By John Helmer, Moscow
Christopher Hitchens, who died on Thursday at 62 years of age, described me many years ago as “an old personal enemy of mine”.
Hitchens wore the inimical declarations of others as self-awarded Victoria Crosses, as if his bravado under the fire he inflicted deserved more than the money he was paid to pull the trigger. But Hitchens was sparing in the identification of others as his personal enemies. Search though I have through the back-indexes of his collected re-publications on London bookshop tables – buy one, get one free — the only other person Hitchens picked out in print as his personal enemy appears to have been Osama bin Laden. The reason Hitchens put the two of us on a par deserves brief record as Hitchens goes to his grave covered by encomiums from his accomplices in a career of duplicity and meretriciousness.
I became Hitchens’s personal enemy thirty years ago, when he was freelancing for the New Statesman in London, and Claudia Wright, my wife, was the New Statesman’s correspondent in Washington. Hitchens wanted her job; he wanted a visa to live and work in the US; he wanted to publish in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Atlanta Constitution, as Claudia was doing. But we didn’t realize that at the time. We encouraged Hitchens, and on one of his early visits to town in those days, we invited him to lunch at our place.
When he arrived, Hitchens’s first words were: “Do you own this house?”
“No, Christopher”, I replied. “The bank does.”
I suspected then that the man suffered from envy – so big a dose that it could spill out in plain view. I didn’t realize to what lengths it would drive him on his return to London to destroy Claudia, so that he could take her job for himself. In that effort, as always, he had accomplices in his dirty tricks, names with London bylines still. They are writing his obituaries.
When proffered at a first meeting, Hitchens’s hand was tentative, limp, clammy. Unusually, he could neither grasp nor embrace with that proboscis. For Hitchens, men and women of quality, writers of talent, were rivals to be coveted and conquered, and then made to taste their defeat. Feeding the public wood for that private fire, and covering it behind an intricately worked, decorative screen – that was Hitchens’s skill. A great one.
I also didn’t realize that Hitchens understood that his vice was evident, and that once glimpsed by another, that other became a potential enemy Hitchens judged that he should destroy preemptively.
Claudia survived his attack on her which was executed through a pal of his, who had arrived in the nick of time at the New Statesman, when there was a lawsuit threat involving a story Claudia had written. The editor arranged with the complainant that if he would drop his claim, the editor would fire Claudia. Hitchens got his Washington job and his work visa. Claudia became the Washington correspondent instead for a leading daily newspaper in Athens, Ta Nea.
Hitchens was considered a journalist friend of Cyprus and of Greece then. He was publishing stories on political issues of importance to the two governments. He may also have been on stipend to both – a point Hitchens suspected me of investigating. I hadn’t. I already knew enough to warn the government officials involved that Hitchens’s reporting, like his loyalties, could change sides swiftly. I also explained that if they wanted to test his principles, they should try his handshake.
The Greek government fell in June 1989 and Claudia was already ailing from a terminal illness. But we attended the national celebration at the Greek Embassy in Washington on October 28 of that year. We ran into Hitchens in a corner, from which he tried to evacuate as we approached.
“Christopher”, I started, “what are you doing here? I thought rats usually left sinking ships.”
Hitchens exited right. He usually did.