In the roaring 1990’s, when kohl-eyed bohemians still roamed the streets of lower Manhattan, the writer Steven Vincent cut a dramatic figure, even by the East Village’s flamboyant standards. A well-known art critic and member of the fetish scene, he wandered Alphabet City with his nose in a book, sometimes sporting a top hat, like a Victorian dandy on his way to high tea. His hair was long and flowing, his clothes rich and fabulous, and to those inclined to scour the world for symbolism—as Vincent himself was—he must have looked like a walking avatar of the spirit of the East Village. It was a spirit that would have seemed to make him one of the last people to get tangled up in the War on Terror.
But on the evening of Aug. 2, the 49-year-old Vincent became the first American journalist to be murdered while reporting from the belly of Iraq. Back in the 1990’s, he had never devoted much mental energy to Middle East politics. But after his conversion moment of watching the Twin Towers collapse on Sept. 11, he became preoccupied—even obsessed—with the idea of an epic struggle between “democracy” and “radical Islam.” With a convert’s zeal, he gave up the glossy world of art galleries and openings and devoted himself to the story of Iraq.
“I will not be fatuous saying he died doing what he loved, but he did die doing what he thought was right and important,” said his wife, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent.
At the time of his death, Vincent had been living in the southern Iraqi city of Basra for over three months, freelancing for magazines like National Review and Harper’s. His mission, he’d told friends, was to find the “soul” of Basra, to write a book about its storied past and rosy future. But the city’s bloody present caught up with him.
Shortly before 7 p.m. on Aug. 2, Vincent and his translator, Nouraya Tuaiz, also known as Nour al-Khal, were snatched from a bustling street in downtown Basra by four or five gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms. Five hours later, Vincent’s body was found on a road less than 10 minutes from the city center. He appeared to have been beaten and then shot three times, while Ms. Tuaiz had been shot at least twice. Remarkably, she managed to survive.
The news of Vincent’s death struck deep into the motley heart of his old downtown crowd, which had, until then, remained largely insulated from the bloodletting of the Iraq war. Within several hours of his death, a small shrine of flowers—daisies, lilies and pale white roses—had sprouted up outside his building. And in conversations with The Observer, friends choked up and sobbed as they recalled the quirky character who had made the unlikely transition from glam gadabout and art-scene eccentric to freelance war correspondent. Still, even as they struggled with the shock of his murder, a number of Vincent’s friends admitted that they’d feared getting this news for some time.
“We were all a little afraid for Steve going to Basra, even though he thought Basra was safe compared to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle,” said Charlie Finch, a fellow art critic and close friend of Vincent. “His friends were telling him, ‘Don’t push your luck’ …. But he was just drawn like a moth to a flame.”
In the long days since his death, Vincent’s wife and friends have struggled to parse the grizzly circumstances of his kidnapping and murder. Privately, some friends have focused on his open friendship with Ms. Tuaiz, an unmarried Islamic woman, suggesting that he may have been the victim of an “honor killing” by Shiite fundamentalists. Others, however, have returned again and again to recent e-mails he’d sent in which he revealed that he’d stumbled on potentially damning information about the rising influence of radical Shiite religious parties in Basra.
“He wrote me in an e-mail about three weeks before he was killed saying that if he went public with a lot of the information he had, he would get disappeared,” said Steven Mumford, a New York–based artist who became tight with Vincent when the two shared an apartment in Baghdad in early 2004. “He actually said if he went public ‘in a major venue.’”
Nonetheless, on Sunday, July 31, for reasons none of his friends quite know, Vincent did just that. In a blistering article on The New York Times’ Op-Ed page, he warned that members of radical Shiite parties had begun taking over the police force, unleashing a religiously based vigilante justice that included political assassinations. “There is even a sort of ‘death car,’” Vincent wrote, “a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment.”
Two days later, of course, a white car carrying armed men came for Vincent as he stood outside a money-changing shop. Witnesses said he struggled with the men for several minutes, fighting so hard that he lost his shoes in the scuffle. When the car finally pulled away, his shoes were still in the street.
To hear his friends tell it, Vincent was always a dramatic soul, a restless seeker eternally on the hunt for some greater meaning. Small and handsome, with dark, chiseled features that gave him a certain Billy B ob Thornton quality (at least in pictures), he had an actor’s flare for spectacle and a romantic’s drive for passion. He was quirky, unconventional, confounding and, at 49, he still couldn’t be easily classified.
To the painter Damien Loeb, for instance, Vincent was “an odd combination of shameless hedonist and a conservative ex-hippie.” To the artist Grace Roselli, he was “chaos-driven; he was romance.” And to Charlie Finch, well, he was nothing less than a Candide figure, “always rushing into things and trying to see the best in people.” But, Mr. Finch warned, he was also very operatic.
“Steve’s Armenian by descent,” Mr. Finch explained. “His grandmother’s family was wiped out by the Turks in the genocide in 1915, and he always had a kind of love affair with the darker sides of things.”
Vincent was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in suburban Sunnyvale, Calif., the son of a 1950’s stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked for the United States General Accounting Office. He loved language from an early age, and in 1979 he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in English and a dream of becoming the next Jack Kerouac. Eager for his own On the Road experience, he hitchhiked his way to New York City in 1980, where he embarked on an appropriately Kerouacian career as a waiter, security guard at the Metropolitan Museum and fearless New York City cab driver.
