The fact that Carl Rollyson has previously written unauthorized biographies of Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, 1986), Lillian Hellman (Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and her Legacy, 1988), and Rebecca West (Rebecca West: A Life, 1996) tells something about his fascination with women who blur the lines between art and celebrity. In stark contrast to the romantic image of the great artist as one who works best in a state of solitary confinement under a series of deprivations, Rollyson’s biographical subjects are figures who revel in pleasure, thrive in the spotlight, vigorously court public opinion, and who are as obsessed with their image as they are with being consummate artisans in their respective fields. Their strong physical presence and overt erotic character complicate their relationships with their contemporaries, their critics, and their devoted “fans.”
Rollyson, an English professor at Baruch College, and his wife Lisa Paddock, a lawyer and freelance writer, make it clear when they write that “Sontag’s striking looks seem inseparable from her intellectual appeal,” that they are drawn to writing the life of Susan Sontag precisely because of what they perceive to be her iconic celebrity status in American letters and culture. In one moment of exuberant hyperbole, they even compare her to the goddess Athena. Somewhat under the sway of Sontag’s physical attractiveness and amazon-like public persona, both drawn toward and repelled by what they term their “magnetic” subject, they are ultimately less interested in understanding the life through the work than they are in dissecting Sontag as “a dream of Susan Sontag.” Viewing Sontag as a sensual and visual object as much as an author, book jacket photographs of Sontag receive almost as much attention as the content of Sontag’s writings. Their book, therefore, more properly belongs in the genre of gossipy celebrity biography than critical or literary biography, with Sontag herself as the unwilling subject. Sontag’s rich and varied career is somewhat glossed over in favor of more deeply analyzing the machinations and cultural effects of her self-promotion, glamour, and fame.
For Rollyson and Paddock, the evolution of Sontag the celebrity icon involved an “act of will” extending over decades, and their book takes apart the life and career of Sontag as if it were an image-projecting machine that bears not only the marks of Sontag becoming Sontag, but also of the times in which she lived and worked. The close and often incestuous intellectual and artistic circles of writers, critics, and publishers who lived and worked in Paris and New York City from the 1960’s through the 1980’s come under special scrutiny. Of more interest than the value of the content of Sontag’s writings are the ways in which those writings were packaged and marketed, and their critical reception managed and controlled by Sontag and her longtime publisher, Roger Straus. Sontag’s political activism is also described as a series of staged and managed “events,” rather than pure gestures of a radically leftist political sensibility. Rollyson and Paddock do not themselves level the accusatory finger at Sontag so much as they allow her contemporaries and critical observers to demystify and derail what is often described in their book as her lofty, haughty, and moral persona. While negative assessments of her drive for power and fame predominate throughout the book, the authors also include positive assessments of her writings, activism, and personal and professional behavior that occasionally reveal Sontag’s warmer and more generous side. Nonetheless, it is only when detailing Sontag’s initial bout with cancer in 1975, and her subsequent writing of Illness as Metaphor (1978), that the authors of this biography seem to be in outright sympathy with their subject; for the most part, Sontag comes off as a smart yet self-important and icily stupefying gorgon.
Sontag herself has always been reticent regarding details from her childhood, portraying herself as solitary and bored by her surroundings and sharing anecdotes that highlight her intellectual precociousness, and for the most part the biography echoes this viewpoint. Sontag was born on January 16, 1933, in Manhattan to Mildred and Jack Rosenblatt, who spent much of their time in China, where Sontag’s father had a fur trading business, while Sontag lived with her grandparents. When Sontag was five, her father died of tuberculosis, and her mother moved Susan and her younger sister, Judith, first to Miami and then to Tucson, where they eventually lived in an extremely modest bungalow on a dirt road, quite a few steps down from their former life. It was in the backyard of this house that the ten-year-old Susan dug a six-by-six-foot hole because she wanted “a place to sit in.” The authors return to this hole several times throughout the biography. They see it as a metaphor for Sontag’s introspective nature and dark sensibility, as well as for her lifelong desire to be in the “world elsewhere,” which usually means Europe, a place she is drawn to again and again in her life and work. In 1945, Sontag’s mother married Captain Nathan Sontag, and in 1946 the family moved to California, where Sontag attended North Hollywood High. For the most part, Sontag is depicted in her early years as having been a voracious reader and intellectual prodigy who emulated Marie Curie at the age of ten, shared André Gide’s dedication to the cult of art at age thirteen, visited Thomas Mann as a high school student, and enrolled at the University of Chicago at the tender age of sixteen after one semester at Berkeley. Sontag was drawn to the university’s legacy of student activism, its demanding Great Books approach, and its European ambience.
At Chicago, Sontag immediately placed into graduate courses, where she studied...
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