The friends of George Hodgman, who died over the weekend at the untimely age of 60—just when he seemed to be breathing in the sweet smell of success—talk about his brilliance as a writer and editor, his piercing empathy and basic kindness, and his brave struggles against drug addiction and manic depression that ultimately got the better of him.
But they talk most often about Hodgman’s talent for laughter—his frequently bitchy, occasionally poignant, but always hilarious way of entertaining a dinner partner, defusing a stressful situation or simply making someone feel a tiny bit better.
“When I was a kid, I knew that George was different, but it was because he was funnier than other people,” his eight-years-younger first cousin Molly Roarty, who spent her childhood looking up to him in the politically and religiously conservative small town of Paris, Missouri, told The Daily Beast. “He was a smart-ass. Being a smart-ass was not necessarily encouraged. He would say outrageous things and do incredible impersonations. He was a great mimic. He was just more interesting than most people.”
His close friend Beth Kseniak, his colleague at Vanity Fair, where he spent much of the 1990s as an editor during its lavishly glossy heyday, recalled that his 2015 best-selling memoir Bettyville—about his escape from New York for rural Missouri to take care of his aged and declining yet fabulously quirky mother Betty—was the perfect expression of Hodgman’s humanity.
Hodgman's memoir is, among other things, his chronicle of growing up as an outsider, a gay man in a place where such personal qualities were hardly welcomed or appreciated.
“Bettyville was the gift he left for all of us,” Kseniak said. “It could make you laugh and make you cry, and it could make you do that in a single sentence.” George the man, she added, "mostly made you laugh...He was so smart and had such a way with words.”
When another friend, veteran magazine writer Lisa DePaulo, was in the midst of a health crisis recently that required hospitalization, Hodgman sent her the following Facebook message:
“Listen, you mean old Italian woman, I will forgive you for hanging out with a baby-cager who is also THIN (which I hate)”—a reference to DePaulo’s pal Ann Coulter—“but if you aren't taking care of yourself I am going to tell the Post that you were found passed out naked in the arms of John Podhoretz and hospitalized for the inhalation of back hair…Just fucking get well or I'll kill you.”
Coulter, among other right-wingers, was a reliable leitmotif in Hodgman’s humor repertoire. “Politically, I have a lot of differences with many I encounter here,” he wrote in Bettyville.“When visiting the homes of reactionary friends and neighbors, I enjoy hiding their copies of books by Glenn Beck and other lunatics around the house while my hosts cook or adjourn to relieve themselves. Ducking into a garage to deposit the latest ravings of Ann Coulter into a bag of aging peat moss lifts the spirit as unfailingly as a summer tent revival.”
Beyond Hodgman’s world-class wit, “he had this incredible instinct for compassion,” DePaulo said. “He knew when you needed some bucking up. He just knew.”
Former Vanity Fair contributing editor Kim Masters, who was one of Hodgman’s writers, recalled working in his office to get a piece into shape and putting up a brave front despite suddenly feeling unwell.
Most people would not have noticed, Masters recalled, but Hodgman immediately asked: “Are you okay?”
“He was exquisitely sensitive, and he paid a price for that,” said Nancy Collins, another of Hodgman’s writers at the magazine. “His kind of profound creative talent always comes with emotional strings attached.”
Collins added that Hodgman was endlessly generous with his time and advice, as well his discretion, when it came to personal issues, “but despite the amazing things he did for you, it was almost impossible to do anything for George, because he wouldn’t let you.”
Hodgman was not always so benevolent.
A March 2017 profile in St. Louis Magazine recounted: “In Manhattan, when he was thinner and blonder and an editor at Vanity Fair, he wore lime green Helmut Lang pants and a black T-shirt to visit Madonna in her townhouse. Will Lippincott (of the old-money Philadelphia book publishing Lippincotts) still remembers the first time he saw Hodgman, at a party in the ’90s. “If there was a ‘New York top magazine editor’ look,” Lippincott says, “he had it: curious, haughty, and disdainful all at once.”
“I think he could have been kind of a dick back then,” said Hodgman’s friend Edward Shain, a retired publishing executive who had gotten to know an entirely different George—“a man of soaring insights,” as he put it—over the past six years.
The St. Louis Magazine profile recounts an incident in which Hodgman, out of patience with a talented yet truculent writer, tossed her pink Chanel jacket out his office window when she left briefly to go to the ladies’ room.
If the sharp-clawed Manhattan editor version of Hodgman struck some people as arrogant and imperious, it was a plucky façade, according to his memoir, which devotes several passages to his complicated relationship with the larger-than-life editor in chief Graydon Carter.
“I worshipped Graydon for his creativity and eye for the subtle treacheries of Manhattan’s stylish power brokers,” Hodgman wrote. “He saw the hidden strings that held his world together...An effortless raconteur, amusingly ironic, he was also surprisingly vulnerable, judgmental in the extreme as he tallied up style offenses, lapses in etiquette, imagined slights from employees, sushi deliverers, or celebrity handlers…
“I craved his regard,” Hodgman wrote.“Anyone could plummet out of favor. When the stories I supervised put me in Graydon’s good graces, I was jubilant, but after failure, when it was possible to wait endlessly outside his office for a brief and chilly audience, I could do nothing but worry and obsess over the rejection. I lived with a succession of bizarre stomach ailments, always in terror of failing.”
