To cook crack you need cocaine, water, baking soda, a heat source (microwave, stove, torch, cigarette lighter) and a spoon or a jar of the right thickness. Disregard the occasional splintered jar or finger burn, and the advantages of cooking for yourself are mostly to do with customer service. You’re less likely to get ripped off or have a gun pointed at your head: powder cocaine dealers are easier to find and more reliable. ‘More genteel’ is the way Hunter Biden describes his decision to ‘eliminate one layer of drug-world repulsiveness’ by switching from buying crack at homeless encampments in Los Angeles, where he had a gun pointed at his head at least once, to cooking for himself at his $400-a-night cabana at the Chateau Marmont. ‘Cooking crack took practice, but it wasn’t rocket science,’ he writes. ‘I became absurdly good at it – guess that 172 on my LSAT counted for something.’ The tension in Biden’s memoir is between the high-achieving politician’s son and the chronic alcoholic and drug addict in and out of rehab over the past two decades.
Beautiful Things has three purposes: cashing in on Biden’s celebrity; confession, contrition and expiation after his years as an addict; and reframing him as a victim of Trump’s smears (or, as he puts it, ‘a president’s unhinged fury’). In 2019, he writes, ‘“Where’s Hunter?” replaced “Lock her up!”’ as Trump’s ‘go-to hype line’ at his campaign rallies. The charges against Trump in his first impeachment stemmed from his request that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, investigate whether Joe Biden had interfered on behalf of the gas company Burisma (when he was vice president and Hunter was a member of Burisma’s board), while the Trump administration withheld $391 million of military aid to Ukraine that had been mandated by Congress. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives in December 2019 but acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate two months later. Within weeks Biden had a lock on the Democratic nomination. A laptop containing Hunter Biden’s texts, emails, photos and videos surfaced at a computer repair shop in Delaware the month before last year’s election. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani carped about the ‘Biden crime family’ to anyone who would listen (a diminished roster of mainstream news outlets and a new crop of obscure news channels and fly-by-night podcasts). A sideshow about the role of tech giants in filtering online discourse emerged after Twitter suspended the New York Post’s account on the grounds that it was spreading possible Russian disinformation by reporting on the laptop’s contents. As an October surprise, it was insufficient to tilt the election to Trump.
On these and other political matters, Beautiful Things is defensive, unenlightening and mostly dull. There is the strut of the résumé (an executive job at a Delaware financial firm out of law school; board membership of Amtrak and board chairmanship of the World Food Programme USA, appointed to the first by George W. Bush and the second by Obama; counsel for the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner; founder of various multinational firms; lobbyist etc) and a half-defence of the charge of nepotism: ‘There’s no question that my last name has opened doors, but my qualifications and accomplishments speak for themselves.’ The one professional controversy Biden addresses at length is his place on the board of Burisma. In Biden’s account – ‘most remarkable for its epic banality’, as he puts it, though ‘epic’ is a bit much – Burisma’s owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, was looking for directors who could give the company a sheen of Western best practice in corporate governance so he could attract Western investment and show that the company wouldn’t be ‘hijacked by Russia’. The appearance of possible corruption seems to have been nearly as good as actual corruption, for which no evidence – in the form of Joe Biden intervening on Burisma’s behalf – has been found. (Hunter Biden’s ‘tax affairs’ remain under investigation after a money laundering probe came up dry.)
Biden calls his presence on the Burisma board ‘an unmistakable fuck-you to Putin’. Other directors included Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a former president of Poland; Joseph Cofer Black, who ran counterterrorism for the CIA under Bush; and Devon Archer, Biden’s longtime business partner, who brokered their directorships. Zlochevsky – at six feet two and 250 pounds, ‘pure mass wrapped in tailored suits and gentlemanly manners’, with ‘a shaved head, a booming laugh, and essentially no neck’ – was Ukraine’s former minister of ecology and natural resources. At meetings he was not a big conversationalist or storyteller. He was ‘a listener’. And he had a heart: ‘When he was ecology minister, Zlochevsky championed the end to the longstanding practice in Ukraine of chaining bears held in captivity in open pits. It was a politically unpopular stance, but he persevered and won reforms.’ When he heard that Biden’s nephew, who’d just lost his father to brain cancer, loved to fish, he moved a board meeting to a fishing lodge in northern Norway, and ‘we all had an enormous amount of fun together, up there at the top of the world. I appreciated his thoughtfulness.’ Biden was reportedly paid $80,000 a month, and sat on the board for five years.
