Christopher Hitchens, the contrarian writer and public intellectual, died of pneumonia Thursday night in a Houston hospital. He had been suffering from cancer of the esophagus. Mr. Hitchens, who was 62, is survived by his wife Carol Blue and three children. Mr. Hitchens’s death was announced in a statement in Vanity Fair magazine.
Mr. Hitchens had premonitions of mortality as he was beginning work on his memoir, Hitch-22, back in 2008. A glossy brochure arrived in the mail, highlighting an upcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of literary photographs taken by his friend Angela Gorgas. In the text, Ms. Gorgas described her first meeting with writer Martin Amis, who became her lover, and “the late Christopher Hitchens.” The shock of reading about his own demise led Mr. Hitchens to contemplate some lines by the poet T.S. Eliot: “Between the idea/And the reality/...Falls the Shadow.”
The shadow grew darker in July, 2010, when Mr. Hitchens was diagnosed with stage-four esophageal cancer and he had to cancel the promotion tour for the very book he had been writing when he chanced upon the premature notice of his death. His has been a very public dying, first because he has kept up his speaking engagements and public appearances while undergoing a brutal treatment regimen and second because he has written about the progress of his illness in cogently and acutely observed essays in Vanity Fair, including a poignant essay about the temporary loss of his voice during radiation.
In response to Mr. Hitchens’s outspoken and steadfast atheism, the faithful clamoured to the heavens, organizing prayer groups and even going so far as to designate Sept. 20, 2010, as Pray for Hitchens Day.
Don’t bother, unless it makes you feel better, he told the devout, insisting that he wouldn’t recant his atheism so long as he was lucid and rational. And he issued a plea asking people to forgive him if he did make a deathbed conversion, arguing that if such a thing happened, it wouldn’t be him speaking but a “half-demented” entity racked by pain and riddled with drugs.
Though his body waned, Mr. Hitchens maintained his furious pace as a journalist, pundit and public intellectual in his final years. In November, 2010, he went mano-a-mano with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Munk Debates, in Toronto. The pair sparred over the proposition that “Religion is a Force for Good in the World, ” with Mr. Hitchens stridently arguing that it wasn’t. And in the summer of 2011, he published his second and final collection of essays, Arguably.
The reviews of Arguably often took an elegiac tone. David Free, writing in the Australian, opined that being forced to imagine the intellectual world without Mr. Hitchens was a “dire” prospect.
“His sheer blazing willingness to speak his mind, always and forcefully, has made him a lode-star of candour in a time of double-talk and euphemism. No matter how depressing political developments have got, one has always been able to look forward to what Hitchens will have to say about them.”
That neatly sums up Mr. Hitchens’s appeal to foes and fans alike. Politicians will not be held to account with quite the same fervour and the world of letters will be a drearier place without his acerbic and witty prose on trends, events and attitudes.
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born on April 13, 1949, the elder of two sons of Yvonne and Eric Hitchens. His working class father, who rose to the rank of Commander in the Royal Navy during World War II, often said the war was the only time when “he knew what he was doing,” a time when enemies were clearly defined, sacrifice was commonplace and life was precious because it was so precarious.
Commander Hitchens did convoy duty on the treacherous Murmansk Run and served on the cruiser HMS Jamaica, the ship which famously helped HMS Duke of York sink the German battleship Scharnhorst in the Battle of North Cape on Dec. 26, 1943. Every Boxing Day, the Hitchens family raised a ceremonial glass in celebration of that victory. “The Commander” as he was called, died of cancer of the esophagus in 1987 in his late 70s, the same malignancy that befell his son in his early 60s.
Yvonne (née Hickman) Hitchens, described by her son as exotic and sunlit in Hitch-22, was a self-denying Jew with social ambitions, but he loved her desperately. “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it,” he remembers her stating unequivocally. There was only one route–fee paying boarding schools–no matter the strain on the family finances and on his father to earn the fees.
She met a bad end. Bored with her husband, although she never officially ended the marriage, she fell in love with a bi-polar former Anglican minister, and embraced the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the same guru who had earlier bewitched the Beatles. In 1973, Mrs. Hitchens and her lover went to Athens (then under the diabolical control of the Colonels), where they holed up in adjoining rooms in a hotel with a view of the Acropolis and swallowed a lethal combination of pills and alcohol in a suicide pact.
