!" Hitchens roars. The woman stammers something about filming a documentary on Lane, but Hitchens is on a roll. "Pure and simple nut bag," he says. "He's a garden-variety loon. You're too young to be doing this."

Later, the woman comes over to deliver her contact information, revealing herself to be Pauley Perrette, an actress who stars on the hit television show "NCIS." Hitch doesn't recognize her. He almost never watches television.

I want to know if Hitchens, this eviscerator of debate opponents, has ever come across someone he considers a truly worthy opponent. He ponders this for a moment, and comes up, surprisingly, with Gore Vidal. But his feud with Vidal is moldering, a thing of the past, and it's now religion, those irrepressible questions of atheism and faith, that affords him an ample field of battle.

"They've never succeeded in squelching me," he says, workshopping his position.

Short pause.

"I won't say I've lost -- it's never been said. You can look it up yourself, don't take my word for it."

Short pause.

"I don't claim to have won or lost."

Short pause.

"Let's say I haven't been defeated."

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