Saturday 17 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011

In Memoriam

Photograph by Gasper Tringale.

Christopher Hitchens was a wit, a charmer, and a troublemaker, and to those who knew him well, he was a gift from, dare I say it, God. He died today at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, after a punishing battle with esophageal cancer, the same disease that killed his father.

He was a man of insatiable appetites—for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who could match the volume of exquisitely crafted columns, essays, articles, and books he produced over the past four decades. He wrote often—constantly, in fact, and right up to the end—and he wrote fast; frequently without the benefit of a second draft or even corrections.

I can recall a lunch in 1991, when I was editing The New York Observer, and he and Aimée Bell, his longtime editor, and I got together for a quick bite at a restaurant on Madison, no longer there. Christopher’s copy was due early that afternoon. Pre-lunch canisters of scotch were followed by a couple of glasses of wine during the meal and a similar quantity of post-meal cognac. That was just his intake. After stumbling back to the office, we set him up at a rickety table and with an old Olivetti, and in a symphony of clacking he produced a 1,000-word column of near perfection in under half an hour.

Christopher was one of the first writers I called when I came to Vanity Fair in 1992. Six years before, I had called on him to write for Spy. That offer was ever so politely rejected. The Vanity Fair approach had a fee attached, though, and to my everlasting credit, he accepted and has been writing for the magazine ever since. With the exception of Dominick Dunne (who died in 2009), no writer has been more associated with Vanity Fair. There was no subject too big or too small for Christopher. Over the past two decades he traveled to just about every hot spot you can think of. He’d also subject himself to any manner of humiliation or discomfort in the name of his column.

I once sent him out on a mission to break the most niggling laws still on the books in New York City. One such decree forbade riding a bicycle with your feet off the pedals. The photograph that ran with the column, of Christopher sailing a small bike through Central Park with his legs in the air, looked like something out of the Moscow Circus. When he embarked on a cause of self-improvement for a three-part series, he subjected himself to myriad treatments to improve his dental area and other dark regions. At one point I suggested he go to a well-regarded waxing parlor in town for what they indelicately call the “sack, back, and crack.” He struggled to absorb the full meaning of this, but after a few seconds he smiled a nervous smile and said, “In for a penny . . . ”

Christopher was the beau ideal of the public intellectual. You felt as though he was writing to you and to you alone. And as a result many readers felt they knew him. Walking with him down the street in New York or through an airplane terminal was like escorting a movie star through the throngs.

Christopher was brave not just in facing the illness that took him, but brave in words and thought. He did not mind landing outside the cozy cocoon of conventional liberal wisdom, his curious, pro-war stance before the invasion of Iraq being but one example. Friends distanced themselves from him during those unlit days. But he stuck to his guns.

After his rather famous 1995 attack on Mother Teresa in these pages, one of our contributing editors, a devout Catholic, came into the office filled with umbrage and announced that he was canceling his subscription. “You can’t cancel it,” I said. “You get the magazine for free!” Years ago, in the midst of the Clinton impeachment uproar, Christopher had a very public dustup with his good friend Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton White House functionary—the dispute was over which part of a conversation between them was or was not on the record. Christopher wound up on television a lot defending himself. He looked like hell, and I suggested we bring him to New York for a bit of a makeover and some R&R away from the cameras. The magazine was pretty flush back then, and we set him up with a new suit, shirts, ties, and such. When someone from the fashion department asked him what size his shoes were, he said he didn’t know—the pair he had on was borrowed.

I could not begin to list the pantheon of public intellectuals and close friends who will mourn his passing, but it would most certainly include Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins, James Fenton, Christopher Buckley, and Hitchens’s agent, Steve Wasserman. Christopher had his share of lady admirers too, including—but certainly not limited to—Anna Wintour, back when he was young and still relatively fragrant. His wife, Carol, a writer, filmmaker, and legendary hostess, set a high bar in how to handle a flower like Christopher, both when he was healthy and during his last days. An invitation to their vast apartment in the Wyoming on Columbia Road, in Washington, D.C., was a prized reward for being a part of their circle or even on the fringes of it. We used to hold an anti–White House Correspondents party there in the 90s and 2000s; the Salon des Refuses, he called it. You could meet anyone there. From Supreme Court justices to right-wing windbags to, well, Barbra Streisand and other assorted totems of the left. He was a good friend who wished his friends well. And as a result he had a lot of them.

Christopher had an enviable career arc that began with his own brand of fiery journalism at Britain’s New Statesman and then wended its way to America, where he wrote for everyone from The Atlantic and Harper’s to Slate and The New York Times Book Review. And we all called him our own. He was a legend on the speakers’ circuit, and could debate just about anyone on anything. He won umpteen awards—although that was not the sort of thing that fueled his work—and in the last decade he wrote best-sellers, including a memoir, Hitch-22, that finally put some money into his family’s pocket. In the last weeks of his life, he was told that an asteroid had been named after him. He was pleased by the thought, and inasmuch as the word is derived from the Greek, meaning “star-like,” and asteroids are known to be volatile, it is a fitting honor.

To his friends, Christopher will be remembered for his elevated but inclusive humor and for a staggering, almost punishing memory that held up under the most liquid of late-night conditions. And to all of us, his readers, Christopher Hitchens will be remembered for the millions of words he left behind. They are his legacy. And, God love him, it was his will.

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