Christopher Hitchens' Unusual And Radical Life

Essayist Christopher Hitchens has led a colorful life, from the tragic death of his mother, his days at Oxford and an infamous encounter with Margaret Thatcher. Host Scott Simon talks to Hitchens about his new memoir, Hitch 22.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

A lot of profiles have appeared about Christopher Hitchens this week. A lot of the profilers note all of the most irresistible contradictions. He's been a socialist who found Margaret Thatcher sexy; defender of the war in Iraq; among leftists a supporter of gay rights; among rightists an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism. And he is perhaps the most consistently entertaining and original essayist now writing in English - though I haven't read the Danish ones.

Christopher Hitchens has written a memoir, "Hitch 22." We're pleased to join him at this apartment home in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for letting us be here.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Author, "Hitch 22"): Oh, make yourselves at home.

SIMON: Can I get you to talk about your parents first?

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes.

SIMON: Military man and...

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. My father was, as you say, a lifelong Navy man, so I had this rather morose Tory in my background who was hit off brilliantly, by contrast, by my mother, who I always called Yvonne. And I call her Yvonne in my chapter, because it's a stylish name and because she was a stylish girl.

And her story's a tragic one and it ended tragically, in that having waited I think rather too long, because divorce and separation were extremely frowned upon in that set in those days. She did take up with another man after my brother and I had grown up, and it didn't quite work out. In fact, it didn't work out at all. And they made a decision to put an end to their lives and committed suicide together in Athens.

I think I had a chance to save her and failed to grasp it. She tried to call me from Athens and failed. Though I might have just missed the call by a few minutes, I don't know. But I've always been certain that if she'd heard my voice, she wouldn't have done it. So I've been trying to write my way out of that ever since.

SIMON: You grew up not knowing about your religious identity, your ethnicity.

Mr. HITCHENS: I always knew there was some kind of unspoken family secret but I didn't guess what it was. But yes, my mother came from a Jewish family originating in Poland and didn't want to be, and didn't look as if she was. She could pass. So I didn't really find out until my father was dying many years later and it's after my mother - and my grandmother, my mother's mother, had outlived them both. And she decided to break the secret to my brother and myself. I was about to be 40.

SIMON: Let me ask you about your days at Oxford and as a student socialist leader. Were you a good socialist?

Mr. HITCHENS: Yeah, I was a very dedicated one. And it was a very exciting time to be in that position because I went to Oxford the end of '67, and so I was there just as the crest of '68 broke.

SIMON: When you were at Oxford, you kind of knew Bill Clinton.

Mr. HITCHENS: I knew the American Rhodes scholars. I don't remember socializing with Clinton at all. I'm told I was in the room on the evening he famously didn't inhale, because young Mr. Clinton is allergic to smoke and doesn't inhale, never has, but he did sure like big brownies and cookies, and I'm told you can get leaf into that stuff. Mainline it that way.

We weren't - we on the hard left despised drugs. We thought that was completely counter-revolutionary and contemptible. It was like religion or something. I mean, you just didn't go for false consolation of that sort.

SIMON: Why did Margaret Thatcher spank you?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I think it was because she had read my article in The New Statesmen, the then-socialist opposition magazine in London, in which I had said - contrary to the prevailing view at the time, which was that she was a frumpish suburban housewife of no talent, that I thought she had a great future, and that among other things I thought she had some kind of charisma which was highly sexual.

Anyway, she seemed to know who I was when we were introduced, and became rather flirtatious. And then we got into a fight, picked by me, about Zimbabwe, where as it happens I was right and she was wrong, but never mind. I sort of bowed to acknowledge her point. And then she said - I can still hear it - she said: No, bow lower.

So all volition deserting me, I did bow lower, and then straightened up again. She said: No, no, much lower. So again, I found myself sort of bending right forward. There were witnesses to this, as I say in the book. And all the while she'd been rolling up a parliamentary audit paper. The event - the party where we met was in the House of Lords - and stepped (unintelligible) smacked me right across my bottom.