Mr. Hitchens, who was then in his early 20s and working at The New Statesman, got the news over the telephone from a former girlfriend and set out for Greece to identify his mother’s body and bury her remains. Never one to waste an opportunity, even when devastated with grief, he wrote his first leading article for The New Statesman on his return, analyzing the political situation in Greece following the overthrow of dictator George Papadopoulos that November.
His younger brother Peter was born in 1951 when their father was posted to Malta. He too went to boarding school, followed by York University. A youthful Trotskyist member of the International Socialists and an atheist, Peter Hitchens subsequently absorbed the accents and the accoutrements of the upper middle class, renounced his early political leanings as “poison” and became a Conservative Christian journalist who is pro-family values, anti-abortion and against legalizing homosexual marriage.
The two brothers had a fractious public schism in 2001 when the younger Mr. Hitchens alleged in The Spectator that his older brother “didn’t care if the Red Army watered its horses at Hendon“–a comment which Mr. Hitchens denied. They eventually reconciled. Mr. Hitchens told The Guardian in 2006: “There is no longer any official froideur, but there’s no official–what’s the word?– chaleur, either.” That changed as his illness progressed. As recently as August 2011, Mr. Hitchens plugged his brother’s blog in a column saying his contributions “are among the most cogent being offered by anyone on the British right.”
Mr. Hitchens, who has described himself as bi-sexual in his youth, is said to have dated Anna Wintour before she became editor of Vogue. He married Eleni Meleagrou, a Greek Cypriot in 1981. They have two children, Alexander and Sophia. Mr. Hitchens left Meleagrou in 1989, when she was pregnant with their second child, for the American writer Carol Blue. They have a daughter, Antonia.
Mr. Hitchens went to boarding school from the age of eight. Later he complained about the rigid social hierarchies and the forced companionship of smugly self-satisfied sons of middle-class businessmen. Lacking any appetite or aptitude for athletics, he found solace in the library and sometimes in the sexual embrace of other boys.
An excellent student, he won scholarships to The Leys School in Cambridge, and then Balliol College, Oxford. There he put the books aside–he graduated with a third class degree–to hit the streets in protest against many things including the Vietnam War, became an outspoken critic of the establishment, an avowed Trotskyite and a contributor to the magazine International Socialism.
After Oxford, he did a few temporary and freelance gigs as a researcher and editorialist for London newspapers, before landing a staff job at The New Statesman in the early 1970s. That’s where he became friends with Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, both of whom have gone on to stellar literary careers.
Even as a child, Mr. Hitchens knew that he didn’t have the true “stuff” to write fiction or poetry. His talent was very concentrated as a commentator about the written word, the contemporary world, and above all politics. He quickly developed a reputation as an avid leftist and aggressive foe of Henry Kissinger, the Vietnam War, the Roman Catholic Church and totalitarian regimes in Chile, Argentina and eastern Europe.
He emigrated to the United States in 1981, settling in Washington, D.C. ostensibly to write for The Nation, where he wrote polemical dispatches against presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and their foreign policy initiatives in Central and South America. But he also embraced America because his heroes, among them W.H. Auden, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse and Jessica Mitford, had done so earlier.
Even more intuitively, in terms of the allure of America, was a recurring dream he had while a student at Oxford. Invariably, he found himself floating somewhere in Mid-town Manhattan, gazing up at skyscrapers and feeling profoundly happy and free while the soundtrack of The Mamas and the Papas hit song, “Go Where You Wanna Go” played in the deeper recesses of his REM sleep.
Mr. Hitchens continued to write freelance pieces for publications on both sides of the Atlantic and to deliver lectures and appear on talk shows and panels whenever he was asked. In 1992 he became a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, writing ten columns a year. By then he was also producing short polemical books. Over the years he wrote about his causes–freedom of expression, the Elgin Marbles and The Palestinians–his heroes–George Orwell, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine–and often viciously about his enemies, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and Mother Theresa.
E.M. Forster’s quote “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” seemed pre-ordained for Mr. Hitchens, a man for whom politics had always been personal. They became visceral after the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in the controversial wake of the publication of his satirical novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1988.
