Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Tag: Vanity Fair

R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens, Dead At Sixty-Two

Writer Christopher Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer on Dec. 15, 2011.

Christopher Hitchins’ death on December 15 makes it time to share this story of a Celebrity Encounter at the June, 2011 BEA (Book Expo America). Maybe encounter is too strong a word. More like two ships passing in the night.

I had bought a ticket for the breakfast, which begins early in the morning, but I did not purchase the food, but only a seat on the perimeter, as per usual. You still get the free books…if they are giving them out. (Last year, only chapters of books, not entire books). Other years, free copies of “The Kite Runner,” etc.

Because all the seats on the perimeter appeared to be occupied, I saw a group of people who were going up some stairs through a door near the back of the hall. They began climbing upwards. In my mind, I envisioned a balcony or loggia, like a church choir loft, if you will, and one of the men in the party was carrying a glass which was obviously booze, as it had a little parasol in it. This was approximately 9 a.m. and I remember thinking that that individual must really like to party hearty! I decided to follow the group and went through the same door and began climbing.

At about the second landing, I caught a glimpse of the group ahead of me and recognized Christopher Hitchens as the man carrying the drink. I also realized that I was, inadvertently, crashing the group of would-be speakers, who were apparently climbing to a behind-the-stage area where they would be introduced and seated.


I quietly tip-toed downstairs and took a seat on chairs at the back of the hall, the perimeter .
When Hitchens was introduced (by Patton Oswalt, the stand-up comedian who is now co-starring opposite Charlize Theron in “Young Adult”) he strode to the microphone and recited several dirty limericks, most of them by heart. As I recall, he also said something about homosexual hi-jinks in an English boarding school, but his entire demeanor was very preoccupied and grim. He then left, with Patton Oswalt explaining that he “had to catch a plane” or some such. Keep in mind, this was about 7 months before he would die of esophageal cancer, and he had known he was probably terminally ill for a year and a half before he died quite recently, of pneumonia from complications of the disease.

In the January issue of “Vanity Fair” Hitchens’ final essay appears, entitled “Trial of the Will.” He debunks the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and even speculated that Nietzsche, to whom the quote is attributed, might have stolen it from Goethe. Hitchens gives a brief thumbnail capsule of Nietzsche’s life. To wit:  “In the remainder of his life, however, .Nietzsche seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis, very probably during his first-ever sexual encounter, which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis. This, while it did not kill him right away, certainly contributed to his death and cannot possibly, in the meanwhile, be said to have made him stronger.”  More details of Nietzche’s life are provided by the terminally ill writer and, of his own condition he said, “And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: if I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment?  There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.”

Hitchens, who was an avowed atheist and told Anderson Cooper that, if he heard stories that, on his deathbed he had recanted and “gotten religion,” he should not believe such reports. He recounted a poem by John Betjeman called “Five O’Clock Shadow:”

This is the time of day when we in the Men’s Ward

Think:  “One more surge of the pain and I give up the fight.”

When he who struggles for breath can struggle less strongly.

This is the time of day that is worse than night.”

Added Hitchens, “I have come to know that feeling all right: the sensation and conviction that the pain will never go away and that the wait for the next fix is unjustly long.  Then a sudden fit of breathlessness, followed by some pointless coughing and then—if it’s a lousy day—by more expectoration than I can handle. Pints of old saliva, occasional mucus, and what the hell do I need heartburn for at this exact moment?  It’s not as if I have eaten anything:  a tube delivers all my nourishment. All of this, and the childish resentment that goes with it, constitutes a weakening.  So does the amazing weight loss that the tube seems unable to combat.  I have now lost almost a third of my body mass since the cancer was diagnosed: it may not kill me, but the atrophy of muscle makes it harder to take even the simple exercises without which I’ll become more enfeebled still.”

And Hitchens added, “I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hand, and fingers.  The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write.  Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my ‘will to live’ would be hugely attenuated.  I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood, but my very life, and it’s true.  Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.”

“These are progressive weaknesses that in a more normal life might have taken decades to catch up with me.  But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less.  In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death.  How could it be otherwise?”

And how could the end have been other than it was. Christopher Hitchens, dead at 62.

Christopher Hitchens and Me

christopher-hitchensFor those of you who don’t read “Vanity Fair,” Christopher Hitchens is a columnist/regular contributer to same. He appeared at the noon luncheon of the BEA (BookExpo America) and mainly recited questionable limericks. I have to give this to him: he knew them from memory. One was a questionable item decrying the clergy for episodes of pedophilia, which I won’t repeat here for fear of offense.

