Christopher Hitchens and I were not friends or even acquaintances. We never met or spoke on the phone, just exchanged occasional brief letters — notes really — hand-written and snail-mailed at first, e-mailed later. I suppose the most colloquial name for our relationship is “pen pals,” but that is much too hearty and well-adjusted for either of the difficult personalities involved: It reeks of reaching out. My description of what we shared comes from the imagery that Longfellow called “ships that pass in the night.”
Our first pass occurred in the ’80s when we were both weekday book reviewers on Newsday. I think I was Tuesday and he was Wednesday. The book-page staff took to betting on which of us would come up with the most devastating comment on a bad book. The results were passed on to us by the book editor, the late Nina King (just about everybody I used to know is now “the late”), while Hitchens and I, voicing suitably modest disclaimers, would tell Nina our favorite lines from each other’s reviews, which she would then pass on to us. This strikes me as significant now. That Nina slipped so naturally into the role of go-between seems to hint that even then the fates had decided that he and I would never meet.
Hitchens went on to bigger and better devastations, attacking religion in general and Mother Teresa in particular, while I went on to National Review. It was the least likely place to bring us back together but, in a way, that’s where it happened. One of my last “Misanthrope’s Corner” columns before my premature retirement in 2002 was about my experiences in blurbing books. I related my best blurbing stories, then ended with a confession: “The writer I would most like to blurb is Christopher Hitchens and I’ve already written the blurb: ‘If Christopher Hitchens is a Marxist, I want to be one too.’”
That broke the ice. He wrote me a thank-you note and our occasional correspondence began. We always addressed each other as Miss King and Mr. Hitchens, our symbolic — but never spelled out — loathing for the hang-loose world we both occupied. It was better that way; we said more by saying nothing.
I was glad that we always kept things short. If we had written real letters I would eventually have gone on too long about my Anglophilia, but one of our brief exchanges brought it out naturally. I asked him if he knew the words to an old music-hall song my father used to sing, about an undernourished baby having a bath. He did, and dashed off the Cockney lyrics:
BLOCKYour baby ’as gone down the plug ’ole, your baby ’as gone down the plug;
The poor little thing was so skinny and thin, ’e ought to’ve been washed in a jug.
Your baby is perfectly ’appy, ’e don’t need no washing no more!
Your baby ’as gone down the plug ’ole. Not lost, just gone before!ENDBLOCK
We almost met once, but the opportunity came at the worst possible time. A few years ago he wrote me that he had a speaking engagement down my way, and suggested that we have a drink together. Anything less than the truth would have sounded like an excuse, so I told him the truth: “I just got out of the hospital and I feel and look like hell.” He understood and we agreed to aim for another time. “I need somebody to sneer with,” I wrote, “and they’re so hard to find.” He replied: “If you ever feel like collectivizing the sneers I am within bull’s roar of you and at your service.”
The question of meeting never arose again. It was up to me to suggest another occasion but I never did. I forget what reason I gave myself, but looking back, I think Fate was at it again. If we had met, particularly with alcohol in the mix, we would have talked the hind legs off a mule, but no matter how intellectually satisfying it might have been, it would have brought about a change that I hated to think about: We could never again write those terse little notes, never again be ships that pass in the night.
Holding back has become the last remaining art form in 21st-century America and Hitchens and I had perfected something that I did not want to give up. To do so would be to join the marauding armies of equal time; the buzzing swarms of twitters and tweeters who fill the nation’s computer screens with their acronym droppings and call it “communicating”; the screenwriters who stuff movies with so much unnecessary dialogue that it confuses what little plot there is; and the verbal bricklayers who write 10,000-page congressional bills that nobody reads before passing. Brevity used to be regarded as the soul of wit, but in America it identifies a rapidly multiplying segment of the population with a three-word vocabulary consisting of “surreal,” “awesome,” and “cool.”
My last note to Hitchens before he died was about the royal wedding. “Did you watch Drooping the Colour this weekend?” I asked. He replied: “I did hazard a glimpse of it; was there anybody there higher than the rank of Sir Elton and Beckham? It looked low-rent even by showbiz standards. In Oliver Cromwell’s funeral cortege there walked John Milton, John Dryden, and Andrew Marvell.”
I’m pleased to say that the blurb I wanted to give him — “If Christopher Hitchens is a Marxist, I want to be one too” — actually did appear in an ad for one of his books. Some people believe he is now in Heaven, others that he is now in Hell, but I have the skinny on this controversy: He’s in the sea lane next to mine.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.