Christopher Hitchens, the celebrated British intellectual, revealed Wednesday that he has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Hitchens has dedicated an impressive portion of his waking life to liquor and smokes, and it appears the vices have caught up to him at 61. Three years ago, he'd told me he was seeing it coming.
After reading the news on the author's home turf at Vanity Fair, I resolved to tell the story of our day together on Halloween in 2007. Scotch, I reasoned, was appropriate for the occasion, so I left my Brooklyn apartment for Myrtle Avenue and the nearest bar. After scrawling some notes over a couple glasses of Johnnie Walker Black—Hitchens' drink of choice—I returned home to write and instead succumbed to drunken slumber.
Hitchens would have disapproved. "There was a time when I could reckon to outperform all but the most hardened imbibers, but I now drink relatively carefully," he wrote in his recently published memoir. "This ought to be obvious by induction: on average I produce at least a thousand words of printable copy every day, and sometimes more." But he was all cheer the day I picked him up at a forgotten midday hour from his Radisson Hotel in Des Moines.
He greeted me warmly and Christina, my friend on the World Affairs lectures committee at Iowa State, more warmly. He'd studied the brochures in the lobby, he told us, and had his eye on two attractions: the Capitol building and the Iowa State Fair's famous butter cow sculpture. As his chauffeur, I was entrusted with showing him to both.
En route to the Capitol, Hitchens spoke at considerable length of the hospitality of Iowans, although he had stepped foot in the state for the first time just the night before. He repeated his praises again later at the lecture, saying, "I don't remember ever to have been to a state of this union—and I've now been to 44 of them—where everyone put themselves out so much, and so generously, and so warmly." It was a far cry from what many of my friends thought I'd encounter: the belligerent and word-slurring (yet still always sharp-witted) lush from cable television he was not.
At the Capitol grounds, Hitchens delighted in the Civil War monuments and approvingly deemed Iowa a good and patriotic Union state. He had received his U.S. citizenship on his birthday in April and was proudly full of anecdotes about our nation's history. We entered the Capitol so Hitchens could see the underside of the golden dome and further reflect on his allegiance to the country, then left for the State Fairgrounds. The butter cow, of course, was nowhere to be seen because it was October.
Back in Ames there was time yet to spare before dinner, and Christina led Hitchens on a tour of the Iowa State campus while the three of us chatted. Hitchens had come to talk about his latest work, God Is Not Great, but we steered clear of religion for most of the day until something sparked a discussion between Christina, whose father was a Baptist minister, and Hitchens over the veracity of the claims of Christ's existence.
Before that, I was picking the author's brain on topics of more pressing personal importance. He'd had a successful go at quitting cigarettes (although it since proved temporary), and I asked him for advice on how I ought to give up my habit.
"You know how people enjoy a cigarette after sex?" he replied. "Well, you know you have a problem when you're enjoying one during sex."
"At least you've quit now," I said with a grin.
"I've waited too long for that to matter, I'm afraid."
Here's hoping that isn't the case. It may come down to how early his doctor caught the problem: the prognosis for esophageal cancer is excellent upon early detection but otherwise quite grim. Hitchens' zeal for a good fight may benefit him now more than ever. On that note, I end with a proposal: if you find yourself at a pub this weekend, share a toast to Christopher Hitchens' good fortunes with a round of Johnnie Walker—just not so much to render yourself incapable of writing about it later.