WASHINGTON — The coffee is strong, the wine a dry red poured from a tall, swanlike beaker. On a sunny afternoon at his apartment near Dupont Circle, Christopher Hitchens holds up a Marlboro Light between cigar-shaped fingers and discusses the hitch of writing his memoir, "Hitch-22."
"I found it fantastically difficult," he says. "Normally, when I'm writing, I'm making an argument, making a case. Also, when I'm writing, I'm trying to see how much I can pack into 5,000 words about a subject. But here's a subject I know too much about."
The equally polished and varnished British author, essayist and columnist enjoyed surprising commercial success three years ago with "God Is Not Great," a direct attack on religion that countered a recent trend of spiritual works. After more than a dozen previous books, it was a sign that readers engaged by Hitchens' opinions about others might want to learn his views of himself.
Urged by his then-publisher, Jonathan Karp of Twelve, Hitchens submitted some sample chapters, was asked to continue and turned in a manuscript twice as long as requested and as eventually released. The finished book is a "highly selective" and dry-eyed 400-page account that includes reflections on sex (he's for it), class, his "purse-lipped and silent" military father Eric, and tragically romantic mother, Yvonne, who killed herself during an extramarital rendezvous in Greece.
"It was painful to write about my mother, but not very because long ago I internally managed all that," he says. "I even went back to Greece and I went to the graveyard while I was writing the book and decided not to write about it. I thought that would be sentimental."
The 61-year-old Hitchens is seated at a small, wooden table in the dining area, his gray-sandy colored hair brushed back and semi-combed, blue shirt unbuttoned just enough for comfort, his voice a handsome baritone which has been likened to Richard Burton's. Renovations are planned, so much of the furniture around the apartment has been put away, except for the books, as indispensable as running water, arranged on built-in-shelves and stacked in towers like CDs. A visitor might note a full set of P.G. Wodehouse, and a row of titles by a special Hitchens hero, George Orwell. Evidence of a free-ranging mind: A copy of Isadora Duncan's memoir stands just one shelf below the "Saddam Hussein Reader."
The "Fighting Words" columnist for Slate Magazine and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Hitchens is a proud trespasser of boundaries between left and right. He was an opponent of the Vietnam War and backer of the Iraq war, a supporter of Palestinian rights and intervention in Iran, an admirer of George Orwell who voted for George W. Bush, and perhaps the only man with respectful words for both Karl Marx and Karl Rove.
"One of the things about Christopher is that you can have things out with him, and all of us who love Christopher have disagreed with him," says Salman Rushdie, a longtime friend. "He's one of the funniest people you can meet. It's difficult not to hit it off with him, unless he chooses to attack you, in which case it's impossible to hit it off with him."
In Hitchens' memoir, conflict awaits even in the blurbs. Beneath friendly words from Ian McEwan, Christopher Buckley and others is a compliment from Gore Vidal: "I have been asked whether I wish to nominate a successor, an inheritor, a dauphin or delfino. I have decided to name Christopher Hitchens."
But Hitchens and Vidal are now estranged, in part over Vidal's assertion that the Bush administration was likely complicit in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. So the "dauphin" quote, which dates back several years, is crossed out, with a scrawl on the side that reads, "No, CH."
"The devil made me do it," Hitchens said with a laugh.
Vidal, in an interview from his home in Los Angeles, said their feud was "all his doing, not mine." He denied ever deeming Hitchens his literary heir and called him an "opportunist who'll grab anything to get his name on Page Six of the New York Post.
"He couldn't get in without me," Vidal said.
As written in "Hitch-22," Christopher Eric Hitchens drew his "first squalling breath" in Portsmouth, England, in 1949. He learned early the power and the muscle of words; he deflated a schoolyard attacker by calling him a "a liar, a bully, a coward and a thief." He loved books so much he brought them to church and read them during the sermons. Seemingly born to differ, he recalled "no particular sense of loss" at the assassination of President Kennedy, whom Hitchens regarded as a "high-risk narcissist."
Fate withheld the gift for writing novels (the omen, says Hitchens: no musical talent). But he has long been part of the club of British letters, close to authors McEwan, Martin Amis and James Fenton. Their bond, Hitchens says, is "a similar sense of humor, finding the same things funny, also finding the same things revolting or depressing, things like superstition, and racism."
