Dinner-Party Hacks

The writer Edward Jay Epstein often hangs up on people (when I called to discuss this story with him, he hung up on me). Epstein, his intimates attest, is passionate in his friendships and equally passionate when friends disappoint him. Most recently, Christopher Hitchens, who himself was disappointed by Sidney Blumenthal, disappointed Ed Epstein, who, in a sort of metaphorical hanging-up on Hitchens (who the other day reportedly called Sidney Blumenthal’s house to apologize for exposing Blumenthal to a perjury charge, only to have Blumenthal’s wife hang up on him), circulated an e-mail about how, at a dinner at the Royalton Hotel with Epstein and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, among others, Hitchens denied the Holocaust. Hitchens is now threatening to sue his former friend, the author of several seminal works of investigative journalism, whom he calls a “demented liar.”

The Sidney Blumenthal-Christopher Hitchens contretemps is most often billed as a dispute about (a) Clinton-era morals and politics or (b) journalistic ethics. It may well involve those things, but it may also be as much about the socializing rituals of the media elite.

It is certainly appropriate that Ed Epstein – one of the first writers whom Tina Brown has signed for her new magazine, Talk – has interjected himself into the Blumenthal-Hitchens dispute, because Epstein is the ne plus ultra of dinner-party journalists. Indeed, his only real rival as a host is Christopher Hitchens himself.

The social habits of writers are, of course, often used as a kind of shorthand to describe the cultural history of an era (this is at least in part because the writers are usually the ones doing the describing): Paris in the twenties; Bloomsbury; Paris in the fifties; the Partisan Review crowd – what Norman Podhoretz in his recently published book Ex-Friends calls the Family (with an odd echo of the Manson Family).

Beginning in the late seventies, a possible next generation of Podhoretz’s Family – richer, better-dressed, less political, but intellectuals nonetheless – began to congregate at Ed Epstein’s East Side apartment, and later also at Hitchens’s gatherings in Washington.

The difference between the older group of intellectuals and those atthe Epstein-Hitchens salons is that the new group comprises a much broader media circle (the lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow cultures that Podhoretz describes – Podhoretz considered writing for The New Yorker to be a formof slumming – having blended intoan inclusive media culture). Indeed,the focus of the Epstein-Hitchens generation isn’t around this or that intellectual journal but on the culture, or cult, of the media. (Epstein’s book News From Nowhere was one of the early works of media criticism.) Then, too, the political identitiesat the heart of Podhoretz’s Family – Stalinists, Trotskyites, anti-Communists, and later neocons – have been replaced in the Epstein-Hitchens social order by a different identity: Media Status. To be on the Epstein-Hitchens guest list, you need to be a prominent voice in the media, in a position to influence what is in the media, or a person of enough influence to be covered by the media (or sometimes all three). The Epstein-Hitchens parties, in other words, are “networking events” of a very high order.

“In the literary media world,” says a frequent Epstein guest, “you are who you go out with at night.”

At any particular point over the past two decades at Epstein’s (rent-stabilized) duplex penthouse (one of Epstein’s notable accomplishments, says a friend, is the irrigation system he’s built on his terrace), you might have seen Katrina vanden Heuvel and Victor Navasky, who run The Nation (Navasky has condemned Hitchens for his attack on Blumenthal and defended Hitchens against Epstein’s attack), Christopher Hitchens himself, Hendrik Hertzberg, Michael Kinsley, Alexander Cockburn, Clay Felker, Anthony Haden-Guest, Anna Wintour, Mort Zuckerman, Jeffrey Steingarten, Amanda Burden and Charlie Rose, Tina Brown and Harry Evans, Caroline Kennedy, Renata Adler, Candace Bushnell, various movie starsof the moment, and often, before he died last year, the British billionaire takeover artist Sir Jimmy Goldsmith.

“Ed’s parties are the most dazzling in New York,” says a longtime invitee. “It’s the only party where the people who are there are there just because they are smart and interesting – or pretty and British.”

Many of the same people who attend Epstein’s parties get to go to Hitchens’s parties too; plus, Hitch might deliver the likes of Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, Sidney Blumenthal, and other London and Washington personalities (there was the memorable evening at Hitchens’s house when Woody Harrelson and Alan Greenspan got together).

“There is nothing remotely as interesting to do in Washington as to go to Christopher’s house,” says the writer Eric Alterman.

It is out of this social combustion – including the potentially volatile conditions upon which someone says something to someone else – that the Blumenthal-Hitchens dispute arises and the Hitchens-Epstein dispute continues.

