Instead of marveling at the number of books, articles, and documentaries he produced, some of the author’s friends muttered about the quantity of booze he drank. Now medical science backs his long-held belief that booze is a subtle weapon. Plus: Hitch’s tips on drinking right.
by Christopher Hitchens
My heart soared like a hawk when I read the recent study which recommended eating at least a clove of garlic a day. Apparently this treatment, along with plenty of onions, would toughen up my prostate gland. I had been vastly encouraged already by the news that tobacco smoking enhanced short-term memory and helped to ward off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. And then it was good to read that decaffeinated coffee beans were actually higher in cholesterol than the real thing. But the very best news was saved for January’s edition* of The New England Journal of Medicine. From there I learned that, in the breezy words of my hometown rag The Washington Post:
Drinking a glass or two of wine, beer or any other kind of alcohol every day can significantly reduce the risk of suffering a heart attack, according to a large new study that is the first to examine whether drinking occasionally or daily is the best strategy for taking advantage of alcohol’s health benefits.
The research also shows clearly for the first time that drinking any kind of alcohol—not just red wine—can protect the heart.
I rolled this luxuriously around my tongue with the approbation that I customarily reserve for port or single malt. Its finer points made themselves apparent in the glowing yet decisive manner that is politely imposed by a good vintage. Not just the occasional drink—the daily drink. Not just red wine—any alcohol is better than none. An apple a day, they said in my boyhood, kept the doctor away. Yeah, that’s right—just bathe your teeth in sugar water and acid and see what happens. Much better to hurl the heartburn-inducing fruit into the trash and reach firmly for the corkscrew, which was the strategy that I began to adopt when I was about 15.
I’ll be 54 in April, and everyone keeps asking how I do it. How I do what? I’m never completely sure what the questioner means. I hope they mean how do I manage to keep producing books, writing essays, making radio and television appearances at all hours, traveling all over the place with no sign of exhaustion, teaching classes, and giving lectures, while still retaining my own hair and teeth and a near-godlike physique which is the envy of many of my juniors. Sometimes, though, I suppose they mean how do I do all this and still drink enough every day to kill or stun the average mule? My doctor confesses himself amazed at my haleness (and I never lie to a medical man), but then, in my time I’ve met more old drunks than old doctors.
What with the garlic, the full-strength cigarettes, the raw espresso, and the array of winking and shimmering glasses and bottles, I can face the world pretty heartily (despite a slight heftiness around the central portions which I keep meaning to “address,” as the saying goes, and despite a long-standing preference for nocturnal activity over encounters with “morning persons.” I will admit that I am a standout in Washington for nonattendance at power breakfasts). In Europe, I don’t seem to attract as much attention, or as many questions. Indeed, it was the so-called French paradox that started the inquiry into the medicinal effects of alcohol in the first place. American physicians, taking their cautious tours of Paris and Strasbourg in the spring, or perhaps having arranged to have their tax-deductible proctologists’ conventions in Provence, went to restaurants where they predicted from observation that all the diners would be dead or dying within a year. Then they went back—perhaps after attending a few boring funerals for their own miserable colleagues—and saw the selfsame French still browsing and sluicing away and looking more joyously fit than ever.
Well, that surely couldn’t be right. But an unsmiling look at the statistics confirmed that there was less heart disease in France, and meticulous scientific investigation then isolated red-wine consumption as the key variable. So let me tell you something that I could have told you long ago, and that your doctor already knew but hadn’t been telling you. Red wine will elevate your “good”-cholesterol numbers (H.D.L.) as against your “bad” (L.D.L.) ones, and it will thin and inspire your blood so that it is much less likely to go all clotted on you. A few drinks also assist you in warding off diabetes. And not just red wine, either. Pretty much any grape or grain product will do. In Woody Allen’s 1973 movie, Sleeper, he plays an owner of a health-food restaurant in Greenwich Village who is cryogenically frozen, and then thawed out in the year 2173. Among the many breakthroughs made by science in the intervening two centuries is the liberating discovery that steak, cream pies, and hot fudge are positively good for the system. The New England Journal of Medicine for January 2003 contains news much more encouraging than that. After all, nobody wants cream pie and hot fudge every day (do they?). And even if they did turn out to be beneficial for the health, they wouldn’t make you wittier, sexier, more vivacious, and less tolerant of boring and censorious people. Which the daily intake of the fruit of the vine—to say nothing of the slowly distilled and matured grain—will also do, if you know how to make it your servant and not your master.