True story, however: as I exited the Women’s Rest Room just opposite the downstairs hall in which the program was to take place, I saw some people entering a stairwell. One of those people, a rather tall gentleman, was holding what appeared to be a REAL drink (and it wasn’t even noon yet) so this caught my eye, and I decided, “Well, that person definitely is in to the sauce already today, and I’ll just follow that group in to find our seats.” I was halfway up the stairwell stairs when we hit the landing and I realized that the rather tall gentleman holding the drink (it was in a wine glass, anyway, and it certainly did not look like iced tea) I belatedly recognized as Christopher Hitchens, the keynote speaker. I remember thinking that it was too bad I didn’t have my camera with me, but my next thought was to exit as gracelessly as I had entered (i.e., stumbling into the wrong stairwell and almost ending up onstage, it would seem).

This sort of thing seems to happen to me a lot. I ended up in an elevator with Mickey Rooney and his 9th? 10th? wife in Washington, D.C. once at a poetry thing where he was to speak. (Actually, he spoke just a little, sat down, and his wife sang. She sings well.) His wife was quite angry with little Mickey (who came up to about boob-level) that he had “gotten on the wrong elevator.” Apparently, there was a “special” elevator for the star speaker, but Mickey—who was then nearing 80 if not already in his eighth decade—had picked the wrong elevator and therein lies my “brush with greatness.”

With Christopher Hitchens, I didn’t really stay in the stairwell long enough to be identified as an interloper and, therefore, was merely an audience member wondering why he just kept repeating limericks, some of them fairly outrageous, and then shared memories of deflowering various male members of Parliament or some such. I grew up in Iowa. I now live in Illinois. I am obviously out of the NYC loop and most of the audience that day, when Patton Oswalt (a comedian) hosted, seemed to be out of the NYC loop, also. I think there were several deep breaths taken by the audience (and deep drinks taken by Mr. Hitchens) before he abruptly exited, stage left (the very same stairwell he came in) to “catch a plane to London.” Ah, the lifestyle of the rich and famous!

In keeping with that lifestyle, I’d like to share with you, with appropriate attribution, Christopher Hitchen’s remarks, as quoted in something entitled “Diary” on page 82 of the July, 2010 “Vanity Fair.” It is just a small part of a longer piece, but, in light of my remarks above, I think you’ll get the general idea, and I won’t even tell you about the time I ended up in the elevator with Jesse Jackson’s entourage inside the Pepsi Center in Denver during the DNC, BEFORE he was accused of trying to purchase Barack Obama’s soon-to-be-empty Senate seat (which he vociferously denied).

Here is the excerpt from Christopher Hitchens’ diary, the very same C.H. with shom I had a “brush with greatness” in the stairwell of the Jacob Javits Center on May 27th,…although I’m sure he never knew I was there:

“There was a time when I could outperform all but the most hardened imbibers, a generous slug or 10 of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative being my tipple of preference.  It was between the Tel Aviv massacre and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  I now restrict myself to no more than a couple of bottles of halfway decent wine for elevenses, and then a couple more as an accompaniment to luncheon, with Mr. Gordon’s gin firmly ensconced in the driving seat for the remainder of the day.  As an enthuisastic participant in the delights of Mr. Dionysus, I offer no apology for passing down these simple pieces of advice for the young.

Never drink before breakfast, unless the day of the week has a “u” in it.  Martinis go surprisingly well with Corn Flakes, while a medium dry sherry remains the perfect accompaniment to Mr. Kellogg’s admirable Rice Krispies.

It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man.  I don’t know why this is ture, but it is, it just is, I don’t care what you say, it just is and you can take that from me and anyway that’s not what I said. (*Author’s note: it is what you said, and it’s sexist as hell!)

And finally, if, like me, you are, like me, a professional scrivener, like me, never ever ever drunk while written an article column piece ever.  It is, perforce, something I never don’t.” (As told to Craig Brown and previously printed in “Private Eye”)

What Will the Iraq War Ultimately Cost?

      With the recent news that America’s casualties in Iraq have reached 4,000 dead soldiers, we should be asking ourselves, “What is this war costing us, not only in the tragic deaths of our brave soldiers, but in (borrowed) dollars and cents?”

     The April, 2008, issue of Vanity Fair (“The $3 Trillion War” by Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes, p. 147) lays it out for us. Before the war, President Bush’s economic adviser suggested that the war might cost $200 billion. Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called that “baloney.” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz suggested that increased oil revenues would allow Iraq to pay for its own post-war reconstruction (also “baloney”). The team of Rumsfeld and Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Douglas pegged the war in the $50 to $60 billion range back then, back five full years as of March 19, 2008.

    So, how much is this war really costing American taxpayers?

    A lot.  At least close to $800 billion and rising. The Administration has already asked for $200 billion to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal year 2008. And it’s not going to get better, Folks; it’s going to get worse: much, much worse.

     According to the Vanity Fair article (p. 148), “But even the $600 billion number is disingenuous, which is to say false.  The true cost of the war in Iraq, according to our calculations, will, by the time America has extricated itself, exceed $3 trillion.”

     First, there are issues with the “accrual” versus “cash” accounting system used to explain costs. Another relevant quote: “In the case of the Iraq war, the future obligations are huge. They include the cost of replacing military equipment, which is being used up at 6 to 10 times the peacetime rate.  They also include the cost of providing health care and disability payments for our returning troops.”