A picture in "Hitch-22" shows Hitchens, Rushdie and others gathered during the time Rushdie was in hiding after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 called for Rushdie's death because of the alleged blasphemy of "The Satanic Verses." For Hitchens, the fatwa embodied everything he hated ("fanaticism, blood lust, certainty, fierce hatred of sex, hatred of literature") and what he loved ("cultural pluralism, sexual liberation, separation of church and state, irony").
"I think that it (the fatwa) was very important to Christopher in his thinking and in his politics," Rushdie says. "And so he became very exorcised and therefore very available to me during that time. It certainly brought us much closer together."
"It was also a very important date for him, 1989, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union," Amis says. "It was tremendously liberating for him. It freed him of ideology."
To nods and applause from the left, Hitchens has called Henry Kissinger a war criminal and advocated for his prosecution. He despises Mother Teresa ("a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud") and such Christian right leaders as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, calling them "tethered gas-balloons of greed and cynicism." Upon the death of Alexander Haig, the former Nixon aide and secretary of state under President Reagan, Hitchens characterized him as a "neurotic narcissist" with "a manically authoritarian personality."
But Hitchens never answered to one crowd. As he writes in "Hitch-22," he was in trouble with the left as far back as 1968, when as a young radical on a visit to Cuba he confronted a filmmaker about the limits of artistic expression under the Castro regime and was branded a "counter-revolutionary."
"You do not forget, even if you come from a free and humorous society the first time that you are with unsmiling seriousness called a `counter-revolutionary' to your face," Hitchens writes in his memoir.
He has doubts about abortion rights ("I believe the concept `unborn child' is a `real concept,'" he once said) and wrote a piece in Vanity Fair titled, no joke, "Why Women Aren't Funny." Once on good enough terms with the Clintons to help arrange a White House visit for Rushdie, he came to believe that Bill Clinton was a "habitual and professional liar," supported the president's impeachment over his affair with Monica Lewinsky and wrote the anti-Clinton book "No One Left To Lie To." Although independent politically, he registered as a Democrat in 2008 just so he could vote against Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries.
"I used to find him delightful; nobody was more fun to sit with and have a few drinks and listen to," says Joe Conason, a liberal author, columnist and Clinton supporter. "But he's such a fanatic about Clinton. I would go on television and say what I had to say, that scandal mongering about Clinton was out of control and mostly false and Christopher would come on and defend and amplify every rumor and innuendo and often in a vicious and personal way. I came to find him repugnant and wrong."
Hitchens real turn began with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He initially feared an overreaction among conservatives, "an orgiastic flag-waving unanimity," and instead came to despise the response of the left, the suggestion that Americans deserved the attacks because of sins committed abroad, or the theories – urged by Vidal among others – that the Bush administration itself was behind them.
The camel's back broke at the Telluride Film Festival in the fall of 2002. Michael Moore, set to release his antigun documentary "Bowling for Columbine," was interviewed on stage by Hitchens in front of a seemingly like-minded audience. Few minds, however, are like Hitchens'. They discussed the war in Afghanistan, opposed by Moore, supported by Hitchens. When Moore expressed doubts that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks, Hitchens asked Moore if he considered bin Laden's guilt an "open question."
Moore answered: "Until anyone is convicted of any crime, no matter how horrific the crime, they are innocent until proven guilty."
"And the whole audience roared into applause," recalls Hitchens, who soon quit his longtime position as a columnist for the liberal weekly The Nation. "That was the moment I thought, `I'm out of here. I'm not part of this crowd.'"
His politics could be called neo-Wilsonion, the advocating of liberal humanism and the willingness to go to war for it, in Iraq and elsewhere. His creed, if any, is atheism. In his memoir, Hitchens accepts the honor of being associated with such prominent nonbelievers as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, warriors against "the literally lethal challenge" from those of "absolute certainty" and prodders of those "hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible."
"The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time," he writes. "To be an unbeliever is not merely to be `open-minded.' It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well in politics.
"But that's my `Hitch-22.'"