Christopher Hitchens, Who Wrote of God, Cancer, Dies at 62

Christopher Hitchens Dies at 62
British-born journalist Christopher Hitchens. Photographer: Christian Witkin/ Twelve/Grand Central Publishing via Bloomberg

Christopher Hitchens, the British-born journalist at home in the middle of U.S. political disputes including Bill Clinton’s infidelity, the war in Iraq and the role of organized religion, has died. He was 62.

Hitchens died yesterday at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, Vanity Fair magazine reported on its website. That was the same day the U.S. marked the end of its nine-year war in Iraq, which first brought Hitchens to the attention of many American readers.

In June 2010, while publicizing a memoir, “Hitch-22,” he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. He chronicled his illness in Vanity Fair while copping to the role that his tobacco habit likely played. As he wrote in 2007: “My keystone addiction is to cigarettes, without which cocktails and caffeine (and food) are meaningless.” Vanity Fair won a 2011 National Magazine Award for Hitchens’s columns about his illness.

A man of ample, strong convictions, Hitchens defied political labeling. He supported the U.S. war in Iraq before and after American public opinion turned against it. He was a critic of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, he said, deserved to be prosecuted for mass killings of civilians, including in Indochina during the Vietnam War. He called Mother Teresa “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud.”

He backed the impeachment of President Clinton for his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, as detailed in Hitchens’s book, “No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family” (1999). He lamented George W. Bush’s “shortcomings of intellect” yet endorsed his re-election in 2004. His 2007 takedown of religion, “God Is Not Great,” was nominated for a National Book Award and spurred widespread debate.

Torture Inquiry

His reporting techniques likewise knew few bounds. A regular visitor to world trouble spots -- from Kabul to Baghdad, Northern Ireland to northern Uganda -- Hitchens allowed himself to be waterboarded so he could better opine on whether the controversial interrogation technique constituted torture. Absolutely, he concluded, adding, “The interrogators would hardly have had time to ask me any questions, and I knew that I would quite readily have agreed to supply any answer.”

The author Salman Rushdie said of his longtime friend in a 2010 interview with the Associated Press, “It’s difficult not to hit it off with him, unless he chooses to attack you, in which case it’s impossible to hit it off with him.” Another friend, New York Times columnist and former Executive Editor Bill Keller, wrote that Hitchens’s “alcohol-propelled conversation is a captivating form of performance art.”

U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who once worked for Hitchens as an intern, said in a statement today: “Christopher Hitchens was everything a great essayist should be: infuriating, brilliant, highly provocative and yet intensely serious.”

Impact of 9/11

The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, turned Hitchens into a high-profile hawk. He split publicly with other social commentators, such as filmmaker Michael Moore and author Gore Vidal, who sought to cast at least some blame on the U.S. itself, for policies that created anger and enemies elsewhere in the world.

Ending his affiliation with The Nation magazine in 2002, Hitchens used his final column to make clear his agreement with the so-called neoconservatives of the Bush administration, who were already looking beyond the war in Afghanistan and taking aim at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“I am on the side of the Iraqi and Kurdish opponents of this filthy menace,” Hitchens wrote. “And they are on the side of civil society in a wider conflict, which is the civil war now burning across the Muslim world from Indonesia to Nigeria.”

Parting Shot

In a parting shot, he said The Nation, his journalistic home for two decades, “is becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”

Hitchens’s support for the Bush administration’s post-9/11 agenda had limits. In 2006, he joined the American Civil Liberties Union and Greenpeace, among others, in filing a lawsuit to challenge the warrantless domestic spying program that had been implemented in secret. After initial success in U.S. District Court in Detroit, their lawsuit lost on appeal.

Asked by New York magazine in 2007 whether he considered himself a hawk on military issues, he said: “I used to wish there was a useful term for those of us who thought American power should be used to remove psychopathic dictators.”

Hitchens made another splash with “God Is Not Great,” published in the U.S. with the subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything,” and in the U.K. with, “The Case Against Religion.”

‘Irrational, Intolerant’

He wrote: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”

Some of his critics, especially in the anonymity of Internet discussion boards, connected his cancer diagnosis to his atheist beliefs. In response to those criticisms -- and to the designation of Sept. 20, 2010, as “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day” -- Hitchens wrote a column for Vanity Fair titled “Unanswerable Prayers.”

“I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions,” he wrote, “but when Sept. 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”

Gloom and Color

Christopher Eric Hitchens was born on April 13, 1949, in Portsmouth, England. In his memoir, he recalled his father, Eric, an officer in the Royal Navy, as a “very gloomy, pessimistic” man of few words who once told him that World War II was “the only time when I really felt I knew what I was doing.”

His mother, Yvonne -- “a great splash of color in this rather drab world” -- left the marriage when she was 52 to take up with a poet, Timothy Bryan, a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In 1973, in a hotel in Greece, they committed suicide together. Hitchens was 24. Only after her death did he and his younger brother find out that she, and therefore they, had Jewish roots.

A voracious reader, young Hitchens would bring books even to church, so he had something to do during the sermon.

Two early yearnings -- to write and to move to the U.S. -- were connected, he told interviewer Charlie Rose in 2010: “It was something to do with the scope of America, certainly, and the relatively limited character of English society comparatively.”

Fast Writer

After graduating from the University of Oxford in 1970, he entered journalism in 1973 as a staff writer at the U.K. public-affairs magazine New Statesman. Anthony Howard, the editor who recruited Hitchens, recalled him in a 2010 profile as a lightning-fast writer who “always came in at 10:45 a.m., holding, with shaking hands, this cardboard cup of tomato soup to nurse his hangover.”

He moved to the U.S. in 1982, settling first in New York City and then in Washington. From 1982 to 2002 he wrote a biweekly column for The Nation.

He joined Vanity Fair as a contributing editor in 1992, writing a monthly column. He also served as Washington editor for Harper’s and as U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement in London.

He became a U.S. citizen on his 58th birthday, in 2007.

His books include “Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger” (1984), “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” (1995), “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (2001), “Letters to a Young Contrarian” (2001) and “Why Orwell Matters” (2002). His last book, “Arguably,” a collection of essays, was published on Sept. 1.

Hitchens had a son and a daughter with his first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, a lawyer whom he married in 1981. That marriage ended in divorce. He had a daughter with his second wife, Carol Blue, a writer.

In one of his final columns for Vanity Fair, Hitchens wrote of the special indignity of having cancer attack his ability to communicate his views. “What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission,” he wrote. “And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”



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