A Christopher Hitchens biography is underway even though his widow is against it

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Born in 1949, Christopher Hitchens was a journalist, author and well known polemicist. (Photo by Peter Power/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Born in 1949, Christopher Hitchens was a journalist, author and well known polemicist. (Photo by Peter Power/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
  • Born in 1949, Christopher Hitchens was a journalist, author and well known polemicist. 
  • For his first ever book, Stephen Phillps signed a deal to release a book about Hitchen in 2022. 
  • However Hitchens’s widow and his literary agent are discouraging friends and family from contributing towards Phillips’s research. 

Stephen Phillips has signed a deal with publishing house W.W. Norton to write a book about the late British writer and polemicist Christopher Hitchens. Born in 1949 Hitchens was a journalist, author and speaker. His fluid writing, large persona and defiance of religious institutions made for a polarising intellectual. 

Titled Pamphleteer: The Life and Times of Christopher Hitchens, the publisher bought the book from Phillips last year with the plan to release it in 2022. This is the author’s first book. 

While the book is meant to be published next year, Carol Blue-Hitchen and Steve Wasserman, the late author’s widow and literary agent, are actively discouraging Hitchens’s family, friends and colleagues from contributing toward Phillips’s book. 

The New York Times confirmed this by reviewing the email that Blue-Hitchen and Wasserman sent to Hitchens’s family and friends. Opening the email, the pair wrote: “We are aware that a self-appointed would-be biographer, one Stephen Phillips, is embarked on a book on Christopher.” The pair says they knew Phillips wanted to write the book but declined in taking part because his coarse and reductive approach to Hitchens gave them no confidence that Phillips would be able to fully encapsulate the man. The email then goes on to say how they “are not cooperating and we urge you all to refuse all entreaties by Mr. Phillips or his publisher, W.W. Norton”. 

When asked about the proposal that W.W. Norton received, W.W. Norton’s editor and chief, John A. Glusman told the New York Times how he was impressed by the framing. “His plans for researching it, the cultural issues it raised and the way that  some of the issues Hitchens himself both wrote about and represented resonate to this day,” said Glusman. 

As a two-time Pulitzer finalist for the biographies he wrote about Andrew Carnegie and Joseph P. Kennedy, weekly magazine The Nation asked author and historian David Nasaw for his thoughts on the matter. While working on these biographies, Nasaw said it was not uncommon for family members and executors to hinder an author's efforts. However Nasaw said they are usually more subtle. 

One example is Kitty Kelley, a writer who has written books about Oprah Winfrey, the Bush and the Royal families. While working on a book about Frank Sinatra, Kelley was sued by the artist. After a year of law battles, Kelley abandoned the book. When biographer, and Pulitzer winner, Kai Bird was writing about Wall Street lawyer, John J. McCloy in 1982, the lawyer, advised people not to participate. He even went as far as taking Bird’s editor out for lunch to convince her to abandon the biography. 

 Disagreeing with Blue-Hitchen and Wasserman’s plea, Nasaw says he saw it as “engaging in a sort of pre-emptive censorship intended to frighten away not just this one writer but any others who might not, for one reason or another, pass muster with them.” 

Even though the plea is meant to discourage the writer from finishing the book, Nasaw thinks all they’re doing is heightening interest in the biography and its writer. 

While it's gone viral, the plea is not getting to everyone. Hitchens’s brother, Peter Hitchens said that even though he received the discouragement, he is in talks with Phillips because he sees no harm in doing so. “As far as I can tell, this guy seems to be a straightforward person with a good record as a writer, intelligent, knowledgeable. Why not him?”

Aware of the pushback, Phillips says he plans to go on as planned. “All I can do is send out more emails and try to speak with more people. I’m absolutely committed to this book coming out, and to that end, I just keep on keeping on.”

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