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Christopher Hitchens dies at 62; engaging, enraging author and essayist

The British-American's polemical writings on religion, politics, war and other hot-button topics established him as a leading public intellectual. His openness about having cancer elicited thousands of letters and emails to Vanity Fair, where he was a longtime contributor.

December 15, 2011|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

In 1969, Hitchens began writing book reviews for the left-leaning London weekly New Statesman, where he forged important friendships with writers Martin Amis, James Fenton and Ian McEwan. In 1970 he graduated with honors from Balliol and won a grant to travel across the U.S., which left him smitten by his "New World." He returned to England, where he burnished his journalism credentials writing for mainstream and leftist publications. One of his assignments was a New Statesman profile of Margaret Thatcher in which he riled the future prime minister's Conservative Party supporters by calling her sexy. In a subsequent encounter at a party, Thatcher called him a "naughty boy" and swatted his behind.

In 1973, when he was 24 and living in London, his mother committed suicide with her lover, a defrocked vicar, during a trip to Greece.

Years later, he discovered one of her secrets: She was Jewish, which made him Jewish. "My initial reaction, apart from pleasure and interest, was the faint but definite feeling that I had somehow known all along," he wrote in a 1988 essay, "On Not Knowing the Half of It." But he remained anti-religion and anti-Zionist.

With London as his base, Hitchens spent the 1970s covering revolutions and human rights: nail bombers in Belfast, anti-fascists in Portugal, persecuted leftist journalist Jacobo Timerman in Argentina.

While on assignment in Cyprus in 1977, he met Eleni Meleagrou and married her in 1981. He left her when she was expecting their second child and in 1991 married Carol Blue, a freelance journalist.

In addition to Blue, he is survived by their daughter, Antonia; two children from his first marriage, Alexander and Sophia; and a brother, Peter, a conservative columnist for the British paper Daily Mail.

Some Hitchens watchers trace his disillusionment with the left to 1992, when he called for military intervention in Bosnia, but Hitchens said it began later, during the Clinton era. The rupture was complete after the 9/11 strikes in New York and Washington, when Hitchens drew a line between himself and other leading liberals, such as Noam Chomsky.

He was contemptuous of Chomsky and others who argued that American imperialism, by turning much of the world against the U.S., had drawn the terrorists here.

"I can only hint at how much I despise a left that thinks of Osama bin Laden as a slightly misguided anti-imperialist," Hitchens wrote later. "Instead of internationalism, we find among the left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism" and "a masochistic refusal to admit that our own civil society has any merit."

In September 2002 Hitchens wrote his last column for the Nation, which he said had become "the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace" than bin Laden, and organized intellectuals and activists to campaign against Saddam Hussein's rule. He was criticized just as harshly by his former allies, such as New Left Review editor Tariq Ali, who wrote that the Hitchens he knew disappeared in the 9/11 inferno, leaving a "vile replica" in his place.

In 2007, on his 58th birthday, Hitchens enjoyed a moment of high patriotism and irony: The onetime Trotskyite took the oath of U.S. citizenship in a private ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial, conducted by George W. Bush's homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff.

What Hitchens once said of Vidal was also abundantly true of himself: He possessed "the rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones." In Vanity Fair, which he joined in 1992, he wrote of his personal encounters with waterboarding and Brazilian bikini waxes with self-deprecating humor and cerebral detachment.

Both qualities informed his writing on his bleakest subject: his cancer.

"I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death," he wrote in Vanity Fair last September, shortly after learning he had esophageal cancer that had spread to his lungs and lymph nodes. "But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse." Noting that his father had died of the same type of cancer, he added, "In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist." His cancer was classified Stage 4 and he readily conceded that "there is no Stage 5."

His illness caused him to cancel the publicity tour for "Hitch-22," which opens, eerily, with a rumination on death prompted by his recollection of an incident years ago when he was referred to as "the late Christopher Hitchens." In this prologue, he rejects fatalism and declares "I personally want to 'do' death in the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me."

He aggressively sought treatment, which included genetic testing to determine which chemotherapy drug might be most effective on his cancer. He was encouraged to try the experimental approach by his friend, Dr. Francis Collins, the eminent geneticist and born-again Christian with whom he had debated the existence of God.

He also kept up a frenetic pace of writing and, until recently, public speaking. In one of his most publicized appearances after being diagnosed with cancer, he faced Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and recent convert to Catholicism, in a sold-out Toronto debate on whether religion was a force for good in the world.

Despite his obvious frailty, Hitchens was in top form, provoking wide laughter when he compared God to "a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea."

At the debate's end, the audience of 2,700 voted him the winner.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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