Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Symposiast: Remembering Christopher Hitchens

On his 75th birthday, an acquaintance remembers the inimitable Hitch.

We profile Writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens for a Manuel Roig-Franzia profile  pegged to the release of his memoir.

Impossible as it is to believe, Christopher Hitchens, the enfant terrible of Anglo-American politics and letters, would have turned 75 today, almost 13 years since his premature death from esophageal cancer in December 2011. 

Yet in many ways Hitchens seems more alive than ever. His name routinely crops up in contemporary debates, notwithstanding how different the political landscape looks in the Age of Donald and Elon. In the years since his passing, he has acquired a new generation of fans in the millions. His coinages (“Islamofascism”) have entered the contemporary cultural lexicon. His debating ripostes are so widely cited that they have acquired names in their own right. (For example: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” Known as “Hitchens’s Razor,” it serves as a handy rhetorical implement for dismissing—“shaving off”—opponents’ empty arguments from Authority.)


“Hope you are thriving,” he used to sign off his messages to me and other correspondents.  

The ghost of Christopher is thriving.

Composing His Thoughts: The Mozartian Method

I came to know Christopher—it was never “Chris,” an Americanism (so he claimed) that he loathed—during the last dozen years of his life. I first met him briefly in December 1999. We later met at conferences, at his Washington apartment, and at his Palo Alto residence near the campus of Stanford University (where his father-in-law, Edwin Blue, a retired physicist, lived next door). Between our occasional meetings, we emailed (“Hope you are thriving!”), and spoke every few months on the telephone. My first lengthy one-on-one encounter with Christopher was in Washington in April 2002, when he was well known but had not yet emerged as the leading controversialist of the day. We spent most of the day together, starting with a long lunch before a late-afternoon taping for an hour-long PBS special on George Orwell (“The Orwell Century”) in the runup to the Orwell centennial of 2003. Like me, Hitchens was finishing a book (Why Orwell Matters, 2003) about Orwell’s legacy.

Not long thereafter, I visited him in California. Christopher took me on a long, leisurely stroll through his Palo Alto neighborhood. Waving to neighbors, stopping to visit his father-in-law Edwin, and pausing to point out “Condi’s house” (Condoleezza Rice, then-Secretary of State and Stanford’s provost during the 1990s), Christopher was in an ebullient mood. 


I steered the conversation to a remark of an editor for whom we had both written. I asked Christopher if his retentive memory was “photographic.” 

“I’ve heard you have a ‘Mozartian’ method of composition,” I rattled on, telling him that a magazine editor of ours had recounted to me that “you don’t write down your work.” Hitchens, he had said, “composed” a lengthy essay in his head with no apparent need to write it down. (Mozart wrote his scores for the benefit of others; his tragic early death, claimed his wife, meant that several of what might have been his very greatest works died on his deathbed with him. Contra Amadeus, nobody had the presence of mind—or perhaps the coldness of heart? —to insist in businesslike fashion that he dictate them with his dying breaths.) 

“Well, yes, I suppose that’s a fair analogy,” answered Christopher. “Since I was often abroad and on tight deadlines—this is long before the smart-phone era—I developed the habit of phoning up and dictating my essays or dispatches to a sub-editor who would take them down.” 

Christopher went on, “If I had someone on the phone, then I knew the story would be filed with the magazine. Faxes and computers are unavailable or unreliable in a lot of remote places.” 

“No notes either?” I said. “You’re kidding. You just…dictated it? Straight through? Off the cuff?” 

“Don’t misunderstand. I turned over most serious articles for hours, even days before ringing up the office. I always worked hard. But I didn’t need to write it down. It was as if I was reading it on a screen inside my head. It was all quite clear.”

“You just read it off? I heard that you even knew the length as you went along.”

“That’s right. I’d be relaying a 5,000 word-piece to the office, and I’d get to a place and just check in with the sub-editor on the word count. ‘That’s about 4850, right?’ I’d say. He’d answer, ‘4873, to be exact.’ I’d say, ‘All right, let’s wrap up, here’s the last 120 or so.’ And I’d come in at right around the 5,000-word mark.”

The Symposiast as Showman

A visit to Palo Alto in May 2006 stands out in memory. On my arrival, Christopher apologized that he and his wife Carol Blue had just been invited to a small dinner party.  

“Hope you won’t mind seeing Bob and Lindy and a few friends tonight. He asked about you.”  

The dinner was at the home of the poet-historian Robert Conquest, whom I had also met a few years before. Author of path-breaking books on Stalinism and the Gulag, most notably The Great Terror (1968), he had been a close comrade since the 1960s of “the Hitch” (a term of endearment granted to the inner circle). Recently turned 90, Conquest too—like their mutual friends and mates in mischief, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis—was an ardent admirer of Orwell. (Christopher dedicated Why Orwell Matters to Conquest.)

It was my first experience of seeing Hitchens in a relaxed setting among friends. With no effort and no pretense, throughout an eight-hour supper that stretched until 3 a.m., he held court. That evening’s symposium outdid Plato’s banquet. Hitchens delivered all of the speeches ex tempore, punctuated merely by occasional interjections and exclamations and impromptu grace notes from the eight others of us around the table. I can only report, echoing the Athenian statesman-orator Alcibiades on hearing Socrates’ contribution, that Christopher seemed that night “unrivalled by any man, past or present.”  

Unrivalled that night he was. 

And unrivalled, I believe, he will remain.

A gift of that order occurs once in a generation—and Christopher Hitchens possessed it.

Yes, it was a command performance, from a self-summons that Christopher issued to himself to rise to an occasion for Bob and his friends. Though of course it all seemed to arise casually, spontaneously, indeed serendipitously—as if we had just glided into it.  

