The Boy Can’t Help It

Christopher Hitchens opens the door of his Washington apartment, a glass of Scotch in his hand, and says with a grin, “I’ve started without you.” It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and as Hitchens sits down in a book-lined alcove off the living room, placing a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black on the table between us, he immediately mentions that tonight is Passover. He’s been brooding about the Jewish holiday, he explains, since he usually spends it at the home of his former friend Sidney Blumenthal. Not this year.

“I’ve been thinking of just turning up at Sidney’s and walking in when they open the door for Elijah,” Hitchens says. It’s hard to tell for a moment whether he’s joking or he’s serious, since this shambling, tousle-haired British journalist, an agent provocateur columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation, delights in the dramatic gesture, in impishly courting controversy. Then he adds, looking wistful, “I’ve decided it would be too theatrical.”

It’s been two months since Hitchens threw the grenade that bounced back to explode his own life. A week before the final vote of President Clinton’s impeachment trial, Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue, both left liberals, took the startling step of cooperating with House Republicans and ratting out their dear old friend Blumenthal. Both signed affidavits saying that the Clinton aide had told them over lunch that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker – a smear that the White House had denied spreading.

The gesture was politically futile, but the personal repercussions were fierce. Even though Blumenthal has long been ridiculed as the ultimate Clinton toady, Hitchens was immediately branded the villain in this Washington drama. His behavior in turning state’s evidence was seen as simultaneously traitorous and self-destructive. The Washington Post and other publications promptly ran stories suggesting he was headed for permanent social purdah. Yet Hitchens is acting anything but contrite.

“I don’t care if people despise me; it’s a badge of honor,” Hitchens pronounces defiantly. “Some of the people who say they consider me an ex-friend have saved me the trouble.”

In the grand tradition of Washington enemies lists, Hitchens, too, is keeping score. He tells me he’s furious at New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for describing him as “snitchens” and a “canary.” “That little cow,” he fumes. “And I’ve always been fond of her.” He’s amazed, rightly so, at the venom of a series of unrelated personal attacks on his character: Edward J. Epstein charged Hitchens, in a widely circulated e-mail, of being a Holocaust denier. (He’s not.) Alexander Cockburn implied in his own column that Hitchens makes drunken passes at male friends. (“I’ve certainly never tried to jump his bones,” Hitchens says with a mischievous laugh.) L.A. Times columnist Bob Scheer even dragged up an old scandal, attacking Hitchens on TV for leaving his pregnant first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, for Blue.

But the worst insult of all? “The New York Times called me a ‘Washington insider,’ ” he says in a tone of mock outrage. “Do you think I can sue them for libel?”

As he pauses to light one in a never-ending series of cigarettes – making the point of telling me they’re unfiltered – it’s clear he’s putting on a show, with the intent to amuse. He’s a rakishly attractive man, now gone a bit to seed from prodigious drinking (“I’m fat,” he moans), a master of the devastatingly pointed phrase, a writer who both produces and is good copy.

Still, Hitchens is eager to salvage his reputation. His elegant, rambling apartment on the top floor of the landmark Wyoming condo building in the Kalorama neighborhood resembles a grad student’s lair: virtually no furniture but thousands of books careening off bookshelves, stacked on the floor, tilting precariously on side tables. Hitchens is a born storyteller, and for hours he regales me with self-deprecatingly hilarious tales, confides riveting details about a haunting family tragedy, and tosses in literary and historical references as if striving for some conversational prize in erudition.

He insists he’s not having a midlife crisis, although the timing would certainly be right. His 50th birthday was last week, April 13. “What chance did I have in life?” he jokes. “I turned 13 on Friday the 13th, and our house number for years was 13.” He also wants to dispel the rumor that he was too soused with Scotch to know what he was doing when he signed the affidavit. “I wasn’t drunk,” he insists, and a House Republican staffer readily agrees, saying, “There isn’t any doubt in our minds that what he was doing was done with clearheadedness.”

So why would Hitchens do something so hurtful to a friend?

Ask members of Hitchens’s inner circle, and they inevitably reply that this is what he does – he thrives on being outrageous, he blows up his life on a regular basis. And usually, when friends are involved, he’s later forgiven for his sins. “Christopher’s always taken up unpopular positions; he likes the battle, the argument, the smell of cordite,” says novelist Martin Amis, a close friend since their days at Oxford University 30 years ago. Although Amis adds, “This time I think he was on the wrong side.”

