FOR Australians who saw Christopher Hitchens, the robust polemicist, in a linen suit with a glass in his hand onstage in Sydney last year, it is hard to believe that he has died at 62 from oesophageal cancer.
On diagnosis of his illness, Hitchens cut short the publicity tour for his memoir Hitch-22 shortly after he attracted record-breaking crowds at the 2010 Sydney Writers' Festival to hear his views on topics ranging from the Iraq War (for) to women's humour (against).
He continued to write and speak about his physical condition until recently. There was no softening of the hard-line atheist argument in his best-selling book God Is Not Great, which he discussed at the Opera House Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2009.
''Looking death more closely in the eye, as I have been doing, doesn't teach you much that you don't already know, surprisingly,'' he said in an interview with Tony Jones on the ABC's Lateline a year ago.
When supporters declared a ''Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day'' he responded, ''don't bother unless it makes you feel better''.
The Oxford-educated Englishman-turned-US citizen was a man of large ego with appetites for alcohol, cigarettes and conversation over long lunches.
He was famous for controversial opinions such as his attack on Mother Teresa and his hatred of ''fascism with an Islamic face'', which represented his growing distance from his youthful left-wing stance, but was provoked by the 1990s fatwa imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini against his friend Salman Rushdie.
Hitchens was an international reporter for Fleet Street until he joined the glamorous Vanity Fair 20 years ago and moved to New York and later Washington, where he lived with his wife and three children.
Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, described him yesterday as ''a wit, a charmer, and a troublemaker and to those who knew him well, he was a gift from, dare I say it, God''.
''Christopher was the beau ideal of the public intellectual. You felt as though he was writing to you and to you alone. And as a result many readers felt they knew him,'' Carter said.
''Walking with him down the street in New York or through an airplane terminal was like escorting a movie star through the throngs.''
Hitchens was a prolific, pungent and elegant columnist, literary critic and contributing editor to magazines and author of more than 20 books. His recent, 800-page book, Arguably, collects many of his essays.