At first the money allowed him to spend more time with his brother, Beau, during the terminal stage of his illness. Beau had suffered what was diagnosed as a stroke in 2010, a year after returning from a deployment in Iraq. Three years later he had a grand mal seizure during a vacation with his brother and their families on Lake Michigan. An MRI revealed what looked like a brain tumour. They flew to Philadelphia, where the diagnosis was confirmed, then to Houston, where he had brain surgery. There would be two more surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. ‘Glioblastoma multiforme is a mean, relentless horror,’ Biden writes, ‘the most aggressive form of cancer – a death sentence.’ The last-ditch effort, ‘a true Hail Mary’, was the injection of an artificial virus into his brain. Hunter sat by Beau’s hospital bed, they watched Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Beau, who had stepped down as Delaware’s attorney general, talked about running for governor in 2016. He died on the evening of 30 May 2015. His last words were ‘beautiful, beautiful’, which is at least as plausible as Steve Jobs’s last word being ‘Wow!’ At the funeral Obama delivered a speech, Chris Martin of Coldplay sang ‘Til Kingdom Come’, and Beau and Hunter’s sister, Ashley, quoted from Beau’s ‘theme song’, the New Radicals’ ‘You Get What You Give.’ Hunter delivered his own eulogy:
I retold the story about Beau holding my hand when we were scared kids in the hospital room, and how mine was hardly the only hand he held over the years in someone’s time of great need. Survivors of abuse, parents of fallen soldiers, victims of violent crime he held them all.
‘There are thousands of people telling those stories right now,’ I said. Telling the same story – about when Beau Biden held their hand.
‘He was clarity,’ I continued, speaking as much to myself as to those inside the church. ‘A clarity you can step into. He was the clarity of Lake Skaneateles at sunrise. A clarity you could float in. A clarity that was contagious. He was that clarity not just for his family but for everyone who called him friend.’
‘My only claim on my brother,’ I then told everyone ever touched by Beau, ‘is that he held my hand first.’
‘He was clarity’ – it’s difficult to tell what that means, except in contrast to Hunter’s muddled careerism and self-destructive hedonism. The portrait of Beau Biden that emerges from this book is that of a man who seems, from a young age, determined to become a more perfect version of his father, i.e. a more perfect politician. ‘My father believed Beau could one day be president and that he’d get there with my help,’ Hunter writes. Bonded since the death of their mother and baby sister in a car accident in 1972, after which they woke up next to each other in the hospital, Beau and Hunter were Irish twins, a year apart at school. Many of the boys’ earliest memories were of palling around with senators like Daniel Inouye and Jesse Helms. They mowed lawns together and worked at a cold-storage warehouse, where Beau managed the deliveries and Hunter unloaded trucks. At high school Beau was called ‘the sheriff’ because he kept people in line in a friendly way, especially if they were drinking too much, and drove everyone home safely. He was captain of the tennis team and class president. He was handsome, had a boisterous and occasionally bawdy sense of humour (Hunter gives no evidence of this, but Obama also testified to it in his eulogy), and liked the Grateful Dead and REM. He once confessed a wish to be a singer-songwriter. The boys would cruise around northern Delaware in the green 1972 Caprice Classic convertible their father bought them. Beau’s one youthful flaw was a lack of punctuality. Like his father, he was teetotal, except for a bit of social drinking in his twenties.
Hunter was busted for possession of cocaine on the Jersey shore in June 1988. The previous year his father had dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary after he was accused of plagiarising one of Neil Kinnock’s speeches and a paper he’d written at law school. He had then been put through the media wringer as head of the Senate judiciary committee during Robert Bork’s failed nomination to the Supreme Court. In February 1988 he had a brain aneurysm, then a pulmonary embolism, and months later a second aneurysm. Beau was in his first year at the University of Pennsylvania, and it had been a lonely time for Hunter. The arrest shortly after his high school graduation was expunged from his record after six months of probation. As punishment his father got him a job on a construction site behind the family home – ‘the worst job I ever had’. The twelve-hour days were gruelling and one day a backhoe operator dumped a bucket full of mud on his head.
As an undergraduate at Georgetown, Hunter ‘drank, but usually not more than everybody else’. He took coke only a few times. It was after graduation, during a year with a Jesuit volunteer group in Portland, Oregon, that he found himself:
Living three thousand miles from where I grew up, I almost felt like I had escaped the person everyone back there expected me to be. I was more confident, felt closer to my authentic self. I grew a beard, wore a leather jacket, rode the bus. I’d sit in Powell’s Books with enough money for an endless cup of coffee, then go to Nobby’s and drink nickel draft beers.
