He was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking man of immense intellect.

Christopher Hitchens, philosopher, author, essayist, literary critic, died from complications related to esophageal cancer in a Houston hospital Thursday night, Vanity Fair magazine reported. He was 62.

The Washington, D.C.-based author had been battling cancer for more than a year. He wrote about his fight with the disease in an August 2010 article in Vanity Fair.

"I love the imagery of struggle," he wrote. "I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient."

Hitchens was famous for waging public battles for causes on the right and left, particularly his 2007 bestseller "God is Not Great," a manifesto for atheists that prompted a debate with former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair, a devout Catholic, in Toronto last November.

"There will never be another like Christopher. A man of ferocious intellect, who was as vibrant on the page as he was at the bar," said Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. "Those who read him felt they knew him, and those who knew him were profoundly fortunate souls."

Hitchens was a frequent television commentator and essayist for Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Slate and other publications, as well as the author of 17 books.

"Christopher Hitchens was everything a great essayist should be: infuriating, brilliant, highly provocative and yet intensely serious," said Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

"I worked as an intern for him years ago. My job was to fact check his articles. Since he had a photographic memory and an encyclopedic mind it was the easiest job I've ever done."

Hitchens announced in June 2010 that he was being treated for cancer, another battle he publicly waged and won the National Magazine Award for a series of columns about his illness.

He remained a prolific writer even after his diagnosis, attacking the royal family, celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden and pondering the letters of poet Philip Larkin.

He dismissed the philosophy that all that does not a kill a man makes him stronger in a recent Vanity Fair essay.

"So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion," he wrote. "It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don't live up to their apparent billing."

Hitchens was an acknowledged contrarian and contradiction - half-Christian, half-Jewish and fully non-believing. He was a native of England who settled in America, a former Trotskyite who backed the Iraq war and supported George W. Bush.

He even submitted to the CIA's tactic of "waterboarding" to prove it was indeed torture.

Hitchens was a militant humanist who believed in pluralism and racial justice and freedom of speech, big cities and fine art. He stood up for friends in conflict, including Salman Rushie, author of the "Satanic Verses" after an Iranian imam put a death sentence on him for insulting Islam.

Writing on Twitter, Rushdie said: "Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops."

Hitchens was also a committed sensualist and enjoyed living life large, once musing in 2005 about a ski trip to Aspen, Colo.

"I was met by immaculate specimens of young American womanhood, holding silver trays and flashing perfect dentition," he wrote. "What would I like? I thought a gin and tonic would meet the case. 'Sir, that would be inappropriate.' In what respect? 'At this altitude gin would be very much more toxic than at ground level.' In that case, I said, make it a double."

George Orwell, Thomas Paine and Gore Vidal (pre-Sept. 11) were his heroes. Those he despised included filmmaker Michael Moore, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Sarah Palin, Gore Vidal (post Sept. 11) and Prince Charles.

Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1949. His father, Eric, was a "purse-lipped" Navy veteran known as "The Commander"; his mother, Yvonne, a romantic who later killed herself during an extra-marital rendezvous in Greece.

The young Hitchens was comfortable with a book in hand. He was "a mere weed and weakling and kick-bag" who discovered "words could function as weapons" and so stockpiled them.

He was radicalized in the 1970s, often arrested at political rallies and was kicked out of the U.K. Labour Party for opposing the war in Vietnam. He became a correspondent for the Socialist Workers Party's International Socialist magazine.

But he eventually moved away from the left after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, arguing against the opinion American foreign policy was responsible for the tragedy.

Hitchens once called former U.S. president Bill Clinton "a cynical, self-seeking ambitious thug," Henry Kissinger a war criminal and Mother Teresa a fraudulent fanatic.

He is survived by his wife, Carol Blue, and their daughter, Antonia, and his children from a previous marriage, Alexander and Sophia.

With files from The Associated Press