Wed, Jan 4, 2012 10:21 AM
A British American author and journalist died after a career
that spanned more than four decades
A couple of whiskey-soaked weeks have passed, and the clouds of
grief have cleared well enough to allow me, finally, to reminisce
publicly: I can still remember, dear envious reader, the first time
I met my old friend Chris Hitchens, the brilliant essayist who
passed away in December.
The year was 1960, and we were both pupils at the Leys School in
Cambridge. I was the captain of the quidditch team and had just led
our school to an important victory over Ian McEwan's heavily
favored squad at Woolverstone Hall; Hitch was the editor of the
school newspaper and made the decision to run, as the next day's
cover story, his own essay excoriating the American activist Helen
Keller (whom he viewed as "a faker") instead of giving the headline
to my athletic triumph. When I confronted Hitch on the subject in
the morning, he was well into his cups, and with his inimitable
wit, he knocked me over the head with a shovel.
We spent the rest of the day drinking martinis together. By dusk we
had become the best of friends, and by the next day Hitch couldn't
remember who I was. We were, at the time, eleven years old.
Hitch and I didn't talk much for the rest of our boarding-school
careers - I was busy with sports, and he was consumed by a
passionate affair with Gore Vidal - but I enjoyed reading his book
reviews in the Leys Daily. Chris was, in those days, both an
impassioned supporter and a detractor of the author Roger
Hargreaves, whose breakout novel "Mr. Greedy" Hitch lauded as "a
shining work of pre-Trotskyist brilliance" but whose follow-up "Mr.
Happy" he considered "a disgraceful example of post-Trotskyist
hogwash." In 1962, Hitch became the captain of our school's debate
team, after inspiring all of the other members to quit out of sheer
hatred of him.
Our paths didn't cross again until the 1990s, when we'd both
expatriated and were working for Vanity Fair in Manhattan - he as a
contributing editor, I as the guy who sprayed the pages with
perfume. We were both revered figures within New York's literary
scene and attended many of the same parties. To this day, Salman
Rushdie and I are the only two people who have ever beaten Hitch at
Although he owned a beautiful home in Greenwich Village, Hitch
slept most nights on the floors of dive bars in Jersey City, waking
occasionally to appear on "Charlie Rose." When I asked him how his
wife Carol felt about his behavior, he amusingly replied, "Who?"
Only later did I realize that he literally had no idea whom I was
talking about: he was busy with his work, he said, and had never
had time to meet either of his wives or any of his children.
Hitch liked to insist that his misogyny was "the charming kind." It
was widely known among his friends that, for all his bibliophilism,
he had never read a single female author except George Eliot, whom
he admired tremendously, but only because he thought she was a man.
Nevertheless, Hitch was beloved by both men and women, especially
when they mistook him for the actor Timothy Spall, which happened
Hitch was fun to be around because he always game for a good
old-fashioned intellectual debate. In fact, he enjoyed arguing so
much that, after the success of his atheist polemic "God Is Not
Great," he wrote several pro-creationism books under the pen name
William A. Dembski.
He and I loved to talk about politics, too. His support of the Iraq
War was well-known - what is less known is that it was I, his
trusted friend, who taught him that "Iraq" is typically spelled
with a "q," not a "ck."
More recently, with his health failing, Hitch spent more and more
time at home, where I often visited him to discuss old times. Most
of the time he mistook me for Martin Amis, but I went along with
He and I would sit in his living room drinking whiskey out of
gallon-sized milk cartons and injecting nicotine into our eyeballs
(he'd given up smoking), and occasionally Hitch would return to his
study to finish up a long series of essays in which he defended, in
detail, potential American invasions of various countries like
Iran, Bolivia, and Canada, in case the U.S. should choose to
initiate further wars after his death. In his final months, with
his body ravaged by cancer, his writerly productivity slumped to
such an extent that he couldn't muster more than two or three dozen
essays per day. It was sad to see him that way.
Still, he was a true friend to the end. Just a few weeks ago, he
invited me over and, for old times' sake, hit me over the head once
more with his shovel. Then he called me "a dirty Islamofascist,"
took a shot of rubbing alcohol, and told me to leave. Good night,
Editors note: Christopher Hitchens memoir, Hitch-22, was published
in June 2010. Later in that month he began treatment for newly
diagnosed esophageal cancer. On Dec. 15, 2011, Hitchens died from
pneumonia, a complication of his cancer.