Heilemann: Remembering Hitchens

I was in the filing center in the Sioux City Hotel in northwest Iowa last night, preparing to go home and write a wrap-up of the Republican debate, when I caught a mention of Hitch on my Twitter feed, and before even chasing down a single link, I knew that he must be dead. That we had all seen it coming for so long, and no one more clearly than he had, made the news no easier, no less awful. I headed directly to the bar downstairs, and frankly, I sort of wish I was still there.

The tributes to Christopher are, predictably and rightly, flooding the web from all corners of the globe, many of them written by people far closer to him than I was, and the best of them far more insightful about him than I ever will be. I was miles away from his inner circle, but our friendship stretched back over 21 years, and since the only way I know of coping with his loss is to write about it, the Republicans will have to wait.

Jacob Weisberg at Slate writes about Christopher’s astonishing generosity toward young people, and especially young writers. In the fall of 1990, I was one of those kids, just 25, and he was 41. We met at a book party not long after he had published a column in the Nation about the controversy over Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew and the album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. After defending the lyrics of “Me So Horny” as “muscular poesy,” Hitch turned his attention to the censorious Florida sheriff and judge who were prosecuting Campbell for obscenity: “I don’t know the private thoughts of Sheriff Nick Navarro of Broward County, but I doubt they are worth a rat’s behind and see no reason why he should sublimate his own vagina-dreading disorders in this expensive and undemocratic fashion. The same applies to the preposterous Judge Jose Gonzalez Jr., who in ruling on Sheriff Navarro’s raid opined that the music appeals to ‘the loins, not to the intellect.’ In fact, I think they are a pair of racist shitheads who should be told to fuck right off.”

I thought all this was pretty funny, and also quite true, and I told him so. He seemed pleased — at least, pleased enough to invite me to continue our evening at some dive, where many (too many) more drinks followed. We talked a lot that night about how seriousness of purpose could — indeed, at times, had to — co-exist with humor, even low humor, in writing about politics. He mastered that particular cocktail as well as any essayist or journalist of this era.

Fast-forward ten years. I am living in San Francisco and Christopher, with his wife Carol, in Palo Alto. He is teaching a course at the Berkeley journalism school and invites me to come address it. He is (fairly) sober during the afternoon seminar; when it ends, we head (where else?) to a bar — where Christopher reveals to me that it is his birthday. Nevertheless, incredibly, he indulges me in jabbering for hours. Mostly the conversation is me taking instruction from him on a subject that he has been trying to impress on his official students: the importance of the authorial voice — how crucial it was for him to learn to write as much as possible in the same way that he talked. Owing to the booze, most of the advice he imparts is lost to me by the next morning. It’s not until another decade later, when he wrote about this topic in Vanity Fair, that it all comes flooding back. Any young writers out there: read this now. There is a metric ton of wisdom in it.

Of course, virtually no one else on earth talked the way that Christopher talked, with that degree of precision, passion, learnedness, and lethal wit. Yes, his mots were mighty bon. A particular favorite of mine, about Britain in the seventies: “It was like Weimar without the sex” — or, alternatively, his later emendation: “like Weimar without the nightclubs.” Or another, more poetic example, which he emitted first in chat and then in prose (with slightly varying syntax) after being struck by the cancer that killed him: that he “had burned the candle at both ends and found it gave a lovely light.”

I was lucky enough to see him twice right before he fell sick. The first was on the night of Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address, which we watched together at his digs in the Wyoming, a grand old Art Deco apartment building in Washington, D.C. Christopher had endorsed Obama, though he considered him “overrated” during the 2008 campaign. He was the least sentimental and most clear-eyed observer of politics I have ever met, and even when I disagreed with him intensely (as I, and everyone, often did), you disregarded his arguments at your peril — because he so often turned out to have been at least half-right. I recall saying to him that night about Obama, half-jokingly, “Well, of course, it will all end in tears.” To which he replied, “It always does, my boy.”

The second time I saw him in that period was just before Hitch-22 was published. He was on his finest fettle, entertaining me and Andrew Sullivan over dinner at his place. (The most remarkable aspect of that much remarked-upon pad was not, contrary to various reports, its size or lack of furniture; it was the fact that he and Carol had bought the small apartment just adjacent to it, solely so that he could have a dedicated space in which to smoke. Insert deep sigh here.) Reading Andrew this morning, I was moved to go trawling for my own old e-mails from Hitch—and found one from him late that night, sent after I’d realized that I left my sweater there and asked if I could come around the next day and pick it up.

Barneys, right?” he wrote back. “The lady on the desk is working a double snow-shift so will be the same one you saw on the way out. When I explained that the come-stained garment would be called for by a tall, rangy bisexual crack-artist she had no difficulty in ‘placing’ you as the gentleman who had just left.”

That made me smile then, and it makes me smile now. But it also makes me realize how foolish I was — for that was the last time I saw him. Maybe I was too cowardly to see him sick. Or maybe I was in the grip of a fantasy that he would somehow beat the devil that had him, quite literally, by the throat. Or maybe both. But there’s the thing: Christopher himself never suffered either of those maladies. He faced death as he’d lived life: bravely and without illusions. Those qualities, combined with his sterling pen and those ravenous, insatiable appetites that mocked Falstaff’s, were what made Hitch what he was. Which is to say, irreplaceable.

Heilemann: Remembering Hitchens