Which indeed we had—especially so in my case. By some misty alchemy of midsummer romance, a Palo Alto dining room had become a theater in the round, whereupon our places at the table had materialized into front-row seats. Although Bob, sitting at its head, nominally functioned in that capacity and did serve as a gracious host throughout the evening, nobody could mistake the fact that he had delegated Christopher to assume head-of-table duties—or that Bob beamed with a father’s pride at the theatrics of his intellectual son. Not for a single moment did Bob feel “upstaged” that night. The very notion would have struck him—and the rest of us too—as preposterous. His Gulf Stream of constant chuckles and repeated, happy, old-boyish nods of agreement made clear his warm approval of the show—and of the showmanship of the showman. After all, Bob had invited Christopher—and he and Lindy certainly knew what they were getting. And delighted to get it, too: Christopher Hitchens, singing—or rather, soliloquizing—for his supper. 

If you merely watch some short YouTube clips, or even if you listen to a series of hour-long presentations during one of Christopher’s countless debates on the Iraq War or religious faith, you cannot appreciate the magic and majesty of that marathon evening. And remember: YouTube had just come out a few months earlier and Facebook was still in its infancy; this was long before the era of viral videos and ubiquitous iPhones—and before Twitter and X, before Pinterest and Snapchat, fully a decade before Instagram and TikTok. None of us knew it, but that evening we were already in the last flickering twilight moments of intellectual vaudeville. No matter how high the tightrope, Christopher kept his balance as if it were a stroll in the park—and interspersed the walkabout with assorted magical stunts, ventriloquism acts, and other assorted forms of verbal acrobatics.  

The discourse that night ranged from Churchill and Thatcher to Nixon and Reagan to Putin and John Paul II, from sectarian squabbles about the revisionist critiques of Old Bolshevik leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin to the current historiography on World War I and the Vietnam War, from the revelations about Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass’s SS background to the comparative merits between Atonement on film and the original novel by “Ian” (McEwan, another shared inner circle friend of Christopher and Bob). Through it all, Hitchens expounded and extemporized with sovereign grace and authority.

As cogent analyses of the above subjects proceeded—to which the rest of us periodically chipped in a token contribution—reason would give way to rhyme as Christopher suddenly took flight. Somehow it was understood that we had arrived at an appropriate juncture for another soliloquy.  

The table would fall silent.  

Spontaneously and with perfect relevance to the topic, Christopher would reel off a couple of stanzas of Milton's Paradise Lost; two dozen lines from Pope’s Rape of the Lock, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est,” a Shakespearean sonnet immediately followed by a Petrarchan counterpart, an Ogden Nash limerick along with a bawdy one by Bob himself, and more. It was lovely to see a guest or two—chiefly Bob and the Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash—call out a title, identifying with delighted recognition the quoted work—and hesitantly chant a few lines summoned from memory. (I was grateful.)

Occasionally, Carol would gently rap hubby on the knuckles.

“Christopher! That’s enough now! Stop showing off!”  

To which the rest of us, like a mournful Greek chorus, would protest with guffaws:

“No, Carol! No! Let him show off!!”

As the evening concluded, Danuta Garton Ash—Tim’s Polish-born wife—threw her arms around Christopher and sobbed on his shoulder. Not tears of sadness, but of joy—and wonder. The Polish accent was strong and utterly charming.  

“Christopher, Christopher! How? How? How?”

A dazed Hitchens said nothing, as her clasp tightened.  

“How did you learn all this?! How does your head hold all these things?! How do you know so much?”  

For once, Christopher was speechless. Released from her headlock, and dazed by both the late hour and the happy hours, he smiled and swayed and waved off her effusive display. 

Danuta had spoken for us all. Her husband Tim nodded in agreement. He had already had several encounters with Hitchens before. No slouch himself—Tim is Britain’s leading scholar of modern European history, whose exciting dispatches from Eastern Europe before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 captivated the West—he averred that the evening was amazing, yes, yet no great surprise to him.   

The friends departed; I stood with Christopher as we looked up at the clear night sky. There was a twinkle in his eyes.  

Home With the (and Without a) Hitch

It remains to mention how the wondrous symposium of that long evening’s journey into night concluded. As Christopher and I stood in the parking lot, after the Garton Ashes had driven off, I casually remarked that we should fetch Carol, who must still be inside the house. (I had also made a mental note to remonstrate with—or perhaps just reassure—her: Her husband was a matchless showman, yes, but he was no mere showoff.)  

Not necessary to summon Carol, he assured me. A friend of hers came by an hour ago and she had slipped out. 

Trying not to look too startled, because Christopher was quite under the weather, I offered to drive.

“No need at all,” he replied, ensconcing himself in the driver’s seat. “I can drive this route in my sleep.”  

Although I had been repeatedly impressed with how fluent and coherent he had appeared after several drinks both this night and on previous occasions—including two interviews that I conducted with him (one on film, for an educational documentary on Orwell)—this was different. I was not about to get into a car with an inebriated Hitch at the wheel at 4 a.m.  

Or so I had thought.

“Don’t make a scene,” he chastised me, as I stood outside and asked for the keys. “It’s only a couple of miles.”

Finally, exhausted, I relented.  

Miraculously, we rode slowly through the night, without incident, without even a single headlight coming at us. The car rolled gently up his driveway, clicking to a neat halt just inches from his garage door. Christopher switched off the ignition, opened his door, and swung himself leftward to step out of the car.  

He promptly tumbled onto his driveway, and I rushed to the driver’s side and helped him stagger to the front door.

Had we been protected by a medallion of St. Christopher—traditionally the patron saint of travelers (including Irish Catholic motorists, who used to keep “Christopher statues” on the dashboard)—squirreled away in the glove compartment?   

I will never know.  

No matter. Christopher, as you turn 75, I raise a glass to you! 

Hope you are thriving!