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Last Words


Steve Wasserman

Nine years ago, Christopher Hitchens died. Four months later, I was invited to speak of our thirty-year friendship to a gathering of the New York Institute for the Humanities. Here, in part, is what I said of his last hours.

At the end of September 2011, things got very grave. He was back in Houston at the MD Anderson Cancer Clinic. I visited him at the end of September, then in October and then mid-December I got the call that I should come. So I arrived on Tuesday night, the thirteenth, and then next day was the fourteenth, Wednesday. Christopher was by this time down to 121 pounds, he had lost a third of his body weight, he was being ravaged by a virulent pneumonia. He was doped up with morphine. That day he was still lucid and could speak, though wasting away. His son, Alexander, twenty-eight, was there, his daughter, Sophia, two children by his first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, his daughter, Antonia, who had just turned eighteen, her mother and Christopher's first wife, Carol, her eighty-seven-year-old father, Edwin, and me.

The next day Martin Amis arrived about four in the afternoon, too late for Christopher to muster any sign of recognition though the doctors were very keen to let us know that often the dying know very well what is being said in the room, so be careful of what you say.

Wednesday morning Christopher told me he was "done," that he didn't want any more aggressive medical interventions made and that he was prepared to die. I am so grateful that Alexander, his son, was in the room with me because otherwise the story I'm about to tell nobody would believe.

We are in the room with him when Christopher opens his eyes and gestures for a pen and a pad of paper be brought to him, and indicates he wants to write something. So a pad and pen are presented and placed in his hands. He begins writing. And then he brings the pad of paper up to his face, his brow furrows, he gestures to his son to put his reading glasses on him. He then turns the pad like it's an iPad, turns it one way and then another. I get up and look at it. And it's just chicken scratches, nonsense hieroglyphs. He looks at it and lets the pad fall to his lap, then looks up and says: "Waddya gonna do?" Then he sinks back a bit.

And then there followed what I have to say was his Rosebud moment. He utters a word. I couldn't quite hear it. I said, "What did you say?"

And he says, quite distinctly: "Capitalism."

I said, "Capitalism? What about it?"

And he says, "Downfall."

Those were the last words I heard him utter.

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Steve Wasserman is publisher since 2016 of Heyday, a nonprofit, independent publishing house in Berkeley, California. A past editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, he was publisher and editorial director of Hill & Wang, an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and editorial director of Times Books. As a literary agent, he represented such authors as Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, David Thomson, Placido Domingo, and Linda Ronstadt.

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