“It is all very sad,” says Alexander Star, the editor of Lingua Franca, a journal for the academic and intellectual communities.

But it can also seem very comic too.

“Private conversations ought to be held private,” pronounces Victor Navasky – who is a friend to all the parties involved – about Hitchens’s snitching on Blumenthal and Epstein’s subsequent betrayal of Hitchens. But it is hard not to interpret that as an “I’m shocked, shocked” harrumph. What draws people to both the Epstein and the Hitchens gatherings is precisely the fact that private conversations are turned into (more or less) public ones. That is, the gossip – rich, cruel, detailed, accurate – flows at a marvelously uninterrupted rate with Epstein and Hitchens as its medium. They are tapped in, and through them, their guests are, too. They are journalists’ journalists. (The best source of information for many media people is other media people.)

“All of Ed’s friends know that in terms of gossip, Ed is dangerous,” says a longtime friend of Epstein’s. “You cannot tell him something and not expect him to tell exactly the person who you intended him not to tell.”

It may well be that the thing that motivates Epstein and Hitchens, that causes them to have taken on what is essentially the full-time job of host, is their information need – or dependence.

“Ed doesn’t do drugs. He does information,” says Epstein’s friend.

“Christopher has a need to know, and a need to know that you know what he knows,” says a London friend of Hitchens’s.

And then there is the political comedy. Blumenthal-Hitchens-Epstein have provided the pretext for a half-century to melt away and the leftist cadres to once more reprise the grand passions of Stalin and Trotsky and Senator McCarthy. Navasky, the author of the book Naming Names, and The Nation have been among the many voices roused from torpor to call Hitchens an “informer.” (“The history lesson I’m thinking of here is the one we all supposedly learned in the McCarthy era,” writes Katha Pollitt in an open letter to Hitchens in The Nation.) Of course, as left-wing history teaches, an informer is probably a fascist, too, which is where Epstein’s accusations come in. (Not to mention that Elia Kazan is soon to receive a special Oscar, which has stirred the old stew; and that George Orwell, a Hitchens hero, has recently been shown to have named some Communists, as well.)

And then, adding to the comedy, there is the mirth of the uninvited. The greater media community finds itself with its nose to the window. The producer at 20/20 or the senior editor at Time wonders, Why have I never been invited to Ed’s or Hitch’s house? Why not me at the Royalton discussing the Holocaust with Anna Wintour? Am I chopped liver? And so, in-

Evitably, the greater media pack has covered the story of Sidney Blumenthal and Christopher Hitchens and now Ed Epstein with a certain satisfaction. Let them eat each other.

Even the invited seem happy to take pot shots (because you have to be pretty far up the social food chain to go to an Epstein or Hitchens party and not end up feeling worse about yourself). Now, while both Epstein and Hitchens do have friends and defenders who are grateful that both men have the energy to devote to giving parties, there is hardly anyone among those people who wouldn’t say that both Epstein and Hitchens have something wrong with them. They have a “domesticity problem,” as one guest puts it. In other words, their personal shortcoming is probably less, as Navasky maintains, about making private conversations public than it is about mistaking the public sphere – that is, this socializing and networking and gossiping and media-business blah-blahing – for their private lives.

Being a host is certainly a thankless job.

Are writers’ parties distinguished from other professional gatherings by anything more than the fact that they get written about? Perhaps not, but that self-consciousness probably defines a large difference. The need to tell (how can you not say what you know? You’d burst if you didn’t) undoubtedly changes the nature of the gathering itself – and the nature of the relationships among at least a certain rarefied circle of media folk. Simply: People who hover around fame all the time become interested in getting some. We (include here who you will) are not only part of the media but among the most desperate for its attention, too.

Podhoretz’s personal social history places politics – “These were life and death issues,” he says – at the center of personal motivations (his own most of all), but every time you read between the lines, every time you step back from the tangled passions of who said what to whom in Podhoretz’s Family as well as the Epstein-Hitchens crowd, you get a good view of some smart career moves.

Indeed, last week Hitchens addressedthe staff of The Nation, where there was great relief that he did not resign (“He just expressed his disappointment in us all,”said one writer at the meeting), and turned up on Larry King as a Monica commentator. “He’s in a whole different leaguenow,” said a longtime contributor to The Nation, speculating on Hitchens’s new career prospects. “He’s broken out.”

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Dinner-Party Hacks