Washington novelist Christopher Buckley knows from personal experience that Hitchens can’t resist the wicked aside, regardless of the consequences. “Christopher loves to do things that get your dander up. He took a swipe in print a while back at my father-in-law Donald Gregg, national-security adviser to George Bush. It just pissed me off. We didn’t speak for a year. But Christopher’s too much fun to hold a grudge against.” The two made up – at Blumenthal’s son’s bar mitzvah.

So it’s not surprising that Hitchens is completely unrepentant about his recent actions yet anguished about the rift with Blumenthal. “I thought I could hit the president and miss Sidney,” he says. The stress has gotten to both Hitchens and his wife. Tears start rolling down her cheeks as she talks about it. “I don’t care what people think of us, it’s much more missing Sid,” she says. “Hitch is so desperate to patch it up, but I don’t think we’ll live long enough for that to happen.”

Hitchens telephoned his former pal, but Blumenthal’s wife, Jackie, hung up on him. Blumenthal has reportedly told allies he’s sorry that Hitchens destroyed their friendship; he told me, in a jaunty I’m-over-it tone of voice, “I don’t want to say too much about Christopher. It’s a bad idea on my part.”

Contrary to all the dire predictions, Hitchens has not become a pariah in journalistic or literary circles. Just last week, he and Blue were in New York for two glitzy events, New Yorker editor David Remnick’s dinner for writer Salman Rushdie and a party thrown by Tina Brown for Martin Amis. “The truth is, we could go out every night if we wanted,” says Blue. “Whether it’s titillation or curiosity, I’m grateful people are standing by us.” Michael Kinsley, the editor of Slate magazine and a Blumenthal pal, says drily, “I’m mystified that Sid’s been on the right side in two noisy controversies the other was a spat with Matt Drudge and yet his image is still so negative. What’s ironic is that Christopher’s being protected by his friends on the question of protecting a friend.”

Still, when Hitchens goes out into Washington society these days, he’s like a gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger just waiting for the inevitable insult. He made a point recently of arriving early at an A-list book party for writer Maureen Orth, planting himself front and center to see if people would talk to him or avoid him. “None of the Clinton crowd came up to be in my face,” he says. “I was hoping they would – I like that kind of thing.”

Yet he clearly is also searching for approval, telling me with obvious pleasure that he received a warm welcome at the book party from one of the city’s leading social arbiters, the writer Sally Quinn. “I like Christopher, I think he’s brilliant,” Quinn says. More to the point, she stands with him in anti-Clinton solidarity. “Christopher did what he had to do, and I don’t have a problem with that.”

Just as President Clinton kept apologizing endlessly last fall in hopes of finally getting it right, Hitchens still cannot stop explaining himself, even if it’s in his interest to let the controversy die down. First came a column in The Nation, then his op-ed for the Washington Post, and now a blow-by-blow account in this May’s Vanity Fair of how and why he came to write what may be his most famous words, the one-page affidavit. Next week he’s starting a national tour – including L.A., New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Seattle – to promote his new book, an entertaining screed against Clinton called No One Left to Lie To, which sums up every Clinton deed Hitchens finds abominable and includes a final chapter about the Blumenthal affair. (Since notoriety usually sells, his publisher, Verso, has already increased the first print run by 10,000, to 35,000 copies.)

“I told him, do this column, and don’t talk about it again, don’t make it the lead paragraph in your obituary. Move on,” says Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. But he knows Hitchens can’t just leave it alone. Carter jokes that he’s had to ban Hitchens from further airing his unwavering hatred for our commander-in-chief in the magazine: “Christopher is very rational about most things, but he’s missing a sense of proportion on this.”

In truth, the great joy in reading the prolific Hitchens’s work is that he’s devilishly clever and unafraid to go over-the-top. He’s fearless in tackling taboo topics, whether debunking Mother Teresa, railing against the Princess Di mythology, complaining about the uselessness of airport security, or ripping into Washington, D.C.’s, inept and corrupt city government. His rabble-rousing stories, along with his serious literary criticism, have made him well-read on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis are the thinking woman’s crumpet,” says Joanna Cole, a columnist for the Times of London. She recalls a literary gathering two years ago in London where young women in black queued up to talk to the two men. “They made being intellectual sexy, which it wasn’t in Britain.”