And then, as I regain the vertical, with some difficulty, she walked away, rolling her hip - I swear it - and looked over her shoulder and said: Naughty boy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HITCHENS: And I trudged back across Westminster Bridge to my little dump of an apartment in North London, thinking this woman has definitely got something and it's amazing how people don't see it.

SIMON: Used to be a saying among the left: Death to the fascist insect who preys upon the lifeblood of the people.

Mr. HITCHENS: Indeed.

SIMON: And you not only met the fascist insect but you booked him on a talk show once, didn't you?

Mr. HITCHENS: I discovered while I was working, which I briefly did, mistakenly did, in TV journalism, that Sir Oswald Mosley was in London, his home being Paris. He hadn't lived in England since the end of the war, during which he'd been imprisoned, because during the 1930s he'd been the leader of a group called the British Union of Fascists, and that's called the Black Shirts.

He had Goebbels as best man at his wedding and Hitler as a witness, which I would say is quite extreme. Anyway, the old brute was in town. And I thought we ought really to try and grab him for an interview, and he agreed. So I've shaken the hand of someone who'd shaken Adolph Hitler's hand. And he was very affable off the air, told me some interesting things about the '30s.

As soon as the camera light went on, he absolutely stiffened like an old buzzard and delivered this racist tirade. And I thought, ah, thats interesting. Thats how he managed in the '30s to charm people in the upper crust who never saw this thuggish style that he was doing down in the East End of London.

SIMON: Did you learn anything from that encounter about the way people divide their personality sometimes? Did you discover that you were capable of - I dont want to say duality - but operating in...

Mr. HITCHENS: Oh, indeed. Yes.

SIMON: ...different personalities.

Mr. HITCHENS: I mean I thought of, at one point, entitling the book "Both Sides Now," to describe the various ambivalences and contradictions that I've been faced with, or that I contained: English and American, Anglo-Celtic and Jewish, Marxist and - what shall we say - I've been accused of being this, accused of being a neoconservative and not always thought of it as an insult; internationalist but in a way patriotic; a little bit gay when I was younger, it's not a huge thing, but there's a bit of gay and straight in there as well. I thought I'd better be honest about that.

SIMON: I made a short list of some of the people you openly admire in the book: Jacobo Timerman, Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag...

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes.

SIMON: What qualities do you think they share?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, all of them have both moral - all three of those have moral and physical courage. And also, all three of them are very good writers. Jacobo Timerman's book - in case your listeners dont know, he was a Jewish journalist and editor in Argentina who was illegally and secretly imprisoned, and wrote a memoir of his torture called "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number." I was very proud to be a friend.

Salman Rushdie, I suppose I dont have to explain that to anyone. And with Susan, I was in Bosnia with her at one point and saw her being really remarkably brave, over a long period too, not just a one-off moment. And she was steadily courageous, which is the thing one has to admire.

So these are the sort of people one is fortunate to have met, I think.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you drink as much as people think you do?

Mr. HITCHENS: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HITCHENS: But as I say: Keep bringing the tributes around. What time is it, by the way?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HITCHENS: It must be getting on for noon.

SIMON: Is there - now that youve completed a memoir of your life, now that it's out there published, do you see that as a marker in your life: before the memoir, after? Do you wonder about being defined about that memoir now?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I can say that when I was asked to write it first, I wasnt completely sure I wanted to. But then I became 60, which was more of a serious moment than I had expected it was going to be. And then I happened to have the chance to read about my own death around that time, because of a mistake in a catalog in the National Portrait Gallery in London, which had a picture of me in it but referred to me as the late Christopher Hitchens.

And I can tell you something: Nothing concentrates the mind more than reading about yourself in the past tense. Leopold Bloom in "Ulysses" says you should read your death notices, gives you a new lease on life. And I thought, okay, I think I can - Im getting into the frame of mind where the usual objection, which is isnt it a bit soon, will fall to the obvious objection - well, you can't leave till it's too late. So I didnt want to be memoir-less.

But no, Im hoping that it's only a bump on the road of my evolution into a higher mammal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HITCHENS: Or primate.

SIMON: Well, Christopher, thanks so much.

Mr. HITCHENS: Oh, please. It's an honor.

SIMON: Christopher Hitchens, his new memoir: "Hitch 22."

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