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My Dinner (and Drinks) with Christopher
(Hitchens that is)

by Michael Shermer, Jul 20 2010

HITCH 22 (book cover)

The conjunction of reading Christopher Hitchens’ new memoir, Hitch 22, and the news of his treatment for esophageal cancer, reminded me that I should share my (admittedly limited) experiences of dining (and drinking) with one of the greatest literary masters and creative thinkers of our age.

First, I’m half way through listening to the unabridged audio book of Hitch 22, which I wholeheartedly recommend because Christopher reads it himself in that inimitable classically-educated British accent with his style of flowing quiet narrative punctuated with occasional bursts of accented emphasis. In other words, Hitchens sort of mumbles modestly along, then suddenly his voice rises into crystal clarity when he wants you to get the point hard and fast. Hitch 22 is a literary masterpiece, an absolute joy to listen to. I’ll leave it to his literary/politico peers to critique the ideas within (see, for example, the latest issue of The New York Review of Books with Ian Buruma’s review, as well as David Horowitz’s insightful analysis of Hitchens’ evolving political beliefs.

Although I’m a self-professed libertarian (fiscally conservative and socially liberal), I’m really not much of a politico or social commentator, especially when it comes to foreign affairs, about which I am woefully ignorant compared to Hitchens’ vast database he has accumulated throughout his many travels abroad. So I’m just enjoying the ride listening to Christopher’s many amusing stories. (One funny anecdote is when Hitchens explained that in an early writing job for a publication, his editor said something to him that, as he explained it, made it simply impossible for him to continue employment there. It turned out that the editor told him “you’re fired.”)

My intersection with Hitchens is through our mutual concern about the influence of religion on science. Hitchens, of course, has many other worries about the effects of religious beliefs on political, economic, and social conditions around the world (particularly the Middle East), but he was kind and generous enough to provide a back-jacket blurb for my book, Why Darwin Matters ($10 hardcovers at Shop Skeptic), and noted in his letter to me that contained said blurb that he had found a couple of minor errors in the book, adding parenthetically (in case I missed it) that this meant that he did, indeed, actually read the book. (In the book publishing business it is common practice for authors who are friends and colleagues to blurb each other’s books, and sometimes I suspect this means that the blurb was generated based on a cursory scan of the manuscript. To his credit and energy—considering how many blurb requests he must receive—Christopher really did read the entire manuscript.

I first met Christopher in Hollywood in 1997 at a preview showing of the film FairyTale: A True Story, starring Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini and Peter O’Toole as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which recounted the story of the two giants’ intersection over the fake fairy photographs that Doyle fell for and Houdini did not. Hitch and I had dinner (well lubricated with adult beverages) before the preview, and although I was a bit distressed at the ending of the film that implied that fairies may actually be real (after showing that Doyle was duped), I rather enjoyed the film. Christopher’s review in Vanity Fair, which included a thoughtful and much appreciated endorsement of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, was much deeper and more insightful than anything I thought of during the viewing. Even though I’m a professional skeptic, for some reason when I watch a film I willing suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the process, and this sometimes interferes with my critical thought processes.

A decade later, in 2007, as I was meandering through the sensory overloaded Las Vegas airport on my way to The Amazing Meeting 5 and Freedom Fest, both conferences at which Hitchens and I were speaking, we encountered each other in search of our respective limo drivers, so we ended up sharing a ride to the hotel. Checking in early (it was around 11:00 am) our rooms were not yet ready, so Hitch suggested that we put the time to good use at the bar. Before. Noon. So there we were, my nursing a Corona with lime for as long as I could socially get away with it while Hitchens ordered a Johnny Walker Black, a red wine, and a bottle of water to mix with JWB in what appeared to be a well-choreographed routine. A couple of rounds later Hitch seemed completely unfazed, while my empty-stomach imbibing on that single beer left me feeling less than adequate to keep up with the conversation. (Hey, when you drink with a professional come prepared. I didn’t have the training miles I’m afraid.) When the bill came I had the singular honor of buying Christopher Hitchens’ drinks because (1) his wallet was in his baggage with the bellman, and (2) the room keys were not yet activated to put it on his room. I didn’t mind a bit—blurb reciprocity and all that, you know.

After hammering down two rounds of the Hitch Mix, Christopher was nearly (but not quite) ready for his noon-time luncheon speech, so he ordered a third round to go. At the podium where Hitch stood, before him were a glass of whiskey, a red wine, and a bottle of water. (Just as we cyclists always ride with water bottles filled with fluid replacement drinks, Christopher apparently never speaks without his Hitch Mix to top off his energy needs.) I can’t for the life of me remember what his speech was about (politics I’m sure) but I recall that Hitchens was extemporaneous, clever, and worldly.