In America, British accents are sexy, and Hitchens sports an upper-class one that makes people think he grew up living the good life. But the voice is actually just good packaging. “A great attempt was made by my mother to make sure I spoke as I do now,” he says. Hitchens was born on a naval base in Portsmouth. His father, Eric, was a career officer who met his much younger mother, Yvonne, a Navy wren, during World War II. The couple struggled financially to send Christopher, at age 7, and later his two-years-younger brother, Peter, to boarding schools.

It wasn’t a terrible childhood, but it doesn’t sound like a very happy one. Hitchens can still work up an angry tone of voice as he describes his well-to-do classmates’ sense of entitlement, and his pleasure in discovering that he could use words as a weapon to humiliate rivals in debate. School, for all its mixed blessings, provided an escape from the tensions of home. His father drank and his mother chain-smoked, two vices their oldest son acquired. “I’ve wondered all my life why my parents married,” Hitchens says. “My father couldn’t believe his luck; she had charisma. He was a conservative, stodgy guy. She was a liberal, and she would have liked a life with more music and gaiety.” Somehow, it is not surprising when he adds, “I take after my mother; my brother wants to be my old man.”

His younger brother, Peter, is now a conservative columnist for the London Express. He tells me in a phone call that he did indeed hope to be a navy officer until an eye defect cut those plans short. With the amused and resigned tone of the second-born, Peter admits that “Christopher was always the kind of person picked for school plays to play the lead role.”

Arriving at Oxford in 1967 at the height of the antiwar movement, Hitchens declared himself a socialist and threw himself into revolutionary activity. “He was very dashing,” recalls Martin Walker, a classmate and now a Brussels-based reporter for The Guardian of London,
“and rather Byronic, a compelling public speaker.” Hitchens still cites his arrest record with pride: He was locked up for disrupting the speech of a reactionary politician and for trying to disrupt a cricket match against an all-white South African team.

In between rallies, he also wrote the society column for the student paper and book reviews for The New Statesman. At Oxford, Hitchens discovered the pleasures of crossing class lines. “Christopher always moved easily in upper-class and fashionable circles,” says Walker. “He was criticized for being a ‘champagne socialist’ or a ‘country-house revolutionary.’ “

Harry Evans, now the editorial director of the Daily News, recalls hiring Hitchens, just out of college, as a writer for the Sunday Times of London in the early seventies. “The quality of his mind impressed us all. It was surprising to find someone challenging the conventional wisdom who was barely old enough to know what the conventional wisdom was.”

The most searing drama of Hitchens’s life, a story that makes the current controversy seem like a stroll through the cherry blossoms, occurred in 1973, when he was 24 and living in London. His parents’ marriage was in trouble; his mother had an affair with a defrocked vicar, and she eventually moved out. “I met her one day when she had been shopping,” Hitchens says, “and there was a man carrying her parcels. I just knew. My father was a great guy, loyal, solid, hardworking, very principled, boring. This guy was charming but hopeless, couldn’t hold a job.”

Like so many writers, Hitchens frequently mines his own life for material. But the one thing he’s never written or talked about publicly is his mother’s death. Perhaps because he’s turning 50, about her age when she died, he’s been thinking about it a lot, and the terrible details pour out.

Hitchens was in London when he got the news: The first report was that she had been murdered in Athens. His voice is steady as he describes the scene with a reporter’s eye – the smell of the blood, the crime-scene photos, the view from the Athens hotel room where his mother was found dead. “I had to go take care of it,” he says, flying down alone to find out what had happened. What he found was a suicide note addressed to him: His mother had taken sleeping pills while her lover had slashed himself repeatedly.

“It was terrible to see the room and the really awful police photographs,” he said. His mother had apparently had a change of mind and knocked over the phone in an attempt to get help, help that never came. Finding the note addressed solely to him was especially distressing. “Knowing and believing you’re your mother’s favorite is a great thing for a guy, Freud says, but it’s another thing to have it in writing.”

But what was even more haunting for Hitchens was discovering, when he saw the hotel bill, that his mother had repeatedly tried to reach him in London before her death. “I have to wonder what would have happened if she’d gotten through. Maybe I could have said something that made her decide not to do it.” He pauses and reaches for his glass.

Just to make the situation more surreal, Greece was in the midst of a political upheaval. “The streets are full of tanks, I know people who are in hiding and have bullet wounds, I’m talking about Mummy to the coroner from Costa Gavras’s movie Z – this is amazing.” So Hitchens decided to do something remarkably sane under the circumstances. To distract himself from grief, he threw himself into reporting the political situation. Upon his return to London, he published a long piece in The New Statesman. “People said to me, how could you write a story, and I thought, how could you not?”

