WASHINGTON - Christopher Hitchens, the author, essayist, and polemicist who waged verbal and occasional physical battle on behalf of causes left and right and wrote the provocative best-seller “God is Not Great,’’ died last night after a long battle with cancer. He was 62.
Conde Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair magazine, said he died at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston of pneumonia, a complication of his esophageal cancer
A most engaged, prolific, and public intellectual who enjoyed his drink (enough “to kill or stun the average mule’’) and cigarettes, he announced in June 2010 that he was being treated for cancer of the esophagus and canceled a tour for his memoir “Hitch-22.’’
Mr. Hitchens, a frequent television commentator and a contributor to Vanity Fair, Slate, and other publications, had become a popular author in 2007 thanks to “God is Not Great,’’ a manifesto for atheists that defied a recent trend of religious works. Cancer humbled, but did not mellow him. Even after his diagnosis, his columns appeared weekly, savaging the royal family or reveling in the death of Osama bin Laden.
“I love the imagery of struggle,’’ he wrote about his illness in an August 2010 essay in Vanity Fair. “I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.’’
Eloquent and intemperate, bawdy and urbane, he was an acknowledged contrarian and contradiction - half-Christian, half-Jewish, and fully non-believing; a native of England who settled in the United States; a former Trotskyite who backed the Iraq war and supported George W. Bush. But his passions remained constant and the enemies of his youth, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa, remained hated.
Mr. Hitchens was an old-fashioned sensualist who abstained from clean living as if it were just another kind of church. In 2005, he recalled a trip to Aspen, Colo., and a brief encounter after stepping off a ski lift.
“I was met by immaculate specimens of young American womanhood, holding silver trays and flashing perfect dentition,’’ he wrote. “What would I like? I thought a gin and tonic would meet the case. ‘Sir, that would be inappropriate.’ In what respect? ‘At this altitude gin would be very much more toxic than at ground level.’ In that case, I said, make it a double.’’
An emphatic ally and inspired foe, he stood by friends in trouble (“Satanic Verses’’ novelist Salman Rushdie) and against enemies in power (Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini). His heroes included George Orwell, Thomas Paine, and Gore Vidal (pre-Sept. 11). Among those on the Hitchens list of shame: Michael Moore, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Sarah Palin, Gore Vidal (post Sept. 11), and Prince Charles.
Mr. Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1949. His father, Eric, was a “purse-lipped’’ Navy veteran known as “The Commander’’; his mother, Yvonne, a romantic who later killed herself during an extra-marital rendezvous in Greece. Young Christopher would have rather read a book.
He was a “a mere weed and weakling and kick-bag’’ who discovered that “words could function as weapons’’ and so stockpiled them.
In college, Oxford, he met such longtime friends as authors Martin Amis and Ian McEwan and claimed to be nearby when visiting Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton did or did not inhale marijuana. Radicalized by the 1960s, Mr. Hitchens was arrested at political rallies, kicked out of Britain’s Labor Party over his opposition to the Vietnam War, and became a correspondent for radical magazine International Socialism.
His reputation broadened in the 1970s through his writings for the New Statesman.
Wavy-haired and brooding and aflame with wit and righteous anger, he was a star of the left, a popular television guest and a columnist for one of the world’s oldest liberal publications, The Nation.
But Mr. Hitchens never could simply nod his head. He feuded with fellow Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn and broke with Vidal.
He had long been unhappy with the left’s reluctance to confront enemies or friends. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, completed his exit from the left. He quit The Nation and repeatedly chastised those who he believed worried unduly about the feelings of Muslims.
He leaves his wife, author Carol Blue, and three children, Alexander, Sophia, and Antonia.
Mr. Hitchens had well crafted ideas about posterity.
His vision of earthly bliss: “To be vindicated in my own lifetime.’’
His ideal way to die: “Fully conscious, and either fighting or reciting (or fooling around).’’