Carter, for his part, emailed The Daily Beast: “George was as good an editor as I have ever worked with. He had been trained at the knee of Alice Mayhew [the legendary Simon & Schuster editor for whom Hodgman worked before being hired by Carter] and so he knew a big narrative when he saw one. The writers adored and trusted him and with him they produced great work both for Vanity Fair and during his many years as a book editor. But he was a country boy fighting his way through the big city. And the big city won, alas.”
Ed Shain, who was one of Hodgman’s manuscript readers for Bettyville, said his friend was at work at the time of his death on a roman á clef inspired by his Vanity Fair years from 1993 through 1999. After that he had worked briefly for Daily Beast founder Tina Brown’s Talk magazine and then for a couple of of publishing houses.
By 2011, Hodgman had achieved a top executive position at Houghton Mifflin, only to be fired in what was euphemistically called “a restructuring,” and ended up alone in an apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, trying to gin up a freelance writing career.
That was when he decided to return to Paris to check up on his nearly 90-year-old mother, who was in failing health and suffering from early dementia.
Hodgman’s initial visit of a couple of weeks stretched into three years of living in close quarters with his mom in the old house where he grew up—the inspiration for Bettyville.
“It’s about a fat man and an old lady in a small town,” Hodgman told St. Louis Magazine with typically annihilating self-deprecation. “It’s not anybody’s idea of a blockbuster.”
Hodgman’s cousin Molly Roarty recalled that George—who at age 52 made no effort to conceal the sexual identity that he’d carefully kept hidden from Betty and late father “Big George”—was quickly accepted and appreciated by the citizens of Paris.
“People tremendously respected him for taking care of Betty and, of course, they admired the book,” Roarty recalled. “It came as a shock to me to realize how hard he had struggled to fit in as a teenager and young adult.”
Hodgman was unlucky in love. Friends couldn’t recall ever seeing him with a steady boyfriend.
“He would fall in love and have his heart broken. They didn’t love him back,” DePaulo said. “Even though he had a million friends and a million admirers, he really felt alone. That breaks my heart.”
In his memoir, Hodgman ruthlessly lampooned his adventures in the gay dating scene: “There was the period of lean, the summers of sculpted, the days when dating participation required the complete absence of body hair. Black men were for a while the favorite. Then Latinos. At no time, in my memory, have Midwest Protestants been the flavor du jour. A year or so ago, when someone on a dating site asked me to Skype naked, I decided I would do better at Christian Mingle.”
Hodgman’s friends rejoiced when he visited an animal shelter near Paris and took home a mixed black Labrador that he named Raj—the true love of his life.
In recent years, Hodgman was on various medications for his bipolar condition, and in sporadic recovery from his addictions; while he had indulged in cocaine during his years on the New York fast track, his drug of choice was crystal meth.
In March, Ed Shain and his wife, Manhattan pediatrician Dr. Laura Popper, rushed to Hodgman’s West 23rd Street apartment building after he posted on Facebook an alarming, suicidal-sounding message that panicked his New York friends and Missouri relatives. They found him outside, already in the ambulance, and followed him to Bellevue Hospital Center.
He was released after several days’ stay—apparently stabilized.
“He told us ‘I’ll never put y’all through something like that again,’” Molly Roarty recalled.
Last Friday night, Hodgman came to dinner at Ed Shain and Laura Popper’s Upper East Side apartment. According to Popper, he seemed fine when he arrived—neatly dressed and clean-shaven, although his trousers were sagging below his waist; he blithely dismissed Shain’s suggestion that he acquire suspenders, joking that they were far too sophisticated for him.
In due course, Hodgman and Shain fell into conversation about Paramount Television’s planned miniseries version of Bettyville—starring Shirley MacLaine as Betty, with a script nearly completed. All seemed normal until Popper began telling a story about one of her young patients who was transitioning from male to female.
“This was the kind of thing that would have been deeply interesting to George, but he was distracted and not listening,” Popper recalled. “I was worried I was boring him.”
When she finished her story, however, Hodgman launched into an an alarmingly intense paranoid rant that touched on his years at Vanity Fair, his perceived enemies there, and how certain people were trying to control his mind.
The couple’s attempts to calm him down were unsuccessful, as were their suggestions that he phone his psychiatrist. “It was a psychotic break,” Popper said.
Hodgman ate little and played with his food. At one point, however, he took a bite of the lamb chops Shain had prepared and briefly became his old self. “That’s really good!” he declared.
Soon he announced that he had to leave, and reassured his hosts, “Don’t worry, I’ll go home and take a Klonopin. I’ll be fine.”
That was, by most accounts, that last time anyone saw or spoke with him. Nancy Collins said they’d planned to have dinner together Saturday night, but he hadn’t responded to emails and text messages.
In the end, a member of the door staff at the apartment building discovered Hodgman's body, having been alerted by a concerned friend of Hodgman's. The author was apparently dead by his own hand, with a note nearby.
For Hodgman’s friends and loved-ones, it’s a devastating mystery what brought him to this point, and whether he had planned it.
Beth Kseniak, for one, said they had attempted to make a lunch or dinner date last week, but when their schedules wouldn’t cooperate, he told her not to worry, that he planned to be in New York more often and they’d get together on his next visit from Missouri.
At the request of Hodgman’s Missouri relatives, Shain went to the city morgue on Monday to identify his body.
Asked if he could find any solace or meaning to the tragedy, Shain quoted from Galway Kinnell's poem, Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight:
“Little sleep's-head sprouting hair in the moonlight,
when I come back
we will go out together,
we will walk out together among
the ten thousand things,
each scratched in time with such knowledge, the wages
of dying is love.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741