That night the host of Freedom Fest, Mark Skousen, invited Christopher and myself to join a group of Big Thinkers at an exclusive (and quite expensive I’m sure) dinner at one of the posher restaurants in Las Vegas (no prices on the menu is all you need to know). Even though everyone at the table was someone of some import and standing, it was clear throughout the evening that Hitch was Sol and we were his orbiting planets gathering up the warmth of his verbal rays. He told stories—lots and lots of stories—about his travels, his encounters with names we would all surely know, and especially about his ideological battles with this and that ideologue. Other people’s comments were, for the most part, stimulants for another Hitch story. I can see why some people might find that this rubs them the wrong way, but for some reason—at least for me—that was how it should have been. If you invite Christopher Hitchens to your dinner, expect to be entertained, and the more the waiter poured expensive wine, the more histrionic Hitchens became, until four hours and who-knows-how-many-drinks later I detected a slight slowing of his verbal and cognitive skills…so there are limits after all.

The next time I saw Hitch was at a party in Washington D.C., when I was touring for the release of my book, The Mind of the Market ($8.95 hardcovers at Shop Skeptic). Reason magazine kindly arranged for a book party at a bar and restaurant that was so crowded and so loud that it was physically uncomfortable. After an obligatory drink and a few stories to entertain the troops, Hitchens leaned in and said “Michael, why don’t we retire to a restaurant down the street where they know me?” Exiting the cacophony, we walked a few blocks to what turned out to be one of Hitches’s regular haunts. “The usual place, Mr. Hitchens?” the maitre’d inquired. We were escorted to a quite corner of the restaurant, where Hitch positioned himself to be able to scan the room, and soon we were joined by his wife and an occasional passerby who recognized him and dropped in for a story (and drink) or two.

Shortly after the waiter took our drink orders (“the usual?” was all Hitch needed to hear, to which he nodded affirmatively), the Hitch Mix was on the table, followed by a fabulous dinner and, of course, lots of stories, none of which were repeated from my previous dinner (at least that I could remember—I too imbibed). After a couple hours at the restaurant, Hitch invited me to his home not far from the restaurant, where I was treated to a visual delight: mountains of books, oceans of books, a sea of books—pick your geographical metaphor. As the recipient myself of bound galleys and newly published volumes sent to Skeptic magazine for review, I know how quickly a mass accumulates on my desk that then migrates to the floor and eventually peaks above the desk again. But these are just science books. As a literary polymath Hitch receives books for review from virtually every category in the Dewey Decimal System. And he actually seems to read the books he reviews.

But the library is not where we adjourned for the evening. It wasn’t long before I found myself at a rectangular table in the dining room chockablock full of whiskey bottles from around the world. I’m not a whiskey connoisseur so I couldn’t tell you the brand names, but even a teetotaler like me could tell from the labels and bottle designs that here was a collection of the very best whiskeys that money can buy from all over the world, and I suspect that Hitch didn’t have to buy many of them, since such gifts seem to naturally flow his way. So I sampled and sipped and sauced my way into a late-night bliss that I paid for dearly the next day. I think I had an interview for an early morning television show, but I honestly don’t remember because I barely recall even having a next day.

Was it worth it? I once had an opportunity to ride my bike 50 miles on a fundraising event next to the great Belgian champion Eddy Merckx, considered the greatest cyclist of all time. I was so nervous about crashing and taking him down that I just concentrated on the bumper in front of us that we were drafting behind at 30 miles per hour. But just the experience of riding side by side with one of the greatest athletes to ever grace the planet was enough for me. That’s how I felt drinking and dining and delighting in the presence of Christopher Hitchens.

32 Responses to “My Dinner (and Drinks) with Christopher
(Hitchens that is)”

  1. Christopher Hitchens needs to be required reading for college freshmen. He is one of those rare individuals who’s process of critical thought is so staggering that is scarcely matters what conclusion he draws. I remember a jazz theory class in which we went note by note through Miles Davis’ solo on Freddie Freeloader, one could easily imagine a sentence for sentence work-shopping of God Is Not Great in a “theory of Critical Thought” class.

    • Uranium235 says:

      He needs to be required high school reading. He’s one of the few people who make intelligence look cool, an important quality among teenagers who think of sophistication as consisting of dull discussions about Jane Austen.

