Last week, The New York Times published a column titled “Hitchens Biography Proceeds, Against His Widow’s Wishes.” In it, author Elizabeth A. Harris makes less-than-accurate reference to me and my book about the late atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens. Even so, the article is interesting. It details the entirely believable attempts of Christopher’s widow, Carol Blue-Hitchens, and his former literary agent, Steve Wasserman, to kill a proposed biography of Hitchens by author Stephen Phillips and his publisher W.W. Norton before it is even written. This has chiefly taken the form of circulating a letter encouraging Hitchens’s associates not to participate in Phillips’s project and attempts to discredit him as a “self-appointed would-be biographer.”
This sort of behavior from Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman is, sadly, typical. I have experienced it firsthand and, until now, have said not one word about it publicly. Indeed, I published one piece defending my book from the attacks I knew Carol Blue-Hitchens was surreptitiously orchestrating while she publicly maintained an air of dignified silence, and yet I made no mention of her. Naïvely, I believed she would, in time, read the book and see that it was not the attempted character assassination of her late husband she feared it to be. On the contrary, the reviewer at Booklist called it “loving.” Amazon reviewers have said much the same thing. So, this seemed a reasonable hope.
But reason will get you nowhere with the “self-appointed” arbiters of reason. Such hope was, as I have said, naïve. The orchestrated attacks only expanded as she called in favors to her media cronies on both sides of the Atlantic and harangued those who had spoken favorably of my book. Atheists mobilized to “cancel” me. Some of these attempts to ambush me were absurdly ill-informed and even a bit amusing, like my interview with BBC Television host James O’Brien.
Fortunately, reviewers at The Wall Street Journal, The Federalist, The Times (of London) and elsewhere came to my defense, with perhaps the most powerful rebuttal being written by former Hitchens colleague, David Horowitz. And, in spite of the efforts to discredit the book, it was nonetheless named a Book of the Year award winner by The Gospel Coalition and, much to my surprise, was hailed by reviewers on both the political Left and Right.
So why break my silence now?
Because the Blue-Hitchens/Wasserman “hit” squad is at it again, this time targeting a first-time author. I don’t know Stephen Phillips and have no idea if his book will be worth reading, but I am sick of these non-reading bullies who have one set of rules for themselves and another for the rest of us. That is the very definition of elitism.
Below is my letter to the author of The New York Times story, Elizabeth A. Harris.
Dear Ms. Harris,
I read your column of 4 February 2021 in The New York Times about the new Hitchens biography and, of course, saw the reference to my own book. I am intrigued. In addition to my personal experience as a target of the Blue-Hitchens/Wasserman suppression machine, I offer an important correction: my conclusions were not, as you said, “primarily based” on “unverified conversations” with Christopher from two lengthy road trips. Those simply added color to what he had already said—publicly. Besides, it was Christopher who first made those conversations public, not me. No, as reviewers at The Times (of London), The Wall Street Journal, Christianity Today, Mere Orthodoxy and others noted—that is, reviewers who actually read the book—my conclusions were based on Christopher’s own writings and public statements. Never mind reading my book. It is as if none of my critics ever bothered to actually read his.
The “unverified conversations” charge was part of a smear campaign similar to the one you have written about and was authored by none other than Carol Blue-Hitchens and Steve Wasserman, both of whom admitted they had never read my book. Just as your column details their efforts to deny Mr. Phillips’s proposed biography any oxygen, Carol, like a mob boss putting out a contract hit, called in favors to media friends such as The Atlantic’s David Frum—who admitted this to me during a phone interview—and BBC Newsnight host James O’Brien—who all but said during a live interview that he had not read my book either. Ask your former colleague Mark Oppenheimer about her hostile call to him. It’s breathtaking stuff.
The Blue-Hitchens/Wasserman mafia, with dubious family friend Larry Krauss taking the lead in a column for The New Yorker, went so far as to say that I had claimed Christopher converted on his deathbed. If only it were so. They knew very well that I had done nothing of the sort, but such is media “fact-checking” these days. I made this very clear during the aforementioned Newsnight interview where Krauss was given free rein to make these absurd accusations while I, with my mic muted, was not permitted to respond. But it was all in the book. Indeed, for all the good that it did, I had written the last chapter in anticipation of such claims.
Unlike Mr. Phillips, I sought—and got—the cooperation of some family and friends who, fearing Carol’s wrath, asked for anonymity. By her own choice, Carol did not learn of my book until MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, then the host of Hardball, lavishly praised it during an interview, calling it “beautifully written.” Much to my surprise, she fired-off a flurry of outraged emails to me and wanted to know why I had never contacted her about the project. When I produced evidence that I had, in fact, sought her involvement but had been rebuffed, the line of attack shifted to claims that I was not really Christopher’s friend (a charge this clip soundly refutes) and that I was simply out to make money, which can be said of any author of books—even Christopher Hitchens.
At Peter Hitchens’s request, however, I never returned fire on Carol. For that reason, she is the central character—the driving force, actually—I never mentioned in my piece for First Things defending the book. For five years I have maintained my silence about her behind-the-scenes efforts to destroy what I, and, I should add, my reviewers, believe to be an excellent little book and its author. She was, as Peter noted, a grieving widow, and, he said, she would probably read the book one day and see my obvious affection for her late husband (even if I vehemently disagreed with him) as so many other reviewers had noted. This short clip, in addition to the one above, makes this mutual affection obvious.
But your column has provoked me. To see her doing this again to another author is simply too much. Her grieving widow status rightly earns her our sympathy. But it doesn’t grant her the right to defame, discredit, or outright suppress books on subjects she finds distasteful.
What is more, the charge that Mr. Phillips is a “self-appointed would-be biographer” is lacking in more than a little self-awareness. Time will tell whether his book is any good, but for our purposes here it is beside the point. Christopher, as you observed, trashed a number of public figures. To suggest that he is a sacred out-of-bounds topic for biographers while, say, Mother Teresa is not is eyebrow-raising hypocrisy, don’t you think?
In closing, I offer a bit of advice to Mr. Phillips: my chief offense was that I had the temerity to describe Christopher Hitchens, who remains a kind of deity for many atheists, as human, which is, of course, no more than what atheists have been saying about the Christian God for centuries. Your approach, Mr. Phillips, is anybody’s guess, but I can say this with certainty: anything less than a paean to Christopher Hitchens simply will not do.
Larry Alex Taunton is the Executive Director of the Fixed Point Foundation and a freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, Fox News, First Things, The Atlantic, CNN, Daily Caller, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Grace Effect, The Gospel Coalition Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, Around the World in (More Than) 80 Days. (Available to order now) You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com and find him on Twitter @larrytaunton.
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