MY FIRST encounter with Christopher Hitchens was a memorable one. It was February 2004, my girlfriend and I were in the elevator at Hitchens’s Dupont Circle apartment building. We’d come from a swank affair at the Hilton hotel nearby, and had been invited to an after party in the apartment of a dear friend and old colleague. My friend had already informed me that Hitchens lived in his building, reporting with evident pride that he’d met and become friends with the famous journalist. Which only made sense, because my friend is unbelievably well-read and has an obsession with single-malt scotch. One of Hitch’s great talents was that he was an intellectual truffle pig, rooting out anyone in his proximity with an expansive brain or capacious liquor cabinet. Preferably both.
In any event, there he was in the elevator, in the flesh. Since my mother had handed me a copy of No One Left to Lie To as an undergraduate, Hitchens had been one of my favorite writers. Momentarily stunned, I had to compose myself before quavering, “Excuse me, but are you Christopher Hitchens?” Hitchens seemed a bit startled and wary. “You know who I am?” he ventured.
His identity established, I honestly didn’t know where to move the conversation. My girlfriend, already a few glasses of wine into the evening and knowing my deep admiration for the man, sprang into action. She hiked up her gown, bounded over to Hitch and said, “Of course, we know who you are, silly.” She then wrapped her hand around the opposite side of his head, and planted her lips on the side of his face. It was an ultimately innocent gesture, but something rather more emphatic than a peck on the cheek. Hitchens and I were both so surprised we laughed out loud. He quietly said “thank you” as we exited the elevator.
You have to love a woman like that, and so I married her. I like to think that for about five seconds in an elevator seven years ago, Hitchens loved her, too.
I HAD a few more encounters with him in the years following, but I can’t claim any of these were special or that he was even all that familiar with me. Mainly I feel blessed to have witnessed him at the height of his rhetorical powers. I saw him rise, unprompted, at a dinner and give a drink-spewingly hilarious and dead-on accurate stemwinder on how the British empire’s creation of the state of Pakistan might be responsible for all the problems of the world today. When I think about it now, I’m almost angry no one had the foresight to record it.
That said, while I never stopped appreciating Hitchens’s skill with words, I found him frequently exasperating in his final years. I’m thinking here of the atheism thing. As someone baptized as an adult, I’d given a great deal of thought to religious matters and having someone whose moral clarity I’d previously considered a model inveigh so definitively against God was something of a gut punch. More than that, his arguments, while rhetorically precise, were more wearying than novel.
WHICH BRINGS me to the night I tried to save Christopher Hitchens’s soul. Well, to be fair, it was a team effort. It happened almost a year ago. My wife and I know a couple, mutual friends of Hitchens, who were then expecting their first child. My wife and another friend of the mother-to-be had volunteered to host a baby shower. Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue, generous as always, agreed that their large apartment, with its spectacular top-floor views of Washington, should be the venue.
My wife went early to prepare the hors d’oeuvres and giddily informed me that before my arrival a polite older gentleman had made a point of introducing himself to everyone right before he left. It turned out to be Tom Stoppard, another literary hero of mine. Regrettably, she failed to kiss him for me.
The party was a smash. The food was delicious, the bar bottomless, and Carol, who is witty and worldly (in the best sense of that word) was a revelation all her own. The crowd was full of close friends and the mood was joyous. The only thing that cast a pall was Hitchens’s health. His esophageal cancer had taken its toll, and he was losing his voice.
At some point in the evening, I noticed the crowd had thinned but the coats were still in a heap by the door. I poked my head around a corner and found Hitchens smoking a cigarette and nursing a drink in the adjoining apartment, which had been recently acquired so as not to sully the primary residence with smoke. (His was a fatal diagnosis, so why not puff away? seemed to be the rationale). He was surrounded by a coterie, straining to suppress the usual lubricated revelry so they could hang on his every raspy word. I pulled up a chair.
Another journalist whose work I greatly admire was arguing with him about God. I had no previous indication that this was the case, but Hitch’s sparring partner turned out to be a fervent Christian who was not afraid to be evangelical. It probably helped that he’d climbed halfway inside a bottle of very expensive scotch before he decided to challenge the world’s most famous atheist on matters of ontology.
I jumped in where I could to challenge Hitch’s lack of faith; even two against one with no voice, it was still a fair fight. He may have been deprived of volume, but he was as intense and brilliant as ever.
Meanwhile, girded by faith and single-malt whisky, my brother-in-Christian-arms was ever more emphatic in his pronouncements. It was both comical and inspiring, like watching Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo attitude deployed in defense of C.S. Lewis’s faith.
“Damn it, Hemingway! I need the red letters!” he roared, pounding his fist on the table. The words of Jesus in many a New Testament are printed in red ink, and he was overcome with a desire to read Hitch the Sermon on the Mount. A more studious catechumen might have memorized it; I reached for my iPhone. Preach the Gospel always; when necessary use a Bible app, as St. Francis must have said. Alas, Hitchens’s apartment had terrible reception. Put your trust in God, not AT&Ts 3G coverage.
The debate was friendly enough. It helped that where most atheists are quick to assert empirical certainty, Hitchens would readily admit the limits of his own knowledge. In fact, he amusingly reported that when he appeared with fellow celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, they were frequently irked at his response to inquiries about the after-life: “I don’t know.”
Still, Hitchens’s animosity to religion was palpable. He related the story of how he was told by a group of Presbyterians that because he had been so vocal in attacking his former faith, he would have to get himself “unbaptized” lest he risk even greater damnation than he was already courting.
By now, my wife had joined the argument. She was something of a ringer; she’s an accomplished religion journalist and the daughter of Lutheran pastor. Immediately, she laid into Hitch and told him she highly doubted the Presbyterian story for lots of obvious reasons that she eagerly detailed. And even if he had been told that, it’s heresy that he should dismiss out of hand. I realized I’d seen that look in Hitchens’s eye before. Once again, she had left him speechless.
AFTER THE news of Hitchens’s death, I opened my email and found the following note in my inbox:
We almost had him that January night, didn’t we? Maybe not. Probably not. Definitely not. But let’s tell ourselves something sunk in, and took. Facing death has a way of re-ordering your worldview. He might have done things nobody will ever know.
I’d tell my friend the same thing he tried so hard to tell Hitchens around that fateful kitchen table: You’ve got to have faith. December 15, 2011, may be remembered as the day Christopher Hitchens died, but I prefer to think of it as his red letter day.