The truly strange coda to Yvonne Hitchens’s death came more than a decade later. Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s brother, went to introduce his bride-to-be to his maternal grandmother, and she turned to him and said, “She’s Jewish, isn’t she?” Peter replied yes, to which his grandmother replied, “I’ve got something to tell you. So are you.”

Yvonne Hitchens had hidden her identity all her life, not even telling her husband. She wanted to pass, and she wanted upward mobility for her sons. Christopher, an atheist, says he was pleased to hear he had Jewish roots, both because so many of his friends had always been Jewish and because the news explained things he’d wondered about all his life, such as his mother’s emotions in describing anti-Semitism to him. In a moving essay, “On Not Knowing the Half of It,” Hitchens writes about the painful legacy of belatedly discovering this family secret. “I feel more and more deprived, as the days pass, by the thought of conversations that never took place and now never will.”

The hard-drinking, chain-smoking Fleet Street journalist is a timeworn cliché, but for Hitchens it’s been the role of a lifetime. Lord, the man can drink. His friends talk with a mixture of admiration and astonishment about all the nights he’s left them reeling, lurched to a typewriter, and pounded out perfect prose. “When you go over to their house, it’s a mixture of Mardi Gras and a philosophy seminar,” says Jamie Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University. “Hitch can talk for hours. The more he drinks, the more lucid he gets.”

Victor Navasky, the publisher of The Nation, says, “Ham Fish president of the Nation Institute and I tried to encourage Christopher to go off the sauce and offered to help, but he said he’d tried and that he was no good without it.” Graydon Carter weighs in with “Christopher’s a big boy, and this is the fuel he needs.” Martin Amis says he’s concerned but would never dream of discussing the drinking with Hitchens, explaining, “It would be ridiculous for anyone English to have that conversation.”

Hitchens proudly insists that he’s never missed a deadline and never drives while drinking. “My father used gin, and I used to swear I’d never touch it,” he says. “But I guess it’s in the genes.” He doesn’t see any compelling reason to quit, saying, “I think I get more out of it than it gets out of me.”

The carousing, the adventurousness, the brilliant conversation – it can all add up to a very appealing package. And if you believe even a small part of the Hitchens mythology, he’s certainly had a way with the ladies over the years. One of his more notable romances was with Vogue editor Anna Wintour back in the mid-seventies, when both were young, single, and ambitious. “I was tremendously in love with her,” he said, but ultimately the fashionable Wintour and politically attuned Hitchens didn’t have enough in common.

He met his first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, while on assignment in Cyprus in 1977, shortly after the Turks had invaded the country. “I fell in love with him,” says Meleagrou, now a lawyer who lives in London. “He was a romantic figure, attractive, clever, he had everything. He was a scholar, and he was interested in my people.”

They married in 1981, and the following year, Hitchens, who had been writing frequently for The Nation, accepted the magazine’s offer to become Washington correspondent. “Christopher had to get out of Britain to be free,” says Martin Amis. “There were too many depressing memories and connections.” Meleagrou, then attending the London School of Economics, joined Hitchens in D.C. after she graduated, working first for a Greek-American newspaper and then for a Greek-American lobby. “Eleni was greatly adored,” says Hamilton Fish. “She was exotic, and Christopher made her more so by describing her as a terrorist – his terrorist.”

Friends who visited their Capitol Hill townhouse remember it as an exciting, chaotic environment, with constant impromptu dinners featuring visiting dignitaries, politicians, and novelists. In 1984, the couple’s first child, Alexander, was born. Hitchens said he had an odd thought in the delivery room: “When I saw my son being born, I thought that the part of my funeral director had just been cast.”

Around that time, Hitchens met Blumenthal, then a journalist writing regularly for The New Republic, at a foreign-policy seminar, and they became fast friends. “We would conspire together,” Hitchens says. After Hitchens discovered his Jewish roots and that one branch of his family had been named Blumenthal, the two men began to affectionately refer to themselves as “cousins.”

Although his journalism career was flourishing, by 1989, Hitchens was restless, unhappy at home. “Eleni became shut in, she lost her spontaneity,” Hitchens says. “I felt guilty about that, that it was my fault. I resented it, too.” They argued over having a second child; Meleagrou nonetheless became pregnant. Hitchens adores his daughter Sophia, but at the time he felt trapped.