As a flaneur at the café he ‘read everyone, from John Fante to Aldous Huxley to Lao-tzu. My favourite novel at the time was Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, about a down-and-out barfly – a bleak omen, in retrospect, of where my life would one day land.’ (The epigraph of Beautiful Things is a few lines from Bukowski’s poem ‘Nirvana’.) It was in Portland that he met his first wife, Kathleen. Hunter got into law school at Georgetown, Duke and Syracuse. He also applied and was accepted on Syracuse’s creative writing MFA programme. ‘I considered getting a joint MFA-law degree,’ he writes, but after Kathleen became pregnant and they married, ‘all of that sounded a little silly. Studying fiction at Syracuse was a dream that would not lend itself to supporting a family.’ He went to Georgetown, then applied to transfer to Yale ‘and included with my application a poem I wrote – something everyone discouraged. Yale’s acceptance letter noted that my success and dedication during my first year of law school at Georgetown more than qualified me, but that my poem was unlike anything they’d ever received and earned me my spot there’ (a polite note to send to the eccentric son of the Senate Judiciary Committee chair who’d sunk the Supreme Court nomination of a faculty member, whether or not it was true). Here we can imagine Hunter’s road not taken: publishing books of verse and perhaps novels, guest editing issues of Ploughshares, sitting on panels about the intersection of literature, law and politics at the AWP Conference. It was what Beau wanted: he ‘was disappointed I didn’t take the leap and pursue an MFA’. Beautiful Things isn’t the book the young brothers thought Hunter would write.
Instead, saddled with $160,000 in student loans, Hunter shuffled between Wilmington and Washington, working as a banker, lawyer, lobbyist and founder of many firms. He and Kathleen raised three daughters and put them through private schools. They had two cars and eventually a $1 million mortgage. Hunter became a functional alcoholic. He went to rehab for the first time in 2003 at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Centre in Antigua: ‘There are no daily massages or trips to the market. There are no phones or computers. Everybody has a roommate, makes his own bed, does his own laundry, helps with chores.’ When he returned to Washington Beau took him to AA meetings. Beau became Delaware’s attorney general in 2006, refusing his father’s open Senate seat when Joe became vice president in 2008. He was too busy doing reserve duty in Iraq and putting child molesters behind bars. He wanted to be elected governor on his own merits one day. Hunter fell off the wagon in 2010 and it was back to Antigua. After Beau’s death in 2015, Hunter and Kathleen celebrated their wedding anniversary by walking a mile together for every year they’d been married (22). In a session with a couples’ counsellor Hunter said it had been cathartic. ‘Cathartic? Who are you kidding?’ she said, ‘You can say that you’re sorry for the rest of your life and it wouldn’t matter. I’m never going to forgive you.’ He bought a bottle of vodka after the session and was soon kicked out of the family home.
Here the narrative of Beautiful Things becomes a bit choppy, between vodka binges, sobered up foreign missions, and stints in rehab. Hunter’s slip into ‘next-level binging’ occurred in 2016 in Monte Carlo, where he’d flown for a Burisma meeting and appeared on a global economics panel. He shocked the crowd by asserting that Leave was a real possibility in the Brexit referendum. That night at a club, somebody offered him coke and he took it. He confessed the slip to his counsellors in Washington and they demanded he take a drug test. He balked, fearing it might be used against him in the impending divorce proceedings. That night he scored crack from a woman called Bicycles, aka Rhea, a homeless middle-aged black woman he’d known since his Georgetown days, when she’d witnessed him being scammed by someone who promised to take his money and bring him the ‘hard’, offering a shoe as collateral. That night Bicycles sold him what she had. Two decades later she scored him $100 worth. Both times he put the rocks in a cigarette, an ineffective way to get high. The next day he returned and she provided him with crack, a pipe and a screen. This was his first ‘bell ringer’:
The sensation is one of utter, almost otherworldly well-being. You are at once energetic, focused and calm. Blood rushes to every extremity; your skin ripples with what feels like bumblebees. Eyes get jangly yet stay alert. Eardrums compress to the point that every sound pours through with such intensity – like a shot through a rifle barrel – that you think you’re having auditory hallucinations. You’re actually just hearing with hypersensitivity – you’re a field dog. You pick up the merest peep from a block away.
I chased that high, on and off, for the next three years.