      • SkyChazz says:

        How ’bout MIDDLE school? That’s when many, if not most, kids start trying to puzzle the world out in earnest. I would have benefited greatly from Hitchens in middle school. Instead, I had to make do with Bertrand Russel, Marcus Aurelius, etc. ;-) I have since added Hitchens to my “great books” library with pride.

      • JGB says:

        OTOH: If you toss someone into the deep end before they’re ready it is more likely to make them afraid of water than to teach them how to swim.

        For this reason I say “no” to Hitchens as *required* reading but make sure his books are found in every library.

      • Marella says:

        ‘God is Not Great’ is hardly the deep end for an intelligent middle schooler IMO. Neither is ‘Hell’s Angel’ a difficult read.

  2. Max says:

    Esophageal cancer risk factors include smoking and heavy drinking. The prognosis is usually poor.

    • Patrick says:

      And speaking of smoking, it looks like smokeless tobacco products like snus are three times more effective at stopping a person from smoking than nicotine gum… thus anti smoking advocates who oppose smokeless alternatives are probably killing more people than they save by banning alternatives (Remember the opportunity cost lessons!)

      That said, I need to add Christopher Hitchens to my (now very lengthy) reading list.

  3. Petrucio says:

    “Individualized prognosis depends largely on stage. Those with cancer restricted entirely to the esophageal mucosa have about an 80% 5YSR, but submucosal involvement brings this down to less than 50%. Extension into the muscularis propria (muscular layer of the esophageus) has meant a 20% 5YSR and extension to the structures adjacent to the esophagus results in a 7% 5YSR. Patients with distant metastases (who are not candidates for curative surgery) have a less than 3% 5YSR.”

    My father had Esophageal cancer 2 years ago and after curative surgery is alive and well today, and prognosis for 5YS is great.

    Good luck to Hitchens.

    • Marella says:

      It seems to me that if the cancer is operable your chances are not too bad but if not then the outlook is poor. Christopher has had chemotherapy not surgery, I fear this is a bad sign.

      • MadScientist says:

        Was it only chemo? Usually it’s both; a section of the esophagus is cut out and then the patient gets chemo. It must be a horrible operation; the esophagus doesn’t wander much on its way to the stomach so shortening it will have other consequences.

  4. Larry Shultz says:

    Thank you Michael. I just read your entire article (and as you, I too am a survivor of rigid c of c conditioning) with a definite feeling of gratitude. Since I will (quite likely) never have the opportunity of conversing with Sir Hitchens, this reading will pleasantly suffice.

  5. Michael –
    Wonderful piece – it is great for an admirer of you and Hitch to read such a candid piece. I reviewed “Hitch-22″ in my blog a couple of months ago – and I also sorely lack the background knowledge of world politcs that Christopher Hitchens has – but he has been a great teacher for me on many fronts. I am going to take your advice and also give the book a listen.

    Take care,
    Mike Saporito

  6. Ron says:

    I hope and expect to be reading new pieces from Hitchens for many years to come.

  7. Gladys says:

    I first heard him at an Amazing Meeting and was enchanted by him from the start…a captivating speaker, offensively irreverent,and haughtily brilliant.

  8. NRG says:

    Thought you might appreciate some comments more connected to the article… ;)

    I agree about his speaking style – I greatly enjoy watching him in interviews and debates on You Tube. I haven’t heard anyone that holds a candle (still burning) to him. Even Rabbi Wolpe, voted Best Pulpit Rabbi, doesn’t do it. Hitchens speaks without speeching. He should be required listening for rhetoric and debate classes, too.

    Even professional skeptics like yourself deserve to let go and enjoy a film sometimes!

    I think that you would have been happy to pay the tab even without the blurb reciprocity factor. Very nice image of Sol warming his orbiting planets, and the bicycle ride.

    You seem to glamorize his drinking tendencies, which have contributed greatly to his current ill health (along with the smoking). But maybe, in his case, it is just another good story to tell. Hitch Mix – I always thought that you weren’t supposed to mix wine and hard liquor. But maybe that’s just for us amateurs.

    I notice that you alternate between calling him Christopher, Hitchens, Christopher Hitchens and just Hitch (not to mention the waiter’s “Mr. Hitchens”). Does he have a preference for general admirers like myself? Is he offended by Hitch (just because it’s part of his new book title, doesn’t mean that he likes to be called that, seeing that it’s a takeoff on another book title)?

