Christopher Hitchens the Conversationalist

Remembering drinks and chats with the public intellectual

Remembering drinks and chats with the public intellectual

Few individuals in modern times have been granted the literary send-off of Christopher Hitchens, whose intimates included some of the greatest writers and intellectuals of their era. Yet, true to his proletariat roots, Hitch’s intellectual largesse wasn’t limited only to his elite and established peers. This is where my story fits in.

I first met Hitch at a small dinner party at his Kalorama apartment in the spring of 2006. I was just beginning my career and had nary a decent publication to my name (a streak that remains arguably intact), but Hitch was seemingly intrigued when he’d heard from a mutual friend that I was writing an essay about the parallels between George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the Iranian regime. Orwell’s ruling pigs, I told Hitch, were the perfect metaphor for Iran’s clerical fat cats (“all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”), and the mantra they used to conjure a foreign enemy as a pretext to crush dissent—“four legs good, two legs bad!”—bore an uncanny resemblance to the Mullah’s “marg bar Amrika,” i.e., “Death to America.”

“We absolutely must pursue this,” Hitch told me, “and I have an arsenal of stuff—or so I think—with which to do so.”

I distinctly remember two things upon entering Hitch’s apartment for the first time: The vast fortress of books encompassing his apartment appeared thoroughly worn. And we were immediately instructed to pour ourselves a drink in the adjacent room.

While doing so the doorbell rang, and from across the apartment a familiar face appeared. Hitch greeted him casually, like an old friend, but continued on with his conversation. When I returned to the living room the newly arrived guest extended his hand. “Sean Penn,” he said, “Nice to meet you.”

As the drinks flowed, a few other notable guests arrived, including Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who had been, along with Penn, as avowed an opponent of the Iraq War as Hitch had been a supporter.

Notwithstanding the presence of other luminaries, the night belonged to Hitch. He seemed to know more, and have stronger opinions about, everyone else’s area of expertise. He regaled Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, with verses he had memorized from the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, a fellow devotee of “the grape and the flesh.”

He recounted for us how in that very apartment he’d harbored Salman Rushdie—who spent years in hiding as a result of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death fatwa—and excoriated the “bed-wetting” writers who’d refused to come to Rushdie’s defense. (Sean Penn, not to be outdone, recounted for us his recent dinner with Fidel Castro in Havana. Penn was also a master raconteur of ribald jokes. When someone quipped that he was going to go to hell, he deadpanned that he’d already been: “You forget I was married to Madonna for four years.”)

Well past midnight—when Hitch’s apartment began to resemble a steam room of Marlboro Lights vapor—we were still deep in dialogue (or more aptly, Hitch was deep in monologue), but as the apartment slowly emptied, we took our cue.

When halfway out the door someone casually observed an obscure biography of Alexander the Great on the vast bookshelf, Hitch went on a long soliloquy about how ancient Greek architects had been influenced by ancient Persia, and insisted that we stay for a nightcap in order to discuss further.

It occurred to me that we could have randomly thrown darts at any number of his vast array of books and inspired a similar eruption of erudition.

This unsuccessful attempt at farewell repeated itself twice, until finally at 4 a.m.—on a Tuesday eve no less—we made our way into the balmy night. We realized at the time that we would be reminiscing—and now writing—about the eve for years to come, but for Hitch it was just another evening’s work.

Over the ensuing months and years I would exchange emails with Hitch occasionally and bump into him from time to time.

Early one Saturday evening in the winter I passed him on the streets of Dupont Circle on my way home from exercising. He insisted I come up to his apartment for a drink. Given my attire I felt I had to demur, but Hitch saw through my Persian taarof—faux civility—and insisted I come up.

I don’t remember the specifics of what we talked about that eve—I would ask a lot of questions about a lot of different things and he enjoyed holding court—but I was always surprised by how unfailingly gracious he was with his time. Two work-out-negating bottles of wine later I stumbled home, and Hitch, thoroughly unfazed, escorted his patiently awaiting wife and teenage daughter out for dinner and a movie.

In reading Hitch’s writings over the years, it occurred to me that he had the same relationship to words that Michael Jordan had to a basketball. They both had a complete mastery and ownership of their craft, and their genius was making it all appear so effortless. Whereas MJ was poetry in motion, Hitch was pure poetry.