Two years after arriving in the city, Vincent met his future wife in the lobby of a movie theater where they’d both gone to see the Mel Gibson film Road Warrior. Over 20 years later, Ms. Ramaci-Vincent can still recite the date as if it were a favorite poem: Oct. 10, 1982. Back then, she was living a homesteader’s life in an East Village squat; less than a year later, he had moved, becoming her partner in everything from films to travel to “conservative Jacksonian” politics.
“When people used to talk about us, they used to say ‘Steve and Lisa,’” Ms. Ramaci-Vincent recalled. “It was always both of us, because the things he was interested in, I was interested in, and vice versa—although he liked gin martinis a hell of a lot more than I did.”
By 1990, the two had settled into a cozy East Village life together, and Vincent had begun making the transition from jack-of-all-trades to art-world journo. He was a dogged reporter, and he climbed the glossy rungs of this world quickly, but friends said he was also restless, anxious for something transcendent. For a time, he found it in the kaleidoscopic funhouse of the downtown fetish scene, where he often served as a “gentleman escort” for his friend the Baroness, a ruby-haired latex dominatrix. But after several years, that lost its intrigue as well.
“I would say he was looking for something to immerse himself completely and wholly from the day I met him,” said the artist Inka Essenhigh, who got to know Vincent while he was covering the art beat in the late 1990’s. “I think he was just looking for passion.”
And then, in 2003, the war began.
Vincent was initially drawn to Iraq in September 2003, during the early pre-insurgent calm that initially followed the U.S. invasion. A gung-ho supporter of the war, he chose to go because he was too old to enlist in the Army but still wanted to participate in what he called “the greatest event of [his] lifetime”: the war against “Islamofascism.” Or so he wrote in In the Red Zone, the book he published after his first two visits to Iraq.
The fight against “Islamofascism” was Vincent’s rallying cry. In the months after 9/11, he had boned up on Islam, and before long he’d developed a theory about Iraq as the “key” to a democratic revolution in the Middle East. It didn’t seem to matter to him that Islamic fundamentalism wasn’t much of a force in prewar Iraq, and he didn’t seem to care that most of his East Village neighbors were busy marching against the invasion. Vincent had often been the resident outsider, and frankly he kind of liked it, friends said.
“I cared little about ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ less about Al Qaeda links with Saddam Hussein,” he wrote in the opening chapter of In the Red Zone. “No, I envisioned the liberation of that country as a way to cure the Arab stagnation that had increasingly begun to infect the world.”
This theory didn’t survive completely intact under the harsh glare of the Iraqi sun. While Vincent remained staunchly pro-war until his death, he was disappointed by the failure of the reality of the U.S. invasion to live up to the dream. Particularly during his final stint in Basra, the notion that the city was being transformed under his eyes into a strict religious theocracy weighed heavily on him.
“He really wanted to call attention to the fact that, with the British looking on, Basra would become a fascist city,” said his wife.
But these realizations unfolded gradually. During his first one or two visits, Vincent was rather love-struck by certain aspects of Iraqi culture, several friends said. With characteristic zeal, he adopted Arabic idioms in his writing, collected Shiite posters, and even sported an abiya and kheffiya for a time—until, that is, he was pulled over one day by suspicious officers in Basra (the outfit, he was told, made him look like a Wahhabi terrorist).
“The volume was really turned up to 10 on basically everything about Shia culture, and he really responded to that,” Mr. Mumford recalled. “He had this deep fascination, love and envy of people who had an absolutely clear faith, even if it was absolutist in nature.”
But of all the Iraqis he befriended, Vincent reserved particularly strong feelings for his translator, Ms. Tuaiz. The two had met at a Basra Writers’ Union meeting during his second trip to the country, and she quickly became his guide through Basran society, the sidekick who accompanied him on all of his adventures and frequently appeared in his blog posts under the pseudonym Layla. In the chapter Vincent devoted to her in his book, he described her as “charming, extroverted, English-speaking, candid,” and declared, “I would do anything to help this woman.”
At 31 years old, Ms. Tuaiz made for an understandably compelling character. She’d been imprisoned under Saddam Hussein (allegedly for writing a satirical poem), beaten by her brothers, and subjected to all the injustices of being a woman in a strict patriarchy—and yet she trudged on.
“Steve embodied all of Iraq in Nour; he felt that she is the future of Iraq that could solve the problems of the Middle East,” Mr. Mumford explained. “But I think he was also moved on a very personal level by Nour …. He had this very gallant, kind of old-fashioned notion of chivalry; he wanted to save her.”
But for all these noble notions, Vincent’s open friendship with Ms. Tuaiz may have proved naïve, or even dangerous, in the social tinderbox of present-day Basra. As Vincent had himself documented, Iraq’s second-largest city was becoming an increasingly religious place, another militant Shiite outpost where gender relations were strictly policed. Men and women simply didn’t carry on public friendships. And while Ms. Ramaci-Vincent maintained that the relationship between her husband and his translator was strictly platonic, the mere suggestion of something deeper between an unmarried Iraqi woman and a Western man could prove deadly.
Vincent no doubt knew this all too well. But, as friends recalled, he was also a great admirer of larger-than-life figures like Lawrence of Arabia.
“The whole thing about the knight in shining armor—that was Steven. He just had this sort of noble thing,” Ms. Roselli said. “He was probably the most interesting man I had ever met. There’s nobody else like him. He’s going to be terribly missed.”