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The Boy Can't Help It

But what was even more haunting for Hitchens was discovering, when he saw the hotel bill, that his mother had repeatedly tried to reach him in London before her death. "I have to wonder what would have happened if she'd gotten through. Maybe I could have said something that made her decide not to do it." He pauses and reaches for his glass.

Just to make the situation more surreal, Greece was in the midst of a political upheaval. "The streets are full of tanks, I know people who are in hiding and have bullet wounds, I'm talking about Mummy to the coroner from Costa Gavras's movie Z -- this is amazing." So Hitchens decided to do something remarkably sane under the circumstances. To distract himself from grief, he threw himself into reporting the political situation. Upon his return to London, he published a long piece in The New Statesman. "People said to me, how could you write a story, and I thought, how could you not?"

The truly strange coda to Yvonne Hitchens's death came more than a decade later. Peter Hitchens, Christopher's brother, went to introduce his bride-to-be to his maternal grandmother, and she turned to him and said, "She's Jewish, isn't she?" Peter replied yes, to which his grandmother replied, "I've got something to tell you. So are you."

Yvonne Hitchens had hidden her identity all her life, not even telling her husband. She wanted to pass, and she wanted upward mobility for her sons. Christopher, an atheist, says he was pleased to hear he had Jewish roots, both because so many of his friends had always been Jewish and because the news explained things he'd wondered about all his life, such as his mother's emotions in describing anti-Semitism to him. In a moving essay, "On Not Knowing the Half of It," Hitchens writes about the painful legacy of belatedly discovering this family secret. "I feel more and more deprived, as the days pass, by the thought of conversations that never took place and now never will."

The hard-drinking, chain-smoking Fleet Street journalist is a timeworn cliché, but for Hitchens it's been the role of a lifetime. Lord, the man can drink. His friends talk with a mixture of admiration and astonishment about all the nights he's left them reeling, lurched to a typewriter, and pounded out perfect prose. "When you go over to their house, it's a mixture of Mardi Gras and a philosophy seminar," says Jamie Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University. "Hitch can talk for hours. The more he drinks, the more lucid he gets."

Victor Navasky, the publisher of The Nation, says, "Ham Fish president of the Nation Institute and I tried to encourage Christopher to go off the sauce and offered to help, but he said he'd tried and that he was no good without it." Graydon Carter weighs in with "Christopher's a big boy, and this is the fuel he needs." Martin Amis says he's concerned but would never dream of discussing the drinking with Hitchens, explaining, "It would be ridiculous for anyone English to have that conversation."

Hitchens proudly insists that he's never missed a deadline and never drives while drinking. "My father used gin, and I used to swear I'd never touch it," he says. "But I guess it's in the genes." He doesn't see any compelling reason to quit, saying, "I think I get more out of it than it gets out of me."

The carousing, the adventurousness, the brilliant conversation -- it can all add up to a very appealing package. And if you believe even a small part of the Hitchens mythology, he's certainly had a way with the ladies over the years. One of his more notable romances was with Vogue editor Anna Wintour back in the mid-seventies, when both were young, single, and ambitious. "I was tremendously in love with her," he said, but ultimately the fashionable Wintour and politically attuned Hitchens didn't have enough in common.

He met his first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, while on assignment in Cyprus in 1977, shortly after the Turks had invaded the country. "I fell in love with him," says Meleagrou, now a lawyer who lives in London. "He was a romantic figure, attractive, clever, he had everything. He was a scholar, and he was interested in my people."