Christopher Hitchens, Writer and Drinker, Dies at 62

By Joe Keohane 12/16/11

The celebrated journalist and author's love affair with liquor and cigarettes has ended.

Hitchens: Taunting the reaper no longer
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British-born journalist, author and critic Christopher Hitchens has died from a complication of cancer, aged 62, in a Texas hospital. He was a creature of vast intellectual appetite, a dismayingly prolific, terrifyingly willing practitioner of the art of the high literary drubbing. His generation’s best pure writer. Yet when people asked how he did it, as they often did, they weren’t referring to his output so much as his intake. “I suppose they mean how do I do all this and still drink enough every day to kill or stun the average mule?” he wrote in 2003. “My doctor confesses himself amazed at my haleness…but then, in my time I’ve met more old drunks than old doctors.”

He wasn't to be one of those old drunks. Hitchens’ unapologetic abuse of liquor and cigarettes will run neck and neck with his actual writing in the race to define his legacy—not that he'd ever call what he did with his beloved Johnnie Walker Black abuse. “Anything…that enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation is worth it to me,” he said last year. In that, he belonged to the Kingsley Amis school of long-haul intoxication. “The human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient [as alcohol],” wrote Amis. There’s a toll—Kingers was ultimately rather spectacularly undone by his predilection—but it struck Hitchens as a fair one.

Beyond social utility, drinking was of a part with some of Hitchens’ most enduring themes: The contrarian embrace of disrepute; the rejection of nannies who take an unseemly interest in the health of strangers; the celebration of human messiness, happy chaos and hilarity; the cultivation of taste. “Upgrade yourself, for Chrissake,” he once demanded, railing against well liquor. “Do you think you are going to live forever?”

Few have embraced not living forever quite as avidly as Hitchens, and fewer still have shown more grace in the presence of the inevitable reaper. In 2007, he wrote a two-part piece for Vanity Fair, portentous in hindsight, titled “On the Limits of Self-Improvement.” It was based on a stunty, quarter-hearted effort to clean up. The largely fruitless experiment yielded a passage that stands as an epitaph for the old sinner: "Il faut souffrir pour être belle, as the French say. Without suffering, no beauty. As I look back on my long and arduous struggle to make myself over, and on my dismaying recent glimpses of lost babyhood, I am more than ever sure that it’s enough to be born once, and to take one’s chances, and to grow old disgracefully.”

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Joe Keohane is a New York-based writer and editor who has held high-level editorial positions with, orwritten for, Esquire, The New York Times, the Boston Globe, the New Yorker, New York magazine,Entrepreneur, and others. You can find Joe on Linkedin and Twitter.