Back in January, Ruby Cramer’s father died. She wrote a eulogy and asked a handful of trusted colleagues for feedback. While most were warmly encouraging about how “perfect” it was, Hastings couldn’t help offering line edits: “Michael was like, ‘Hey, kiddo, this is great, these are just some suggestions to torque it up.’ That was his favorite word: ‘You’ve got to torque it.’ Who does that?”
From his first days in journalism, Hastings had operated with the torqued-up sense of purpose of someone who felt he’d already wasted too much time. As a freshman at Connecticut College, he’d partied too hard and not studied hard enough and had left without finishing the year. By the time he transferred to NYU in 2000, he’d quit drinking, and he went on to graduate magna cum laude.
He’d been fascinated by war and news since he was a kid. In fourth grade, he skipped school to go hear Norman Schwarzkopf give a talk. On 9/11, he walked 95 blocks to get as close as he could to the burning towers. As a journalist, he impressed colleagues with his hard work, his idealism, and his courage, and he took that work very seriously—“I want to be the greatest investigative reporter of my generation,” he admitted to his friend and fellow writer Dave Cullen. His ambition had a romantic streak as well: Last year, he’d sit listening for hours to Hunter S. Thompson’s The Gonzo Tapes.
Hastings was precociously canny about the value of rebelliousness. When he was 17, his family moved to Vermont, and Hastings entered junior year at a small Catholic school in Burlington as a new kid. “ ‘We’re going to be cool,’ ” his younger brother, Jeff, remembers him saying. “Like, ‘Let’s try to be popular, and here’s how we’re going to do it.’ ” Mike dyed his hair Eminem white with a tinge of green, and Jeff dyed his a cranberry color; Mike drove them to the new high school in their father’s Batmobile-like 1973 Buick Riviera with a boom box in back playing loud music. The school made them un-dye their hair, but one year later, Hastings was senior-class president.
Then, too, he liked to piss off people in authority. When Hastings described an upcoming Valentine’s Day party over the school’s PA system as “shagadelic,” it was sufficiently heretical to get him kicked off a service trip to Latin America and removed as class president, which also meant losing his speaker’s slot on Graduation Day. “He thought it was complete bullshit,” Jeff recalls, “as it was.”
At Newsweek International, where he started as a college intern before getting hired full time, he stood out for his long hours and earnest intensity. He wore a coat and tie; he spent weekends poring over old clips of Newsweek’s greatest reporters, Xeroxing and studying them. Within eighteen months of getting hired, he had his first cover story, about diamonds. For a year, he lobbied to be sent to Iraq, without encouragement from management, and eventually paid for his own helmet and body armor. The early glamour of the big new story had faded, but he kept pushing. “By 2005, it was not a way to make a name for yourself, and it was really frigging dangerous, and he wanted to go anyway,” Darman says.
The book that resulted from Hastings’s time working out of Newsweek’s bureau in the Green Zone, I Lost My Love in Baghdad, would set the template for his later career—in its style, which combined memoir with Woodwardian omniscience, and insofar as the conversation surrounding the book had as much to do with Hastings himself as with the book’s contents.
The love of the book’s title was Hastings’s girlfriend Andi Parhamovich, who had followed him to Baghdad to work for the National Democracy Institute and died in January 2007 when her convoy was ambushed by Sunni insurgents. Three weeks after her death, Hastings’s agent Andrew Wylie had a 131-page book proposal in hand, and five weeks later, he sold it to Scribner for an advance reportedly above $500,000. The speed of the deal, and the inclusion of intimate e-mails and texts between Hastings and Parhamovich, riled some in the publishing world. (Gawker dissected the proposal mercilessly, and after the Observer published the document, it received a lawyer letter complaining that it included information that Parhamovich’s family didn’t yet know—such as the fact that Hastings was even writing a book about their daughter.)
Hastings, back in Baghdad after crashing the book, seemed to take the criticism in stride. “I remember getting an e-mail from Mike that was like, ‘Fuck them, I’m on Haifa Street,’ ” Darman says. When the book was published, with a percentage of royalties assigned to a foundation started in Andi’s name, it received some good reviews but also some harsh ones. Hastings was deeply wounded when George Packer, a journalist he admired, wrote a Times review that highlighted the book’s “embarrassing title,” “whiff of exploitation,” “fog of cliché,” and “dialogue that makes you want to close the door and tiptoe away.”