What better reason to leave town than to go on a book tour? Hill & Wang had just published a collection of Hitchens’s work, Prepared for the Worst, and publisher Steve Wasserman, now the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, offered to fly Hitchens out to L.A. to appear on a panel. Since the publisher’s budget didn’t allow for a hotel room, Wasserman arranged for Hitchens to stay with a longtime friend, Carol Blue, a journalist and screenwriter.

Hitchens and Blue apparently took one look at each other at the LAX baggage-claim area, and that was it. (“I was just glad such a person existed in the world,” says Blue, an intense, stylish woman
who still speaks of her husband with almost Nancy Reagan-esque adoration.) Hitchens returned to Washington and told his wife he wanted out of the marriage, which, given her pregnancy, was a caddish thing to do. “Christopher knew he was doing something unforgivable,” says Elise O’Shaughnessy, a Vanity Fair editor and Hitchens confidante, “but he couldn’t not do it.”

Ask Eleni Meleagrou about this episode of her life, and she speaks in a sadder-but-wiser tone. “Christopher fell in love with Carol, and he expected me to understand. ‘Don’t you see? I’m really in love,’ he’d say, and my reaction was, ‘Bug off.’ He told me he was doing me a favor. Maybe now I think he did.”

She pauses to explain, “His life is such that you either fall in line or you’re left behind. I didn’t want to follow anymore.” After the divorce, she went to law school, and two years ago she moved with the two children from Washington to London. (“I could have fought it,” Hitchens says, “but I thought if Eleni was happy, the children would be happy.”) The couple seems to have worked out a remarkably amicable arrangement; the children, just in town for Easter break, get along well with their stepsister, Antonia, Hitchens and Blue’s 5-year-old daughter.

“Christopher was honorable with me and the kids,” Meleagrou says. “He knew he did a big boo-boo, and he put up with a lot of crankiness on my part to have it all out.” Meleagrou even backs her ex in the Blumenthal controversy, saying, “I have no question that Christopher was right. I trust his political judgment.”

Carol Blue was in Atherton, California, visiting her parents, when Hitchens called unexpectedly on February 5 to tell her that not only had he agreed to talk to House prosecutors but that government staffers were that very moment en route to their Washington home to take his affidavit. “Christopher’s call was like having something dropped on you from outer space,” she recalls.

In their brief conversation, Blue says they discussed two issues: “Is this going to be good for Christopher’s critique of Clinton, or will it obscure the message? And second, Sidney was our friend. What did it mean to be his friend and do this?” Wiping at her teary eyes, she says, “There must have been a moment when Hitch believed that maybe he could change the course of history.”

Hitchens, amazingly enough, believed that. But he also insists that his decision to cooperate was a defining moment – that it struck at the very heart of his own sense of identity, his place in the Washington world. Hitchens explains that a year earlier he had written a signed piece in a British newspaper, the Independent, about a lunch with someone close to the White House who had tried to plant the Monica Lewinsky stalker story – but he didn’t mention Blumenthal by name. He had already decided to go public with the tale in The Nation and was calling around for more information on the alleged White House smear machine when House Republican staffers got wind of his story.

Hitchens knew he could have refused to cooperate. “But I couldn’t stand the thought of what they would have said about me,” he said. He then recites this imaginary conversation – the House staffers saying, ” ‘This guy has information that could help but has to live here; he can’t break the conspiracy of silence about how the Clinton White House works; he’s just another Washington hack.’ ” Hitchens didn’t want to be that guy. “The White House doesn’t get me to acquiesce to omerta that easily,” he says. He signed his affidavit, and Blue supported him by submitting her own version two days later.

So far, Blumenthal has not spent thousands of additional dollars in legal fees, as feared, because of the affidavits; nor does he appear to be in legal jeopardy. When I mention this to Blue, she brightens with relief, but still seems to be in denial about the potential repercussions of her actions. “If Sidney had additional legal bills,” she insists, “it wouldn’t have been because of us, it would have been due to working for Clinton.”

Hitchens says, “It’ll blow over. It shall.” And of course, all Washington scandals eventually do. But Hitchens isn’t likely to lie low. Inevitably, he will find a new way to make mischief. After all, he’s an agitator, a bad boy. “I am frightened, really frightened, of being bored,” he tells me late one evening, in the tone of a small child fearful of the dark. “Boredom creates a physical sensation of terror in me.” Lives like his are not for the faint of heart; sometimes boring is better.

The Boy Can’t Help It