Christopher Hitchens, the maverick essayist, unabashed atheist and cable television gladiator whose long list of targets included Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and even Mother Teresa and organized religion, has died from pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer. He was 62.
Hitchens died Thursday at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, according to a statement released by Vanity Fair late Thursday night.
"There will never be another like Christopher. A man of ferocious intellect, who was as vibrant on the page as he was at the bar," Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said in the statement. "Those who read him felt they knew him, and those who knew him were profoundly fortunate souls."
Born in Britain April 13, 1949, and educated at Oxford, Hitchens authored more than a dozen books. He achieved his greatest notoriety with the 2007 best-seller "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," in which he dismissed faith as wish fulfillment and religion as "the main source of hatred in the world."
With its publication, Hitchens became the public face of atheism. Critics assumed his cancer diagnosis, in 2010, would lead Hitchens to relent and embrace God. But he remained a proud non-believer to the very end, as he made clear in an early October 2011 speech at the annual Atheist Alliance of America convention in Houston, as he accepted the Freethinker of the Year Award.
His body gaunt from the ravages of cancer, Hitchens said, "We have the same job we always had: to say that there are no final solutions; there is no absolute truth; there is no supreme leader; there is no totalitarian solution that says if you would just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you would just give up, if you would simply abandon your critical faculties, the world of idiotic bliss can be yours."
Hitchens' career followed a remarkable arc. As a young man, Hitchens was a Trotskyite who sold "The Socialist Worker" on London street corners. By 2003, he had become such a supporter for invading Iraq, critics considered him a neoconservative. More recently, he wrote that he voted for Barack Obama, but had no regrets that George W. Bush won the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Through it all, Hitchens never shied from a fight. He called Kissinger a "war criminal" and Clinton a "psychopath." Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a "Kennedy suck-up." And he said George W. Bush's ascension to the White House proved "anyone can be president."
Hitchens took aim at a saintly target with the provocatively titled paperback, "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice." To Hitchens, the acclaimed charity worker was "a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud" who was more interested in furthering Catholic doctrine than tending to the poor. One reviewer called it "a cruise missile of a book."
Critics labeled him a "professional controversialist," even a "performance artist." Former allies on the left were especially outspoken. Liberal writer Alexander Cockburn once posted on his website an attack on Hitchens under the headline, "Letter to a Lying, Self-Serving, Fat-Assed, Chain-Smoking, Drunken, Opportunistic, Cynical Contrarian."
"You'd think I'd driven over their pets and abducted their daughters," Hitchens told The New Yorker in 2006.
He denied that he had shifted to the right; he characterized his world view as "post ideological."
"I'm a member of no party. I have no ideology. I'm a rationalist," he told USA Today in 2010. "I do what I can in the international struggle between science and reason, and the barbarism, superstition and stupidity that's all around us."
Hitchens' career as a journalist and author took him to 60 countries and many war zones, from Bosnia to Beirut. A gifted speaker, he cemented his status as a public intellectual by debating his views around the U.S. with proponents of contrary positions.
Hitchens first gained notice in the early 1970s in London as a writer for "The New Statesman," a left-wing magazine. Tragedy struck in 1973, after his parents separated and his mother overdosed on sleeping pills in an apparent suicide pact with her lover.
He moved to New York and settled in Washington, writing for the liberal weekly The Nation. But he broke with the left in 1989, when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, claiming his novel "The Satanic Verses" defamed Islam. In what would be a recurring theme in his work, Hitchens argued that liberals did not see radical Islam as a threat.
By the late 1990s, Hitchens had become omnipresent on cable-news shows dispensing incendiary opinions about the Clintons. His take on the 42nd president would be neatly summarized in the title of his fifth book, "No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton."
His distaste of all things Clinton led to an infamous split with writer Sidney Blumenthal, a friend who went to work in the Clinton White House. Hitchens signed an affidavit for House investigators claiming that over a lunch, Blumenthal tried to smear White House intern Monica Lewinsky as a Clinton stalker -- this after Blumenthal testified he did no such thing.
Hitchens denounced the Sept. 11 attacks as "fascism with an Islamic face" -- a forerunner of the phrase "Islamo-fascism," embraced by many on the right today. He then infuriated liberals by quitting The Nation with a scorched-Earth flourish, saying it had become "the echo chamber of those who truly believe that [Attorney General] John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden."
He cemented his political metamorphosis by backing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a position he held even as support for the war among Americans dwindled.
"A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial," Hitchens wrote on Slate on the fifth anniversary of the invasion. "The Kurdish and Shiite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide. A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was ... dismantled."
For all the anger he incurred, Hitchens had a large following. He had at least three independent fan sites on the Internet, including dailyhitchens.com and hitchenszone.com.
He was married twice, had three children and became an American citizen in 2007. He also was a fierce smoker and his fondness for drink was legendary -- "one of the few remaining practitioners of the five-hour, two-bottle lunch," is how The Guardian once put it.
There was much speculation on whether Hitchens was an alcoholic, but he always boasted he never missed a deadline. Friends marveled at how he could pen a flawless, 1,000-word article in breakneck time even after downing drink after drink. So it was big news when Hitchens revealed that his cancer treatments had forced him to finally give up alcohol.
Hitchens' received his cancer diagnosis -- stage 4 esophageal cancer -- in June 2010 as he was embarking on a national tour promoting his memoir, "Hitch-22."
Still, Hitchens pressed ahead. He continued to write -- for Slate, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, where he had been a contributing editor since 1992. In 2011, he published a new book, "Arguably," a collection of essays. He spoke and wrote movingly about the approaching end of his life.
"My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist," he wrote in "Vanity Fair."
Hitchens' antipathy toward religion did not wane even when an evangelical Christian physician assumed a leading role in his care. Hitchens and Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and the author of "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," had become friends when the two debated each other in public about the existence of God.
Collins used DNA mapping to find a drug that targeted the genetic mutation involved in Hitchens' cancer.
"It is a rather wonderful relationship," Hitchens told The Telegraph of London. "I won't say he doesn't pray for me, because I think he probably does; but he doesn't discuss it with me."
Hitchens added, "He agrees that his medical experience does not include anything that could be described as a miracle cure."
He acknowledged, though, that cancer posed a unique challenge for someone who publicly held religion in such disregard.
"An enormous number of secular and atheist friends have told me encouraging and flattering things like: 'If anyone can beat this, you can'; 'Cancer has no chance against someone like you'; 'We know you can vanquish this.' On bad days, and even on better ones, such exhortations can have a vaguely depressing effect," he wrote in "Vanity Fair."
"If I check out, I'll be letting all these comrades down," he added. "A different secular problem also occurs to me: What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating."