I used to talk with Christopher Hitchens from time to time between 2003 and 2010. But as in the case of most who knew him, I was an acquaintance of someone with far more acquaintances than I had. So while his company stood out to me, I am sure that mine did not to him to the same degree. With that now-customary Hitchens prooimion out of the way, I continue with what I recall of him.
I was once in extremis with a ruptured appendix and peritonitis in Libya. I could make only one call before the ad hoc operation, and I left a brief message for my wife and son to give them the grim prognosis. For reasons I never quite fathomed, in desperation late at night they called one number of the many written on my desk: Christopher Hitchens. When I awoke after the operation in a dingy Tripoli Red Crescent clinic, there soon arrived a Libyan-American neurosurgeon (by happenstance there on vacation) to insist on proper antibiotics (hard to find then in Qaddafi’s Libya); later I was visited by the newly arrived American chargé d’affaires. Back home, I gathered that their presence somehow was the result of various phone calls Christopher made, though to whom and when he never quite disclosed. Later he told me only — in connection with the struggle in Iraq — “Anyone stupid enough to keep supporting these incompetent bastards in Washington deserves a second chance to be stupid enough to keep supporting these incompetent bastards in Washington.” Note here that Hitchens felt by 2006 that the Bush administration had botched the occupation, but that fact was no reason for him to abandon them or it — given what was at stake.
There were a few other odd things that we shared.
I had lived for a time in Athens, on Deinokrates Street, on the slopes of Mt. Lykabettos. In the autumn of 1973, as I walked to and from classes at the Hellenic Center each day, I passed by a prominent luxury hotel (whose best terraced rooms looked out on the Acropolis). One November afternoon on the way home I was redirected by legions of Greek police, who had cordoned off the hotel’s driveways. For the next few days, the police milled around the hotel as the investigation of the suicide of a Mrs. Hitchens and a retired Anglican priest were played out in predictable detail in the tabloid press.
Like many in Greece that fall (sex, religion, and suicide were instant distractions under a repressive regime), I followed the strange and tragic case. The remains in the adjoining rooms were not immediately discovered; lurid speculation soon ranged over the assumed chronology of the double suicide (was the priest, the media gossip went, really a partner in suicide, or perhaps a jilted lover, a murderer, and then a suicide?). I remembered the papers writing about a twenty-something Christopher Hitchens arriving in Athens as the loyal son come to claim his mother’s body — all of this soon to be eclipsed by the unrest and the fall of the Papadopoulos regime, and thus by December entirely forgotten. I made the connection between all this and the adult Hitchens in 1989, when he reviewed favorably a book I wrote, The Western Way of War, and I later mentioned my memories to Christopher. He was interested at the knowledge that I had lived a few hundred yards from the scene of the tragedy; and perhaps surprised that I did not try to offer some contorted psychoanalysis about the origins of his own antipathy for organized religion. I can be stupid, but not that stupid.
Most who write of Hitchens (I knew him as Christopher, never Hitch) cite his prodigious consumption of booze and cigarettes, either in awe at his iron constitution or shocked at his self-destructive impulses, or both. I never had any strong reaction to these appetites other than a sort of sadness at the monotony of it all. When one maintains such a level of consumption after 55, it ensures that one will not be around much longer. No one is exempt from the toxicity of the combined excess of cigarettes and hard liquor. I say that in memory of my wonderful father — who had been a star athlete, a war hero, a football coach, a farmer, a gifted college administrator, a yoga instructor, a weight lifter, and a health nut — who inexplicably started drinking heavily and smoking (three packs a day) in his mid-fifties. I think his quart of nightly bourbon, bookended by red wine and scotch, and 60 cigarettes a day almost matched those of Hitchens (who also likewise felt that his own genes and constitution — and his alone! — would ensure longevity).