A Bright, Tight Night with Christopher Hitchens

A Bright, Tight Night with Christopher Hitchens

I spent a long wonderful boozy evening with the Hitchman in February 1997 at the Shadyside apartment of a mutually beloved literata-friend, when he was guest teaching for a semester at the University of Pittsburgh. The three of us consumed two bottles of Stolichnaya, assorted wines, a substance that shall remain nameless, and perhaps a half-carton of cigarettes. Thus, the details are both literally and figuratively hazy.  But certain moments remain crystal clear.

Beforehand, when she invited me, the very beautiful and brainy hostess said the Contrarian-in-Chief wanted to meet me because he was a big fan of my "Louise Brooks" biography. So I brought him a copy of my new one, "Garbo," inscribed with a caricature of Garbo, dressed as Rambo, saying: "I vant to be Stallone."

Hitchens' response was striking: You'd have thought I was giving him the original Book of Kells (had he been a believer), he was so tickled and touched - and so WILDLY apologetic that he hadn't brought anything for me. "I had to pack so hastily, travel so lightly, just couldn't carry any copies ..."  etc. etc.  I kept saying not to worry, no reciprocal book was required or expected, etc. etc.  To no avail.  I'd never seen anyone so distraught, running his fingers through his hair, shaking his head with regret.  Finally, after the fifth apology, I said, "Christopher, it's fine -- I mean, it's not as if you ran over Frisky."

He stopped fretting, as I hoped, long enough to look puzzled and say, "Frisky?"

Our hostess, on cue, helpfully clarified: "His dog -- a Pittsburgh celebrity, thanks to Barry's exhaustive chronicling in the Post-Gazette." (Not to mention The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, I modestly added.) She cited my recent compelling account of Frisky's enrollment at Christian Canines, a dog-training school whose born-again owner Anne barked two alternating commands, "Praise the Dog!" and "Praise the Lord!" in obedience class (from which Frisky & I were soon expelled).

Hitchens laughed and said, "You're kidding, of course."

"Not a bit," I replied, truthfully, "and in case you're wondering, it took a long time to come up with that name."

Yes, he said, "Christian Canines" was excellent. No, I said, "I mean 'Frisky.' "

Many loftier topics -- literary, political and cosmic -- were probed that night, primarily his recent Mother Teresa book, "The Missionary Position," a brilliant screed that I had just read and adored and still consider his best. Come to find out, the title he almost chose for it was "Sacred Cow."

Several months later, a fat package from England arrived in the mail. It contained not one, not two, but three Hitchens books, each with a different charming inscription, my favorite in "For the Sake of Argument": "Fraternal salutes for a memorable soirée!"

I'll always think of him in terms of Tanya Tandoc's terrific line: "When asked where I reside in religion, I say, 'Well, you know, I've gone to a number of churches and I just never could find one that was right for me, so now I home church.' "

Fraternal salutes, and farewell, to the most memorable iconoclast of our time.


Subscribe to BarryParis.com RSS Feed