2 December 2021

‘Dionysus rides again!’: James Wolcott on Christopher Hitchens

Posted by the Bookshop

A Hitch in Time, just published by Atlantic Books, anthologises for the first time a selection of Christopher Hitchens's remarkable contributions to the London Review of Books, taking in his familiar bêtes noires – Kennedy, Nixon, Kissinger, Clinton – alongside lesser-known preoccupations: P.G. Wodehouse, Princess Margaret, Isaiah Berlin. In this extract from the introduction to the new collection, James Wolcott recounts his first, unforgettable meeting with the great man.

I recall vividly my first beholding of the Christopher Hitchens Experience, one of those epiphany moments that drops into your lap unbidden. The occasion was Vanity Fair’s holiday party for staff and contributors, the venue that year being Joe’s Pub, a restaurant and performance space. Magazine holiday parties traditionally tended to be brisk, collegiate affairs held in the office after a regular workday, consisting of a judiciously sipped drink or two, a few flurries of flirtation here and there, and a bit of ‘face time’ with the editor in chief before a discreet getaway, the streets thronged with other early evacuees desperately trying to flag a taxi in those pre-Uber times. Not Vanity Fair’s. Vanity Fair holiday parties, like the magazine itself in those ad-flush days, laid on the bezazz. They were what parties were meant to be, beehive buzzfests building in noise and body English until the floorboards seemed to bounce. Spilled drinks, shards of laughter, impetuous doings in the bathrooms. And this party was even more boisterous than its predecessors. One editorial assistant had to be lofted and carried out like a fallen comrade. The whole evening had a theatrical oomph as a DJ kept everything in throbby motion. All that was missing was a disco ball.

And then, on the Joe’s Pub stage, like an Avengers’ portal opening from another dimension, materialised editor Graydon Carter and star columnist Christopher Hitchens, embracing the tribal spirit and grooving away to the thudding beat. Others were on stage as well, but all eyes still capable of focusing trained on the dynamic duo. They weren’t dancing with each other so much as at each other, loosely mirroring each other like friendly tugboats, and at one point Hitchens whipped off his jacket with toreador flair to whooping cries of encouragement. He undid a button of his white shirt or perhaps it popped on its own and chugged towards Carter, attempting to bump bellies. Graydon retreated a few steps, protecting his front. It was one thing for the editor in chief to electric boogaloo, but bumping bellies was a bridge too far. Decorum must be maintained even in the midst of bacchanal. Yet Hitchens persisted, his belly declining to take no for an answer, this sweaty pagan spectacle unfolding before our eyes until it looked as if he might strip off his shirt entirely and cast it aside like a Chippendales dancer. ‘My God,’ I thought, ‘the legends are true. Dionysus rides again!’ Then the portal resealed and the vision dissolved, or maybe the music just stopped, and into the night we trooped, with much to talk about the next day.

For years Hitchens and I shared Vanity Fair’s front of the book as monthly columnists, nobly pulling our load. Our shoulder-rubbing adjacency in print led to occasions of misidentity. More than once I was complimented on a coruscating piece that had been Hitchens’s handiwork. ‘That was ballsy of you to get water-boarded,’ a stranger on the bus leaned over to confide one afternoon, leaning back after I informed him, ‘That wasn’t me, that was Hitchens.’ Similarly, I was once consoled on the Brazilian bikini wax I had so sportingly undergone for the purposes of participatory journalism. Again, Hitchens. Despite our sharing the same real estate in VF’s glossy pages and being mistaken for each other by random civilians, we had almost no personal overlap or exchanges, apart from the seasonal holiday bacchanals or the occasional book party. He was based in Washington DC, his residence the nearest thing the Potomac had to a brainy salon (it was also the site of Vanity Fair’s gala White House Correspondents Dinner after-party, whose guests one year included Salman Rushdie, Olivia Wilde and Tucker Carlson); I called Manhattan home. He was peripatetic, a roving correspondent who filed reports from the Middle East and even North Korea; me, not. We stayed in our separate lanes, his lane far more spacious and trafficked than mine. Unlike so many others, then, I have no picnic basket of personal anecdotes to unpack, no intimate exchanges. In conversation with others I never referred to him as Christopher or Hitch; that would have presumed a familiarity I didn’t possess.

Had we been able or inclined to spend time in each other’s company, I would have been at a disadvantage, my capacity for alcohol being far below that of the average debutante’s. One drink and I begin to stare out at sea, looking for white sails. Many others did their valiant, futile best to keep up with his industrial quota. After Hitchens’s much mourned death in 2011, the last stanza in his gruelling, unflinching, heroic battle with oesophageal cancer (documented in his posthumous memoir, Mortality), one personal tribute after another related how the subject and mentor spent hours talking and drinking into blue midnight, the narrator reduced to a woozy heap as Hitchens padded off to his keyboard and batted out a ream of copy that was witty, informed, sardonic and rounded off, as glistening and pristine as a Richard Avedon contact sheet. No matter how high the evening’s intake, one pavilion of Hitchens’s brain remained brightly lit and open for business.

In the autumnal fullness of time, Hitchens’s prodigious amount of alcoholic input and journalistic output, the lubricated churn of his powerhouse intellect and his unflagging stamina, the barnstorming pace of all those panels, speeches, debates, and TV appearances, seemed to defy the laws of human biology. How did he not implode? Plus, he smoked. The premier action shot of Hitchens at the crest of his public notoriety would show him steaming up to the auditorium lectern with a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the last of the living-large, two-fisted provocateurs, ready to conquer ideological foes and hecklers alike as a lick of hair flopped over his forehead like Elvis Presley. He could be droll one moment, cauterising the next, thunder-rumbling as he reached a peroration, an old-school duellist and rhetorician like we ain’t got much of in Amurrica. In his adopted country (he became a US citizen in 2007), Hitchens’s methodical glee in flustering everyone’s preened feathers provided welcome relief from the fraternal order of technocratic weenies, Beltway insiders, meritocratic humbugs and conventional-wisdom recyclers who plagued us then (and are even more prevalent today – another swamp Trump failed to drain), but his roguish image often overshadowed the actual writing, especially with the rise of social media, which tends to caricature everything and everyone into a meme or a jokey gif, catering to the twitchy eyeballs of the attention-deficited and sleep-deprived.

So revisiting this selection of pieces from the London Review of Books, none of which has been anthologised before in his other essay collections, is restorative: an extended spa treatment that stretches tired brains and unkinks the habitual responses where Hitchens is concerned.

Books mentioned in this blog post