By Todd Krieger
I’m a Californian and that’s a confession and a truth all wrapped up in one. It’s pertinent as this is the lens through which I view a conversation with Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie at the 92 Y which may differ slightly than one who dwells in the Five Boroughs.
And while both boys most certainly did lay claim to be cunning linguists and there was the requisite literary name-dropping (though no mention of Kingsley), the marked characteristic of the evening’s conversation, in addition to liberal doses of sex, alcohol and ego, was a leitmotif of friendship, of the true-blue variety,
The packed house was greeted to a surprise introduction by none other than Hitch’s editor at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, whose hair was as fabulously floppy as ever. In what would prove to be the first of many charming anecdotes, Graydon related how upon founding Spy ‘Hitch’ was the ‘very first person’ he called, and Mr. Hitchens promptly turned him down. And then some years later when Mr. Carter had ascended to Tina Brown’s throne at ‘Vanity Fair’ he placed the same call and this time Mr. Hitchens accepted, perhaps as the coffers and perks of the then still-great Condé empire were vast enough to accommodate for Hitch’s prodigious habits. Carter then listed off the innumerable war-zones to which Hitch traveled on behalf of the Newhouses all of which was upstaged by a recounting of Mr. Hitchens getting waxed, yes waxed, for a story for ‘Vanity Fair’. The waxing consisting of “The Back, The Sack and the Crack,” a notion that produced the requisite titters of laughter from the Upper East Side crowd.
Cue the heavyweights and in walked Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens. The amity between them was obvious and genuine and whatever had passed betwixt them in decades prior would not be put on display this evening. That Rushdie is most likely one of the few people who could put Hitch, the man that claimed to have been called a ‘Naughty Boy’, by Margaret Thatcher in his place, was most certainly a key to the evening’s entertainment.
From the onset Salman made it clear that there was a mix of respect and if not consternation or befuddlement, a wholly different kind of admiration for Hitchens’ commitment to his beliefs. His opening salvo being, “You liked Margaret Thatcher but disliked God.” Hitch then declared that ‘Hitch 22’ was designed as a ‘Paradox in a Minor Key’ and defined his current mood (as if it were a Facebook Status) as ‘Committed against the New Totalitarianism.’
As they moved from the personal to the political, discussing the Falklands war, Iran-Contra and then subsequently the invasion of Iraq it became clear that these men were perhaps from a different time, and without too much nostalgia, a time that smacked of betterness. For surely there are young men in cafes today debating the merits of freedom and conflicts with the State, but the depth and breadth of Rushdie and Hitchen’s knowledge, and their ability to converse had the feeling of a bit of a lost art. For now the salon is the Internet and the communication is often one of shouting, and if there is dialogue at all, the most celebrated form is one of 140 characters or less.
For anybody who has read the press, yes Hitchens did indeed talk about his relationship to Martin Amis and his fondness for the man. And yes, he did talk about visiting a brothel (which is now the home of Opus Dei) with Martin but his presenting of that tale in person was no different than reading the excerpt in the pages of ‘Vanity Fair’. Rather, the emotional highlight of the evening was when Hitchens spoke about his mother, her death and the secret he learned following her suicide.
Hitch, when discussing Amis, Bush, Thatcher or any of the assorted stops on his career of drinking and writing would talk quite fast and be nearly indecipherable but when the story of his mother came up he was clear, cogent and very nearly soft-spoken. The man with whom his mother died was one that Hitchens did not seem especially fond of, recalling that her suitor had followed the Maharesh Yogi because, “His sail was so raised as to be buoyed by anything which passed by.” Regardless his mother was under the man’s spell and they had some form of suicide pact resulting in her killing herself alongside her lover in a hotel room in Greece when Hitchens was just 23. As the investigation into the double suicide went on, Hitchens would learn his mother tried to ring him 5x prior to dying, and he is convinced that had she succeeded, she would have remained alive. “I am sure I would have steadied her.” It would be some 15 years before he would then discover that he was Jewish, something which his mother kept from him for he felt she, “…wanted me to pass.”
Before getting to the audience’s questions Rushdie and Hitchens let loose their drawing room wit beginning with a game whereby you change one word of a famous book – rendering it more pedestrian than epic. The examples they reeled off:
– A Farewell to Weapons
– Laugtherhouse Five
– Toby Dick
– Blueberry Finn
Rushdie then did his solo parlor game trick of turning Shakespeare’s plays into Robert Ludlum novels, which if you have not heard before is a marvelous merger of the High and the Low. Hamlet is ‘The Elsinore Vacillation’, Macbeth, ‘The Dunsinane Reforestation’ and Othello, ‘The Kerchief Implication.’
And so it went. Tales of warlords and presidents mixed with literature and alcohol, but the incendiary talk was light. There is still fire in Hitch’s belly but as the young contrarian moves into his sixties it may just be that the onetime enfant terrible has done what was once unthinkable and grown up.
Todd Krieger is a writer, a thinker, and a connector. His work has been published in The New York Times, Wired, Spin and the MIT Tech Review. His drink of choice at the moment is Sazerac, he is anxiously awaiting the end of the comic book ‘Ex Machina’ and he swears he will spend more time on his much neglected site over at www.toddkrieger.com. Oh, and you can follow him on the twitter.