Even before Mr. Hitchens met Mr. Rushdie in the mid-1980s, he admired him as a writer who both represented and recorded all of the ambivalences of the postcolonial. In his view, Mr. Rushdie “had come via Rugby School and Cambridge [the apotheosis of British upper class education] to remind the British that they had betrayed the very people they had claimed to be schooling for nationhood: tossed away the ‘jewel in their crown’ like some cheap piece of paste.”
The Fatwa was a watershed between everything Mr. Hitchens hated–”dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation”–and everything he loved–”literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defense of free expression.” He committed himself fully to the support of his friend, speaking out against censorship, condemning those on the Right as well as the Left who felt that Mr. Rushdie had brought the death threats upon himself and was somehow implicated in the murder of his Japanese translator, the stabbing of his Italian one, and the shooting of his Norwegian publisher. The only time Mr. Hitchens, the ultra moralist, faltered in his support was when Mr. Rushdie succumbed to what Mr. Hitchens called blackmail and wrote a short grovelling article, “Why I have Embraced Islam” in an attempt to appease the fanatics.
He wasn’t so loyal to another friend, Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist who had accepted a senior job in the Bill Clinton White House. Blumenthal’s switch from one side of the journalism divide to the other was probably akin to treason for Mr. Hitchens, a man who tended to absolutist moral standards. Moreover, he loathed Mr. Clinton and believed he should have been impeached. When Mr. Blumenthal testified before a Senate committee investigating the president’s behaviour with his former aide Monica Lewinsky, and swore that he had had no part in the media smear campaign that had depicted Ms. Lewinsky as a stalker and a sexual predator, Mr. Hitchens was outraged. He and his wife, Carol Blue, swore out an affidavit accusing Mr. Blumenthal of perjury, detonating a 15 year friendship.
The next huge incident that precipitated a shift in Mr. Hitchens’s political thinking and thus his writing career came after Al-Qaeda attacked his adopted homeland on 9/11. He broke with The Nation in 2002, after profoundly disagreeing with other contributors about the military course the U.S. should follow in response to the terrorist attacks. In his last “Minority Report” column he wrote: “When I began work for The Nation over two decades ago, [editor] Victor Navasky described the magazine as a debating ground between liberals and radicals, which was, I thought, well judged. In the past few weeks, though, I have come to realize that the magazine itself takes a side in this argument, and is becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”
Mr. Hitchens’s support for US President George W. Bush’s War on Terror and the American-led invasion of Iraq, even though the 9/11 terrorist attacks emanated from elsewhere and no weapons of mass destruction were uncovered, made him the darling of the Right and the pariah of the Left. In September 2005 he was named one of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals“ by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines.
God and Himself
Mr. Hitchens was still mainly a mid-list selling writer until he published his grand polemic, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007. Writing in The New York Times, Michael Kinsley, former editor of The New Republic, caught the spirit of most reviewers when he declared that Mr. Hitchens had written “with tremendous brio and great wit” as well as “an underlying genuine anger” a full frontal and erudite attack on religion. The book was an international bestseller and made Mr. Hitchens an in-demand speaker on the lecture circuit.
The notoriety about God is Not Great boosted sales for Hitch-22, which was released in the late spring of 2010. The book received thoughtful if sometimes antagonistic reviews, which couldn’t have been a surprise even to the author. More of a presentation of his ideas and passions than a chronological account of his life, the book consists of a series of essays about family–although there is very little about his wives and his children–friends and causes, ranging from his early embrace of the radical left to his stomp to the militaristic right after 9/11.
As the end neared, Mr. Hitchens continued to refuse the prayers offered on his behalf by the faithful. Instead he tended to his legacy. Just before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, he wrote an article in the online magazine Slate entitled, “Simply Evil.” It might better have been named, “What I Believe.” Mr. Hitchens, ever the moralist, concluded that “against the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain. Among them: Holocaust denial is in fact a surreptitious form of Holocaust affirmation. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a direct and lethal challenge to free expression, not a clash between traditional faith and “free speech fundamentalism.” The mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the random product of “ancient hatreds” but a deliberate plan to erase the Muslim population. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called “evil.” And, 10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie.”
With that paragraph, he wrote his own epigraph.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this online story incorrectly identified the poet who wrote The Hollow Men. This online version has been corrected.