“I can remember going to some very, very high-powered and glamorous parties, with her or because of her, at, say, Roger Straus’,” recalled the writer Stephen Koch, who became friends with Susan Sontag in 1965, when she was in her early 30′s. “And you would walk in, and it was wall-to-wall Nobel Prize winners and Mikhail Baryshnikov and George Balanchine and Richard Avedon … it was like walking into a Hirschfeld cartoon. And she flourished there. She was Susan Sontag, and it was just part of that. There was a certain high-gloss celebrity thing she would occasionally do.”
Indeed, there were many other things that Sontag did in addition to being a glamorous intellectual superstar-a role she played well until her death last week of leukemia at age 71. She wrote books, both provocative essays and novels; read some of the 15,000 volumes of fiction and philosophy she said were stashed in her Chelsea apartment; traveled to war-torn countries; attended the ballet; and obsessively watched films. She created ideological enemies as swiftly as she did allies. But perhaps it’s the 1975 black-and-white photograph, taken by her friend, Peter Hujar-of her reclining on a bed, staring off into the middle distance, perhaps contemplating Artaud-that most captures how we like to remember her: young, sultry, brilliant, precocious. It was the 1960′s that, in many ways, Susan Sontag represented best-a time in America when it was fun to be an intellectual, when the worlds of high and low culture were converging and it was cool to be provocatively outspoken, intimidatingly well-read, the smartest one at the party. Perhaps she made it so.
After all, as her friend, Mr. Koch, and countless others since her death have observed, Sontag was more than a witty, attractive brain. She was a star-something that has much to do with the intellectual climate of the 60′s, but mostly to do with Sontag herself.
“For one, she was glamorous-looking. One ought not to ignore that, as if it had nothing to do with Susan’s celebrity,” said Robert Boyers, a professor at Skidmore College and the editor of the literary journal Salmagundi, who got to know Sontag in the late 1960′s and became friends with her in the 70′s. “Susan knew that she was very beautiful and very photogenic, and she always liked to have her photograph taken by first-rate photographers.
“I remember the first time in the 70′s,” he continued, “when I went to a poster shop in Paris, and I saw all these racks of postcards of movie stars, and was astonished to see the numbers of postcard images of Susan Sontag on those racks. There was Grace Kelly, and Susan Sontag.”
“Somehow in the 60′s, she had become an icon, like Twiggy or something,” said Jim Miller, the chair of the liberal-studies program at the New School, who occasionally crossed paths with Sontag and who looked up to her as a student in the 60′s. “That’s what made it unusual. You know, in France, intellectuals are celebrities all the time. In America, it’s quite unusual … but not unheard of. You know, you get a hot chick at a party full of frumpy professors and people go, ‘Whoa!’”
Although Sontag was schooled in the 1950′s, first at the rigorous mental training ground that was the University of Chicago and later at Harvard, with sojourns to Oxford and the Sorbonne, she produced the work that would make her known in the 1960′s. She moved to New York, the city of her birth, on Jan. 1, 1959, freshly divorced and with a young son, and into a tiny apartment on West End Avenue. She taught in the religion department at Columbia University and contributed to publications like the Partisan Review; the essay “Notes on Camp,” which sparked her notoriety, was published there in 1964. She was absorbed into the fold of Farrar, Straus (later “and Giroux”), which would become her lifelong publishing house, in 1961, when she signed a contract for her first novel, The Benefactor. Her essay collection, Against Interpretation, was published in 1966.
It was a moment when the division between elite culture and mass culture was quickly collapsing, and Sontag was a primary figure in both causing and explaining it; her “Notes on Camp” addressed gay popular culture through an academic lens, and was permission for the cultural elite to delve into “lowbrow” fields such as film and rock criticism.
“Being an intellectual used to mean, until the mid-1960′s, attempting in one’s work and one’s posture to uphold that distinction between high and low, and basically to resist the efforts to erode it, whereas in the 60′s it came to seem impossible to do that any longer,” said Mr. Boyers. “The 1960′s was a time in which many intellectuals, who had largely been absorbed in their own work and in finding niches in the academy, suddenly felt called upon to take positions and put themselves on the line.”
