Christopher Hitchens: Why did I adore him?

(Bill Tiernan / AP Photo)
By Amy Wilentz

I’d been working as a lowly scrub at the Nation in New York when, in 1979, I was asked to track down Christopher Hitchens on a trip I happened to be taking to London. My assignment: To lure him to come work for us.

I was a convincing emissary, because from the minute I met Christopher, all I could think of was how I had to get him to work in New York, since I couldn’t live without him. He seemed to me then like a mature step-up from Beatle worship; he was a heady mix of John Lennon (the clever riposte) and Paul McCartney (drooping, wilting bedroom eyes), plus Lord Byron (in so many ways) and every fictional romantic British hero I’d ever read about. I was analogizing then, back when I was 25, but now I can see what he really was, which was Christopher Hitchens.

He did come to America, thank God (oh, oops).

Photos: In Memoriam, 2011

And although at the time he was an object of adoration, what he really became was my mentor. Admittedly, he was an odd bird for a love object. This was a man who even in his late 20s could not wear blue jeans so that they looked normal. His clothing was eccentric and threadbare and ill-fitting. His hair was unkempt and his teeth were tobacco stained. He drank way too much. He characterized his general state of affairs as “damp” and always, at first meeting, asked “How do I look?”

So why did I adore him?

Because he knew everything, and I knew nothing. Because he gave me words that became a part of how I talk (for instance, “rug rethink” for haircut; “development” for pimple or blemish). Because he was good at hating, condescending, despising -- all things that I did not know how to do. Because his idea of an appropriate seduction scenario was to go out to eat with a girl (preferably one who picked up the tab) and recite “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” to her over dessert. (Later, he told me this MO had a success rate that hovered around 96%.)


And because he opened my eyes to new ways of seeing things, even if I didn’t always agree.

I still remember walking down 13th Street in New York one year on Nov. 22 and telling him about how my mother had come to pick me up at school on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and how she and I had taken a long walk down by the water in my hometown to discuss the tragedy.

He laughed. I looked at him.

“When we heard JFK had been killed,” he said, “we drank champagne.” For me, this was one of those moments of political revelation. I simply hadn’t imagined up to then that anyone I respected could have rejoiced at Kennedy’s death.

When Martin Amis came to New York to visit a few years later, I learned from him the sad story of Christopher’s mother’s abandonment of his father and her subsequent suicide in Athens, in 1973. His mother had been everything Christopher longed to be back then: a rebel, a hothead, a freedom-seeker, a romantic.

But of course his mother had ended up dead from all that romance, and as he got older, the sturdy, British character of his father, a former naval commander known to all Christopher’s friends as the Commander, began to assert itself in Christopher’s personality.

This was the side of him that, again, to my political shock, supported the queen (to say nothing of Margaret Thatcher, then reviled by all good left-leaning Britons) in the matter of the Falkland Islands. I remember him gathering himself up grandly in the Cafe Loup near the Nation (a bistro he referred to as simply, the Loo) and telling me he would happily serve on one of her majesty’s ships that were at that moment steaming toward the waters off Argentina to keep the sheep and shepherds safely under British rule. Christopher turned out to be a patriot. Weird.

It was also the influence of the Commander’s character, I suspect, that led Christopher into his final ill-tempered support of the Iraq war. But even when I disagreed with him, I listened to his arguments, because it was Christopher saying these things, and over the years I had learned to respect his integrity and his unwillingness just to go along.

He was a natural mentor, though he never tried to be one. I remember once sitting in his office in the early 1980s and watching him write on one of the Nation’s ancient manual typewriters, his cigarette dropping ash. I was whining about the fact that the magazine’s editor, Victor Navasky, never asked me to write anything.

“Why should he?” Christopher asked as he typed. “Have you ever put anything on his desk and said: ‘Publish this’?”

I admitted I hadn’t.

“Well, don’t wait around for him to ask you. Just do it.” And so I did, a month later, and Victor published it, to my shock. It was a very early piece on the rise of the right-wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. My life as a writer began at that moment.

I last saw Christopher on the day after Valentine’s Day this year when he was visiting L.A. We had lunch at his hotel. He was in a good mood after having almost died a few weeks before, from one of his treatments. He had a glass of wine, maybe two. We talked in a desultory way about old friends; it was a very retrospective conversation, even for Christopher, who always enjoyed dwelling on the past. He was matter-of-fact about his illness.

I left him sitting on a bench outside the hotel’s lobby. There was no sloppy farewell, although we both knew this might be the last time we’d see each other. I pulled out in my car a few minutes later, unseen by him. He was still sitting there alone on that bench, hat on head, cigarette in mouth, notebook on lap. As I passed, he lit his cigarette, and just sat there, gazing out at the parking lot and the stalled freeway traffic beyond.

Amy Wilentz’s most recent book is “The Rainy Season: Haiti -- Then and Now.”