So begins the most interesting part of Beautiful Things, four chapters mostly free of Biden family platitudes, which are replaced by druggie clichés (‘Crack takes you into the darkest recesses of your soul’) and the addict’s therapeutic jargon (‘What I just wrote can trigger’). Bicycles moved in with Hunter, like a deranged, crack-addled version of The Odd Couple: she was the neatnik, he the slob. He details her struggles: seven children, five of them estranged and one on death row; years spent living in motels where she would sneak in posing as a cleaning lady; bursitis and peripheral neuropathy induced by the numbing agent lidocaine. She was his protector and procurer. He funded the party, which was mostly the pair of them sitting on the couch, watching television and smoking. He was still travelling for business and limited his usage to one day out of three. Their worst fight happened when Rhea cut one of his belts in half to use it herself. She told him always to recook his drugs when he got them from a stranger, to burn off additives; never to put the stem in his pocket because it might break or ‘fall out of your pants while you’re ordering at Popeyes’. She explained what was happening to him when he lost his keys, couldn’t pack for a trip, or couldn’t stop staring at the floor looking for crumbs. ‘I loved Rhea as much as I’ve ever loved a friend,’ he writes. ‘She’s the only person from that period of my life I actively maintain good memories of.’ He speaks of wanting one day to ‘do what I can to get her in a position where she wants to be saved’.
The same doesn’t hold for the rest of the characters Huckleberry Biden meets on his journey. In Nashville there’s the guy at the gas station who doesn’t rip him off with baking soda. In LA there’s Curtis, a dealer he meets when he’s scrolling escort ads looking not for sex but offers to ‘party’; Honda, Curtis’s car thief sidekick; and Baby Down, a Samoan affiliated with the gangster rappers Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. (one of their hits is ‘Beautiful Thang’), who maintain a monopoly on the doorman business at LA strip clubs. Baby Down helped Hunter get clean enough to drive to a clinic in Sedona, Arizona, which he finally reached after relapsing and driving his car off the freeway. His stay was interrupted by a visit from the police, who’d been alerted by the rental car company when drug paraphernalia was found in Hunter’s car. No charges were pressed, and the head of the clinic took the rest of Hunter’s gear and buried it in the desert. The secret service had also been notified, and Joe Biden sent his daughter-in-law Hallie, Beau’s widow, to fetch Hunter after a couple of weeks of recovery in the desert. So began their affair, ‘built on need, hope, frailty, and doom’, which fizzled shortly after a tabloid scandal. Kathleen found texts between them that popped up on an iPad in her possession. (Hunter does not seem like an expert in cybersecurity generally.) These went into her divorce papers, which were filed publicly and were seen by the New York Post. Hunter told the press that he and Hallie were ‘incredibly lucky to have found the love and support we have for each other in such a difficult time’, and at his urging his father affirmed, ‘We are all lucky.’ The luck did not last. ‘I was madly trying to hold on to a slice of my brother, and I think Hallie was doing the same.’ They tried living together for a couple of stints, punctuated by the usual cycle of relapsing and sobering up. The details he provides are vague. It didn’t work. How could it have?
Hunter went back to LA, drove through the hills and canyons and wrote letters to his dead brother about the beauty of the West, and ‘used my superpower – finding crack anytime, anywhere’. The lingo of meritocracy and comic book heroes is always at the ready when Hunter is scoring or cooking drugs. Proximity to a crack haunt sets off his ‘spidey sense’; becoming an expert addict is like earning a graduate degree. The language is perhaps an antidote to the incessant slogans of the war on drugs that were broadcast during our youth: Nancy Reagan telling us ‘Just say no.’ It was a campaign in which Joe Biden was an architect and collaborator. The months Hunter spent partying at the Chateau Marmont and then, after he was kicked out, in a succession of lesser boutique hotels, are recounted in a series of boasts that his exploits exceeded those of Jim Morrison and Hunter Thompson, and admissions that his party friends, all of whom he renounces, were ripping him off, stealing his cash and credit cards before moving on to the next rich mark. This isn’t the whole story, but it’s more than you’d expect a president’s son to tell. There are grimmer interludes off the highway in Connecticut, in between rehab in Massachusetts and an attempted family intervention in Wilmington.
Hunter is finally saved by a blonde South African divorcée called Melissa Cohen. On meeting her, he speaks first: ‘You have the exact same eyes as my brother.’ And then: ‘I know this probably isn’t a good way to start a first date, but I’m in love with you.’ They were married six days later. She hired a doctor to come to her apartment and hook him up to an IV to help him detox. Hunter now paints and lives in LA. He is under investigation by the IRS. The NRA has cited his possession of a firearm during his affair with Hallie, a detail revealed in documents from the laptop, as evidence that he lied about his addiction on his application for a gun licence – a felony. In March last year Biden settled a paternity suit with Lunden Alexis Roberts, a stripper he knew in Washington; the episode goes unmentioned, and neither the president nor his son have met the child. There is a lot about addiction and recovery in Beautiful Things, but nothing about the ways American drug laws might be reformed to protect users and reduce violence, nothing about the accidental overdoses caused by cocaine and heroin tainted with fentanyl, a problem that might be ameliorated by legalisation and regulation. It’s now legal to smoke marijuana on the streets of New York City. Hunter and Melissa are in California living happily ever after.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.