A few swift tips here, to show that I am perfectly serious. On the whole, observe the same rule about gin martinis—and all gin drinks—that you would in judging female breasts: one is far too few, and three is one too many. Do try to eat the olives: they can be nutritious. Try to eat something, indeed, at every meal. Take lots of fresh or distilled water. Don’t mix from different bottles of red wine: dance with the one that brung ya. Avoid most white wine for its appalling acidity and banality. (Few things make me laugh louder than the ostentatious nondrinkers who get plastered when they condescend to imbibe a glass of toxic Chardonnay, and who have been fooling themselves for so long.) Avoid Pernod and absinthe and ouzo. Even if it makes you look like a brand snob, do specify a label when ordering spirits in particular. I once researched this for a solemn article and found that if you just ask for, say, vodka-and-tonic the barman is entitled to give you whatever he has on hand, which is often a two-handled jug labeled “Vodka” under the bar. It can be even worse with scotch, where imitation blends are rife. Pick a decent product and stay with it. Upgrade yourself, for Chrissake. Do you think you are going to live forever?
In a way, that is the whole question to begin with. I noticed early in life that some colleagues drank because of the writer’s life, and others had seemingly become scribblers because it gave them a high-toned excuse to drink. Some drank to meet a deadline, and some drank to give themselves an excuse to miss one. The latter crew had a tendency to check out prematurely. When the late Murray Kempton was asked by a copyboy how much longer it would be until his column was ready, Kempton held up a bottle and jovially said, “About an inch.” That piece, you can bet, was bang on time and word-perfect. Whereas John Coleman, the smashed movie critic of the old New Statesman in my day, retreated at press time into his den with a bottle of hooch. Soon after, the reassuring sound of the typewriter keys was no longer to be heard. One day Martin Amis, who was editing the pages, decided to look in and found Coleman’s slumbering face making a faultless left-profile impression in the keyboard. Wondering if the short burst of typing had produced anything usable, Martin yanked the paper from the machine and read the two words “Clint Eastwoo … ”
In a highly “judgmental” study entitled The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer, Tom Dardis examines the careers of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Eugene O’Neill. He maintains that booze was not the making of them and their writing, but rather their undoing. That’s relatively easy to argue, with letters like this from Hemingway to Maxwell Perkins:
Will have to take Marty to the movies as a present for being drunk Saturday night….
Started out on absinthe, drank a bottle of good red wine with dinner, shifted to vodka in town … and then battened it down with whiskeys and sodas until 3 a.m. Feel good today. But not like working.
Good, but not like working … Good? How good is this? I couldn’t possibly drink like that, but then, I am not a genius. And I certainly couldn’t have gone even one round with William Faulkner when he was on form. Mr. Dardis demonstrates with ease that drink was the death of these men and eroded their talent in the end, but he cannot account for the fact that they did some of their finest work when blotto, smashed, polluted, shitfaced, squiffy, whiffled, and three sheets to the wind. It’s true that O’Neill did his best stuff after he sobered up, but he had obviously learned a lot from the years when he couldn’t remember which train he had boarded, or why. Here’s some advice, from a different book about O’Neill, on how to deal with the shakes:
O’Neill would prop himself against the bar. The bartender, who knew him well, would place a shot glass in front of him, toss a towel across the bar, as though absentmindedly forgetting it, and glide away.
