David Corn: What Happened When Hitchens and I Shared a Tiny Office

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 16 2011 11:54 AM

Hitchens and I Shared an Office

A very small, windowless office. Here’s what I learned about him.

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The late Christopher Hitchens

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens. Read Slate’s complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.

Here is how I came to hate Christopher Hitchens. Hate—as in envy.

In the early 1980s, as a twentysomething trying to start a career as a crusading journalist, I was fortunate enough to share an office with Hitchens. It was just the two of us. And one phone line. We were both working at The Nation. He had come to it as part of an exchange program with the New Statesman, a British publication, and had elected to remain in the wonderful and wild New York City of the late disco era. I was an editorial grunt. The magazine was running short on workspace, and we were assigned a small, windowless office on a floor apart from the main offices. These were the days before voice mail—and much else—and we would take phone messages for each other on pink slips of paper from “while you were out” notepads.

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You can learn a lot about a person by sharing an office—and taking phone messages for him.

This is how the average day proceeded: I’d arrive in the morning around 9-ish. The phone would soon start ringing—with calls for Hitchens. I’d tell the callers he was not yet available, and they would leave messages: “Tell him, that was a wonderful dinner last night.” Or, “Mick was so pleased to meet him.” Or, “We may all get together again this evening.” Within an hour or so, the nature of the messages would shift to cover plans for lunch that day: “Tell Christopher we’re all meeting at the Spanish place.”

About this time, Hitchens would saunter in. He’d say hello, turn to the pink slips I had placed on his desk, and return the calls. Did I say this was a small office? We each could hear everything the other said on the phone. He’d first phone his compatriots from the previous evening and review what had transpired. He then would talk to his lunch-mates for the day and arrange the details. Then it would be time … to leave for lunch.

While he was gone, calls would come in for him with invitations for afternoon drinks. (In those days, youngsters, late-afternoon drinks were practically obligatory in certain journalistic circles. Think of it as Manhattan teatime.) After a, shall we say, longish lunch, Hitchens would stop back in the office and return the calls regarding the pending drinks. Then it was, ta-ta, once again.

By now you are getting the picture. But I’m not done yet. After afternoon drinks, the general practice was to return to the office. Upon his arrival, Hitchens would sort through the latest pink slips with phone numbers from his friends, colleagues, and adversaries who had called about dinner plans and after-dinner drinks. (Yes, in those days, after-dinner drinks were a separate stop.)

Soon, it was time for Hitchens to head out to the dinner engagement. He would start packing up. About now, Elizabeth Pochoda, the literary editor of the magazine, would poke her head in the door. “Christopher, you’re going to have that review of the Disraeli biography for me tomorrow, right?”—a soft touch of menace in her voice.

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