Hitchens, Athens, 1984

Hitchens-firing-lineHendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker:

In Athens, we stole time from the conference to eat, and drink, and explore. We climbed the Parthenon, and, needless to say, Christopher was as erudite and entertaining a guide as one could imagine. But there was a touch of melancholy, a hint of preoccupation, about his mood.

That road trip never took place. On our third day in Athens I got an urgent call from home. My father, who was in treatment for lung cancer, had been rushed to the hospital and was in the intensive-care unit. A ventilator was keeping him alive, but he might die at any moment.

Christopher instantly took over, booking my flight to New York for me the following afternoon and turning his full attention to me. That evening we talked far into the night, mostly about our parents. He stunned me with a long, wrenching, and extraordinarily moving story—the story of his father, the silent former naval officer Eric, and his mother, the dreamy, self-sacrificing, faintly exotic (and secretly part Jewish) Yvonne, and their unhappy marriage.

The climax of the story was a shocker. Until that week, Christopher told me, he had not been to Athens for eleven years—not since 1973, when he was twenty-four. Greece then was still governed by a quasi-fascist military junta, against which he had written and spoken. The junta’s indifferent authorities had custody of the body of his mother, which he had come, alone, to recover: in an Athens hotel, with her lover, Yvonne Hitchens had committed suicide.