Sontag had a sharp sense of what was about to prove riveting to the types of people she viewed as her peers-putting herself at the front edge of trends, or at least capitalizing effectively on what was already happening. (She could explain Jean-Luc Godard movies to people who were going to see them but still hadn’t a clue what they were.)
Mr. Koch first came to know Ms. Sontag in 1965, when he was 24 and she about 32, after he reviewed The Benefactor in the Antioch Review and sent her a copy. The two struck up a friendship over a Chinese dinner around 114th Street and Broadway.
“I even remember what we ate: smoked fish,” recalled Mr. Koch. “She was wearing a car coat. She was very friendly. I was filled with ideas of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to publish, and she said, ‘Oh, don’t publish there. I’ll show you where to publish.’” She was a worthwhile ally to cultivate.
Sontag led Mr. Koch around town, introducing him to Richard Kluger, then the books editor at the New York Herald Tribune, and to the literary editor at The Nation. She read his manuscripts and introduced him to editors, taking him under her wing, as she is known to have done for many (mostly male) young thinkers throughout her career. He visited her apartment, then a tiny two-bedroom she shared with her son David, with a living room lined with framed movie stills. “She was very girlish, smiled a lot, and had a very radiant glow,” said Mr. Koch.
“She understood about how she was becoming famous. It was extremely interesting to watch,” he continued. “She once said, ‘I was at a screening of a movie last night, and a lot of people were interested in the fact that I was there.’ It bothered her. But on the whole, she carried herself with her gathering celebrity very well. The talent for being famous, Hemingway had to a world-class degree. Susan had it to a remarkable degree. She had an innate talent for being well-known. People say, ‘Oh, well, she went after celebrity.’ She was a natural celebrity-it came to her like breathing in and breathing out.”
“She was a very young, beautiful woman,” recalled the poet Richard Howard, a close friend of Sontag’s who sometimes accompanied her to literary salons and occasionally baby-sat her son-when she wasn’t bringing the youngster along with her to parties and readings. “She went out a lot and saw a lot of people and stayed up late. She was interested in everything that people did late at night. She was open to almost anything. She was a very exciting and open friend, very frank and direct. She was around; she was everywhere.”
Sontag was often compared to Mary McCarthy, the reigning smart-girl-about-town of her day, which didn’t necessarily thrill her.
“Mary McCarthy once told Susan, ‘I hear you’re the new me,’” said Morris Dickstein, a professor of literature and film at the CUNY graduate school, who sat in on some classes with Sontag while an undergraduate at Columbia in the 1960′s. “Mary McCarthy was then the reigning woman intellectual. It’s absurd to think there had to be only one woman intellectual, but it’s clear that Camille Paglia had that same All About Eve feeling toward Susan Sontag that Susan Sontag had toward Mary McCarthy. Of course there’s room for more than one, but somehow there was this idea that there had to be only one star with a kind of queen-bee quality. I guess it’s men who created that feeling-that there has to be this one mesmerizing woman who combines brains and beauty, intellect and sensuality.”
Still, friends maintain that whether or not Sontag sought fame, most of it, from the glamour to the intellectual prowess, came naturally to her. Mr. Koch described her as an “innate highbrow.”
“She was someone looking up to the greats,” said Mr. Koch. “She wasn’t trying to be like Mary McCarthy. She was trying to be like Gide. She was trying to be like Henry James. Not in imitating their work, but moving toward what she would call seriousness.”
Ms. Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, said that despite their famous disagreements (and Ms. Paglia’s repeated dissing of her predecessor’s work in print), she looked up to Sontag.
“When I was young, I was looking for role models for a life as a thinking woman,” said Ms. Paglia. “She was a rigorous female thinker at a time when careers for women were not encouraged at all. Our self-conception is parallel. This is an American model of a woman intellectual who is not afraid of pop culture, who is not afraid of the media. That is what I admire about her in the 1960′s.”
Follow Sheelah Kolhatkar via RSS.