Over the last decade, there has been a consistent grumbling among our nation’s best and brightest with regard to their perceived decline in the role of the ‘public intellectual.’ With contemptible individuals like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West seated in the front row of our country’s consciousness, it is a difficult proposition to argue. What is not arguable, however, is that on December 11th, 2011, our stable of remaining public intellectuals became significantly less potent. It was on that day that Christopher Hitchens lost his battle with esophageal cancer.
With roughly 200 people in attendance, I was honored to be an invited guest among the spectacular variety of literary giants, Pulitzer Prize winning poets, Academy Award winning actors, publishing moguls, distinguished professors and dignitaries. The incredible assortment of attendees included: Sean Penn, Olivia Wilde, Salman Rushdie, Padma Lakshmi, Stephen Fry, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Tom Stoppard, Christopher Buckley, Carl Bernstein, Tina Brown, Jason Sudeikis, David Remnick, Jon Meacham, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, and physicist Lawrence Krauss, as well as Hitchens’s wife Carol Blue, brother Peter Hitchens, son Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, and many others.
Seated adjacent to Padma Lakshmi, I focused my attention on the main stage when the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter began the memorial. Delivering warm and fitting opening remarks, Mr. Carter finished his statement succinctly: “He was an editor’s dream, and he was a reader’s dream.”
Following Carter, an assortment of Hitchens’ loved ones and comrades took the stage to recount personal stories and read passages from Hitchens’ catalog of work.
Friend and -- as he described -- personal physicist to Mr. Hitchens, Lawrence Krauss brought a lighter tone to the afternoon when he recalled a morning shared with Hitchens. “I was reading the New York Times at his kitchen table, and there was an article about the ongoing effort to keep Catholic students at elite colleges like Yale from losing their faith. The article read: "faced with Nietzsche, coed dorms, Hitchens, and beer pong, students are likely to stray." I remarked to Christopher that to be sandwiched between Nietzsche and beer pong is an honor that very few of us can ever aspire to.”
Author and actor Stephen Fry, commenting on Hitchens’ unrelenting appetite for debate, said, “One of the great pleasures of knowing Christopher was having him disagree with you.” Mr. Fry also received arguably the biggest laugh of the day when he read Hitchens’ description of the four most overrated things: “Champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics.” Looking up at the audience, Mr. Fry slyly remarked, “Well three out of four isn’t bad.”
After hearing from other notable attendees like, Salman Rushdie, Sean Penn, Francis Collins, and Olivia Wilde, the afternoon was brought near to an end by Hitchens’ son Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, wife Carol Blue, and novelist Martin Amis – who offered commentary on what made Hitchens so popular. “He was handsome,” Amis says, with his tongue pressed firmly against his cheek. “Handsomer than any man has the right to be.”
Bringing the afternoon to an end, Graydon Carter returned to the stage to offer closing remarks. He concluded, “As Christopher would say, may you all thrive.”
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Writer and activist Andrew Sullivan was one of the distinguished ushers.
Actress Olivia Wilde recounting how Hitchens remarked to her that one of his proudest accomplishments was being able to say that he was once her babysitter.
Academy Award winning actor Sean Penn reading a passage of Hitchens' on the Vietnam War.
By today's standards, this was an intimate affair. Seated among the crowd is Vogue Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour with partner Shelby Bryan.
Actor and author Stephen Fry getting the biggest laugh of the afternoon.
Christopher's son Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens delivering touching remarks while Christopher's wife Carol and brother Peter sit behind.