woman destined to become synonymous with the National Organization of Women
and women's rights, essayist and author Susan Sontage was born in New York
City on January 16, 1933. She was precocious and
inquisitive as a child. When her father died when she was five, her mother
moved her and her sister first to Tucson, Arizona, and then to the suburbs
of L. A. She was an intellectual even as a youngster, buying the
Partisan Review and reading Trilling, Rosenberg, and Arendt.
Sontag was graduated from high school at the age of 15 and
became a serial academic. She took classes at Berkeley and earned a
bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago after only
two years of classes. She earned two master's degrees from Harvard,
studied at Oxford and the University of Paris, and then, in 1959, she moved
with her son to New York City. During the course of her studies she
had married, had a child with, and divorced Philip Rieff, who had been one
of her professors at the University of Chicago.
Susan Sontag said that she prefers to think of herself as a
novelist. Her first novel, The Benefactor, was published in
1963. Her last and most popular, The Volcano Lover, came out
in 2002. But, despite her success with long fiction, her essays made
In her early essays, Sontag wrote about criticism of art
and culture. While most critical essays of the early Sixties were dry
and academic, hers were lively and fun. Her Notes on Camp was
first published in the Partisan Review in 1964. Sontag
suggested that even bad art can be appreciated, that there can be "a good
taste of bad taste." The essay had a huge impact on the New York
intellectual world, and Sontag became a guru for the American avant garde.
In 1969, Sontag decided to try her hand at filmmaking,
which fascinated her. She said it gave her the chance to exercise a
part of her imagination and her powers in a way that she couldn't as a
writer. But she missed writing. "I thought: where I am?
what am I doing? what have I done? I seem to be an expatriate,
but I didn't mean to become an expatriate. I don't seem to be a writer
anymore, but I wanted most of all to be a writer."
In 1976, she returned to the literary world, focusing on
short stories. That same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her doctors told her she had two years to live. She searched for treatment
options and found alternatives with a doctor in France. She not only
survived but also wrote Illness as Metaphor (1978), which looked at
the way language is used to describe disease. It was one of her most
significant books. Other critical works include AIDS and Its
Metaphors (1988) and On Photography (1977).
Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, said his mother had "an
unslakable kind of curiosity, of interest in the world. She is someone
who can go to an opera, meet someone at two in the morning to go to the Ritz
and listen to some neo-Nazi punk synthesizer band, and then get up the next
morning to see two Crimean dissidents."
Sontag succumbed to complications of leukemia in Manhattan
on December 28, 2004, among her personal library of 15,000 books, neatly
arranged by historical period, are Egyptian, Greek, Fascism, and Communism.
"What I do sometimes is just walk up and down and think about what's in the
books," she said, "because they remind me of all there is. And the
world is so much bigger than what people remember."
An unauthorized biography
written by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock and published by W.W. Norton in
2000 reported that Sontag was, for seven years, the companion of the great
American playwright Maria Irene Fornes (in Sontag's introduction to the
collected works of Fornes, she writes about their time together). She
also had a relationship with renowned choreographer Lucinda Childs and, more
recently, on and off with photographer Annie Leibovitz.
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