Hanging the towel around his neck, O’Neill would grasp both the glass of whiskey and one end of the towel in his right hand, while he clutched the other end of the towel with his left. Using the towel as a pulley, he would laboriously hoist the glass to his lips.
I actually saw this manoeuvre executed once, by a deeply troubled delegate at the British Conservative Party conference. When you get the shudders, even slightly, it’s definitely time to seek help. But this wreck of a Tory wasn’t going on to compose plays about the perils and splendors of addiction.
What the soothing people at Alcoholics Anonymous don’t or won’t understand is that suicide or self-destruction would probably have come much earlier to some people if they could not have had a drink. We are born into a losing struggle, and nobody can hope to come out a winner, and much of the intervening time is crushingly tedious in any case. Those who see this keenly, or who register the blues intently, are not to be simplistically written off as “dysfunctional” cynics or lushes. Winston Churchill put it very squarely when he defined the issue as, essentially, a wager. He was a lifelong sufferer from the depression that he nicknamed his “black dog,” but he could rouse himself to action and commitment and inspiration, and the brandy bottle was often a crucial prop. I have taken more out of alcohol, he said simply, than it has taken out of me. His chief antagonist, Adolf Hitler, was, I need hardly add, a fanatical teetotaler (though with a shorter and less wholesome life span). The most lethal and fascistic of our current enemies, the purist murderers of the Islamic jihad, despise our society for, among other things, its tolerance of alcohol. We should perhaps do more to earn this hatred and contempt, and less to emulate it.
Such wicked thoughts are almost verboten in our new, therapeutic, upbeat, boring idiom, where there is always some mediocre jerk who knows what’s best for you. I remember going to Aspen about a decade ago to cover the Bush-Thatcher summit that coincided with the invasion of Kuwait. The town sponsored a reception for the press, held at the top of the ski lift on the summit of a perfectly nice mountain. When we got up there, pointlessly beautiful and white-toothed girls offered drinks. I thought a gin-and-tonic would meet the case nicely. “Sorry, sir,” I was told with faultless politeness, “but that would be inappropriate.” When I queried this, I was told that gin-and-tonic was much more potent at that high altitude. “In that case I’ll have a double,” I said flippantly, and was rewarded by a millimetric contraction of the flawless but phony smile. So I got back onto the ski lift and went down to spend the evening at Hunter Thompson’s place in Woody Creek, where we ended up doing some pretty accurate target practice with high-velocity rifles. I think I had a better time than those who stayed correct—and what’s more, they can’t take that evening from me, try as they may.
I’m perhaps straying (though quite soberly, I assure you) from my initial point about the connection between alcohol and physical well-being. The relationship between booze and mental well-being is much more oblique, and even more fraught. But there is a connection. The very word “spirit” preserves the initial intuition of the “inspired” that was detected by the Greeks when they hit upon fermentation and employed it to lubricate their symposia. In moderation, of course, yes, if you insist … but how was “moderation” established except by transcending itself just a bit? John Keats caught the point deftly in his “Ode to a Nightingale,” which is actually not all that much about birdsong, sweet though it may be:
O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sun-burnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim …
These are, indeed, matters of the heart as well as of the mind. Perhaps the most damning disclosure arising from the recent findings is this one: a medical investigation into cardiac disease, started in 1948 and known as the Framingham Heart Study, found that alcohol was beneficial. In his 1996 memoirs, Dr. Carl Seltzer, one of the Framingham researchers, confessed that he and his fellow physicians had been prevented by officialdom from publishing their evidence. When a guy called Seltzer tells me that drink is wholesome, I pay attention. But something in the Puritan soul is committed to making and keeping people miserable, even when it is not for their own good. Some of us have at least an inkling of the pursuit of happiness, as well as of happiness as a pursuit.
Vanity Fair, March 15, 2003
* Download the PDF of the article Roles of Drinking Pattern and Type of Alcohol Consumed in Coronary Heart Disease in Men