The world of American letters is considerably poorer now than just one year ago. Last December was Christopher Hitchens’s final winter of silver-tongued discontent. And this unseasonably grievous summer, Nora Ephron, Alexander Cockburn, Gore Vidal, and Robert Hughes left us in quick succession. Among their gifts as writers, the five shared a talent for trenchant bon mots and withering ripostes. To paraphrase one eulogizer, who will ever insult us as well as they did? Below are samples—one each—from Hughes, Cockburn, Hitchens, Ephron, and Vidal. Can you guess which wit made what quip? (Answers below)

EPHRON: ILONA LIEBERMAN; HUGHES: JOYCE RAVID; VIDAL: JANE BROWN

1. “American writers want to be not good but great; and so are neither.”

2. “I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.”

3. “I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive.”

4. “One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture: It’s like being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs.”

5. “The First Law of Journalism: to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”


Answers: 1. Vidal 2. Hitchens 3. Ephron 4. Hughes 5. Cockburn

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