And more from our Liz: remembering a great journalist — Christopher Hitchens.
“THE MOST arresting news, at least as journalists tend to look at the matter these days, is what someone doesn’t want known. Hence all the current interest in investigative journalism, which is a dignified phrase for the activity of muckraking, whose goal is expose. Gossip is very close to, and all but perfectly congruent with, this conception of the news: it, too, is almost always about what someone doesn’t want known. In its baldest sense, gossip is revealing the secrets of others …”
So writes essayist Joseph Epstein in his fascinating new book “Gossip,” of which it may be said that one can open it anywhere and find another perfect quote about “envy, ambition, snobbery, friendship.” Mr. Epstein says himself that gossip is “eternal and necessary.”
I was at a dinner party the other night with extremely intelligent and up-to-date New Yorkers and someone brought up after dinner the rumor that presidential candidate Rick Perry is gay. I was struck with wonder. Vanity Fair has, this very month, in an article by Bryan Burroughs, discussed this rumor, relating how the Governor of Texas and his wife of more than 20 years had been forced finally, to discuss this rumor publicly, denying it officially. But this denial hadn’t reached our little social group, so there it was again, like a vampire, forever un-dead.
I felt fairly sure that Gov. Perry wouldn’t be attacking gays and emphasizing what a good Christian he is if he were hiding such a secret. He couldn’t hope to pull that off in this day and age, when gays are the biggest finger pointers of all at themselves and others. And I thought, after I read the magazine article — “Well, who cares?” and “Enough said.” Such a secret could not be kept these days and has already been denied. But, in shades of Herman Cain and his denials, some people in the public eye seem genuinely nuts.
Society always has to have something to talk about. So, better an old rumor than nothing to say after dinner.
Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Dominick Dunne, Rex Reed, Walter Winchell, Barbara Walters, Tina Brown, Saint Simon, Gay Talese, Sydney Smith, Maury Paul, Igor Cassini, Louella, Hedda, and Sheilah Graham, Tom Driberg, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontes, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Tennessee Williams, Barbara Pym, Lillian Ross, Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, Matt Drudge, Leo Lerman, Bonnie Fuller are all in this book in one way or another. Even me, briefly, saying that printed gossip is vastly diluted these days by celebrity wannabes whose names no one knows.
I am even quoted: “I never repeat gossip so listen carefully,” but it’s not original. Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice said it better as in, “If you haven’t anything good to say about anyone, come right over here and sit by me.”
There is a section about gossip on the Internet which should please those who use the web to spread and read gossip, some of it mainly about themselves.
There is some saucy gossip in here about the beautiful Kathleen Tynan, the wife of theater’s Ken Tynan, having a rousing affair with Fidel Castro. I guess this is ok, since both Tynans are dead and nobody is afraid of Castro any longer … And I liked a quote from the Talmud: “Don’t speak well of your friend, for although you will start with his good traits the discussion might turn to his bad traits.” … “I resolved to let nothing escape me,” said The Duke of Saint-Simon on keeping his memoirs of the Court of Louis XIV under close observation from 1694 to 1788 and thereby writing history. In the end he had more than 3000 pages or 49 plus volumes. Epstein says he was a good man without self-promotion: “Gossip was never practiced with a surer hand or at a higher power than it was by le petit duc, who turned it into literature.” Of course Saint-Simon would have gone to the Bastille if his gossip had been published.
* * *
SPEAKING OF literature that is as entertaining — if far more potent and intelligent — as gossip, I can’t imagine a world without Christopher Hitchens.
Agree or disagree with him — more often than not, I did agree — he was a raging, visceral force. A real journalist not afraid to take on any controversial subject: from shaking the halo off Mother Teresa to eloquently and humanely defending his atheism.
He was confrontational, witty, often unkempt in appearance. His writing, like his stints on hundreds of talk shows and panels, were cattle prods of intellect and self-confidence. (If you were one of those he disliked, it would just be plain cattle prods and arrogance.)
He admired George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson, loathed the Clintons, called himself a socialist and an “Anti-Zionist,” supported the war in Iraq, condemned the tortures at Abu Grab. He did not write about what he had for dinner, or where cell phones had taken us.
Hitchens — who never denied his prodigious love of drinking, smoking and generally living a cheerfully unhealthy lifestyle — was diagnosed with esophageal cancer last June. He announced, despite a grim prognosis, that he would undergo the terrible treatments, and battle on. He wrote in Vanity Fair and for several other publications, describing the ordeal. He was not sure, he said, that given the choice again to extend his life, he would have. But he was himself to the end. Though he joked about being engaged in “a long argument with the specter of death … redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before.”
Christopher Hitchens was only 62. I am really going to miss his remarkable brain and spirit. Especially with next year’s elections looming. Oh, the fun it would have been to still have him.