    Lastly – I hope you don’t mind – just a couple of typos: “willing” at the end of the 5th paragraph should be “willingly”. And in the 9th paragraph, I think that it should be “Hitch’s”, not “Hitches’s”. If you fix them, you can erase this (even if you don’t, actually!).

    I hope you have many for opportunities to “draft” behind (Mr. Christopher) Hitch(ens) for many years to come.

    (BTW, Petrucio, where is that quote from, and at what stage is our ill admiree?).

    • Petrucio says:

      Sorry, forgot to link the source, wikipedia:

      I don’t know what stage Hitchens is in. But I think Chemo is usually given before and/or after surgery for cancers of this type. If no one has mentioned surgery, my best guess is that curative surgery is not possible, putting him in the last stage. But hopefuly I’m very wrong – let’s not speculate too much on scant information.

  9. oldebabe says:

    Took your recommendation; however, I bought the `Hitch-22′ book. As I have not, and will not have, the opportunity for the face-to-face `contact’ as you had, it will be at the very least interesting to see what Hitchens says of himself, as presented in cold print.

  10. MotherLodeBeth says:

    Mr. Hitchens should be read in the home, and discussed in the home, so that children grow up thinking about serious ideas and not simply becoming part of the walking dead in the states, who seem content to rely on trash tv and other nonsensecal outlets.

    Its so frustrating for me sometimes, because I encounter so many non thinkers, that I will admit to becoming depressed, and discouraged. If it were not for Mr. Hitchens, this blog etc I would be worse off.

  11. cynthia nelms-byrne says:

    I would buy Hitchens the most expensive whiskey in the world if he’d have a little conversation with me. I have always thought he is brilliant – and brilliant just off the cuff. He has a comeback for every snarky comment that comes his way. He is the Crown Prince of critical thinking, and I honor him for that.

  12. Jim Butler says:

    Hey SkyChazz, you had to “make do” with Bertrand Russel? Try reading “Why I am not a Christian” again and see if he isn’t the equal of Hitchens in every way. I could have saved ten years of bumbling around in the intellectual dark if I’d gotten him in high school, and I went to the University of Chicago Labratory School.

  13. jre says:

    … David Horowitz’s insightful analysis of Hitchens’ evolving political beliefs …

    At first I was stone positive that this passage was intended as a joke.
    But then I thought “Who better to talk about evolving political beliefs, after all?”

  14. David W Turner says:

    It was real special sitting around the
    table tonight listening to all of you.
    I too love Hitchens.

  15. Jeshua says:

    Does anyone else see the resemblance betweeen Mr. Hitchens and William F. Buckley in their styles? I disagreed with most of what Buckley said, but he was just too fascinating in his debates too miss. OTOH i agree with nearly everything Hitchens says, so I hope he is able to get effective treatment and go on for many years to come.

    • Beelzebud says:

      Besides the accent? Not really…

    • MadScientist says:

      I can’t say I see much resemblance between W.F.Buckley and Hitchens. Then again I agreed with a lot of what Buckley said/wrote. He may have been a traditional conservative but he had a lot more in common with me than any current political party has. Politics is a funny thing – even the contemporary democrats would probably see Buckley as some sort of commie – most people these days have no clue what “left-leaning” is anymore; all parties are way-right of what was whacko 60 years ago.

  16. Alan says:

    I also like much of what Hitch writes and says and am enjoying Hitch22. However perhaps the praise for his great knowledge and critical thinking in some of the posts here is a little overblown. He does make mistakes. For example,as a clinical psychologist I can tell you that when talking of bipolar disease he shows an appalling ignorance of the subject. A little research would have allowed him to avoid the ridiculous way in which he wrote about the disorder.I’m surprised he didn’t do the research since the chapter was an important one to him. It was about his mother’s suicide.

  17. Alan says:

    For another, less positive,and to me more realistic picture of Hitchens read the review at

  18. Michael Shermer, I’ve always enjoyed your writings! This commentary about you and Christopher Hitchens (another of my absolute favorites)was very entertaining.

    Oh how I wish I could have been close by to listen to yours and his exchange. I was so looking forward to meeting Hitchens in Austin at Borders Books, but we learned it was cancelled. I was disappointed, but when I learned WHY I felt so sad. How is he coping with esophegeal cancer? Any updates that you could share?

    Kudos to two fine gifted authors! ~Sally Anderson Moore

  19. Jennifer G. says:

    How very good it is to know, a bit after the fact, that Michael Shermer and Christopher Hitchens had met and that Hitch was also a reader.

    Thnks for publishing this.