     Almost every Democratic candidate campaigning in Iowa before the Iowa caucuses in January  (especially Senator Joe Biden) pointed out the huge cost of caring for our wounded young men and women, who are being saved, because of advancements in medicine, at rates that far outstrip anything seen in any previous war. If you look back at my previous Joe Biden article, there are some specifics there.

     The problem is, these brave soldiers’ lives are being saved, but many are horribly wounded and many that are “whole” will suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The already over-burdened Veterans’ Administration system is just not equipped to handle the wave of returning soldiers with major problems, both physical and psychological. Problems with V.A. coverage have forced many soldiers to purchase their own health insurance. In 2000, the Veterans’ Administration had a backlog of 228,000 pending compensation claims; today, the number is over 400,000. It takes an average of six months to process an initial claim and, if a veteran appeals, as 14% do, it takes another 2 years to process the appeals, while the veteran waits in limbo for needed health care. The V.A. has run out of money and it takes more than 30 days for a seriously wounded veteran even to be seen by a doctor. (Figures from Vanity Fair, April, 2008,  p. 148).

     We have relied on the National Guard in this war, and that has taken workers from the civilian labor force and imposed burdens on many families whose loved ones have been called to serve. This is a hidden cost of the war. Another “hidden” cost of the war comes about because the Administration has requested nearly all the money to fight the war in the form of “emergency” funding, which then makes the money given free from standard budgetary caps or vigorous scrutiny. When we read stories of pallets of cash being flown to Iraq and then disappearing (and we have), we have the “emergency” nature of the funding to thank…or blame…for that. The Vanity Fair piece (“The $3 Trillion War”) calls this entire method of paying for the war “budgetary sleight of hand that makes a mockery of the democratic budget process.” (p. 148).

     Casualties:  The Pentagon has its own peculiar method of counting casualties. It classified more than half of those who had to be evacuated from Iraq as non-combat casualties (p. 150), because the Pentagon splits hairs when deciding who was killed in the war and who was merely killed in a tank accident on their way to the war, for example.

At least 2.1 million individuals will have been sent to Iraq before the war ends. When we consider that 44% of the Gulf War Veterans (a war that only lasted a few weeks) have applied for disability compensation and almost 90% of their claims were approved, we can see that this is going to be an expensive post-war. (Today, we spend $4.3 billion per year paying disability compensations for Gulf War Veterans, Vanity Fair, page 150, as are the figures in the previous two sentences).

     The Vietnam War cost the United States an estimated $560 to $805 billion (in 2006 dollars) and 58,000 Americans died there, as did one million Vietnamese. (Mother Jones, “Apocalypse Then, November/December 2007, p. 47). Twenty years after Vietnam, 15% of Vietnam veterans still suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Mother Jones, “Apocalypse Then,” November/December 2007, page 47).

     Here’s another Big Eye-Opener: we have borrowed the money to finance this war, primarily from countries like China, and we will have to pay the money back with interest. The interest, over only 10 years, will add $615 billion to the cost of the war, pushing the cost into the $2.8 trillion ballpark. (Vanity Fair, p. 150). As the authors of the Vanity Fair piece (Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes) conclude (p. 153), “The price in blood has been paid by members of the volunteer military. The price in treasure has been financed entirely by borrowing…Deficit spending gives the illusion that the laws of economics can be repealed. They cannot.”

     Another Big News Flash, for me, regarded how much “the surge” has cost. McCain is very “high” on the surge while on the campaign trail, telling us how well he says it has worked, but he fails to mention that the cost quoted to the American taxpayer footing the bill was for only four months of expenses, while the surge has and will go on for far longer than that. The surge was supposed to cost $5.6 billion in January of 2007 when we deployed another 21,500 troops. (Vanity Fair, April 2008, “The $3 Trillion War”) However, that cost was for deploying combat troops alone. The cost will be closer to $11 billion (also for four months) when the other 15,000 combat-support troops are factored in, with the surge continuing for 12 to 24 months. (p. 153, Vanity Fair article). Since we are now entering April, obviously the price tag we were given for only four months of “the surge” is going to be much higher.

     When you consider how many bridges won’t get repaired in this country and how many roads and schools and other infra-structure improvements will not be able to be made in this country because of the cost of this war, you have to factor in a figure that is a “realistic but conservative estimate (for the war’s macro-economic impact) of roughly $1.9 trillion.” (Vanity Fair, p. 153).

     To sum up, using the words of Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes who did such a good job of laying it all out for us this month:”Thus, the total cost of the war ranged from $2.8 trillion in strictly budgetary costs, to $4.5 trillion if one adds in the economic costs…The President and his advisers wanted a quick and inexpensive conflict. Instead, the Iraq War is costing more than anyone could have imagined.”  The article goes on to say that these costs will most likely end up being half again as much as Vietnam, two times that of Korea, and four times the cost of World War I.


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