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12/24/2014 09:51 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Regarding (and Remembering) Susan Sontag

Recently, I spoke with Nancy Kates, whose film, Regarding Susan Sontag, had its Philadelphia premier at the Jewish Museum. The effervescent Kates describes meeting Sontag years ago at a Meet Susan Sontag Night on the campus of the University of Chicago. Kates, who had been struggling with a paper on Jackson Pollack, found the artistic answers she was looking for in Sontag's essays in Against Interpretation, but when she went to tell Sontag about her euphonious discovery she says the diva looked at her "with utter disdain," as if she were thinking, "I have better things to work on than helping a hapless undergrad."

Sontag, of course, could be hot or cold. I felt that cold myself years ago when she spoke at the Free Library on Sarajevo and greeted me with a slightly hostile bark when I attempted to speak to her at the reception. It's not that Susan didn't know who I was. She did. But she was just being Susan Sontag.

I first heard Sontag lecture in the late Sixties when I was a teenage journalism school student at Philadelphia's Charles Morris Price School. At that time I convinced my best friend and co-editor of the school magazine to accompany me to Central to hear her speak.

At that time, Sontag's Against Interpretation has just been published (Styles of Radical Will would be published shortly thereafter) which included the famous 'camp' essay. The Vietnam War, then in full swing, was also beginning to season her political and antiwar views. She was, as they say, hot property.

Dubbed "The Dark Lady of American Letters" because of her good looks and her reputation as a brainy wunderkind--"the Natalie Wood of the U.S. Avant-garde," as Contemporary Biography declared - many saw her as the successor of novelist/essayist Mary McCarthy. "Dark Lady' or not, at the Free Library podium she certainly presented an artful persona. Walking onstage in an opera cape, she had the habit of flipping her great mane of hair off her forehead while taking periodic tokes from a long cigarette holder. Those personal touches suggested Oscar Wilde or the poetry of Baudelaire.

Romantic literary glamour had come to Philadelphia. So, yes, from the very beginning, I was hooked.

Kates describes Sontag as "condescending, imperialistic and difficult," and she doubts whether she would even approve of her film. Sontag, in fact, had gone to extreme lengths to stop publication of a 2000 unauthorized biography, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. (The book was subsequently published and became a bestseller). Kates decided to do the film despite the University of Chicago rebuff, and despite the fact that more than one person asked her if had taken on the project out of a spirit of revenge. She admits that the question shocked her. "I'd have to be pretty screwed up to want revenge for something that happened 20 or 25 years ago," she said.

In the 1980s, when The Philadelphia Inquirer published a short piece announcing that Sontag was teaching a graduate seminar at Temple University, I phoned Temple and left a message for her.

I described how I had heard her speak as a journalism school student, and that I was interested in interviewing her while she was in Philadelphia. That very afternoon she called back--"Hello, this is Susan Sontag," she said, as I quickly drew my living room curtains shut so that my mind would be on key. Luckily I already had a few questions scribbled on a notepad in case the unexpected happened. The clock was ticking: I knew that every word I uttered would filter through the Sontag Analysis Intelligence Machine, and then would come a verdict: was I worthy, or did I warrant a reprimand or an excuse to get off the line?

I suggested an interview on her essays, and then some questions of a metaphysical nature. I felt comfortable using the word metaphysical because I knew Sontag had studied Comparative Religion.

Not only was the 'Natalie Wood of American Literature' unusually friendly, but she agreed to get in touch when she could schedule a meeting.

Some weeks passed and I heard nothing, but then, in a mail, a letter (dated May 4, 1986) arrived from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It was from Susan. "Forgive me for not answering your letter sooner. The time I have in Philadelphia was very compressed and every minute of it each week was accounted for, so in the end I could not find time to do the interview you requested." She closed with, "I wish you every success with your writing,"

In the years that followed I made it a point to go up to her after her lectures, whether at Penn (where I took one of her theater seminars), at Central, or at her big Marianne More talk at Friends Select School sponsored by the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

As for the Sontagian snub that Nancy Kates experienced in Chicago, I felt it after her Central talk on staging Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Bosnia.

The Central bark, however, was more my fault than Sontag's.

I had asked her if she remembered a Harvard professor acquaintance of hers from 1970s who had once given her a lift in his convertible MG from Provincetown to Boston at the end of the summer of 1969 or 69.

Jon had told me then that the author of the famous Camp essay was really a pushy dyke. I recoiled at Jon's description then because it seemed to reduce the author to a gross stereotype, although it was fashionable in Boston in those days, if you were gay, to refer to yourself as a "fag" or a "dyke."

While retelling the Provincetown story, I could see something shift in Sontag's eyes; her pupils registered something dark. No doubt that "register" had something to do with the second part of the story that had Susan insisting that Jon pick up a hitchhiker--a young man with a knapsack--who, as Jon said, got in the car and rode with them to Boston and who later disembarked with Susan at a hotel on Copley Square.

"My God," Susan said to me then, squaring her eyes with mine, "That was a long time ago." I should have fled when I noticed the corners of her mouth turn down, but I stayed put until she shut me down by turning her back to me and in the direction of a young woman from Bosnia sitting next to her.

Kates seemed interested in my Provincetown story, because in the film she refrains from labeling Susan Sontag a lesbian or even bisexual.

"I decided not to over specify her sexuality," she said. "We figured, if you know she was married to her husband, Philip Reiff, and that she was involved with Jasper Johns, you also knew that she fell in love with men and she fell in love with women. We didn't have to completely spell it out for people."

My last two meetings with Sontag before her death in 2004 were shot and uplifting. The first was an event sponsored by the Rosenbach Museum where she spoke on photography and on the poetry of Marianne Moore. Once again we had an opportunity to chat, albeit on the run, as she was headed out to dinner with the Rosenbach brass.

"Philadelphia is so weird," she said, laughing. "What other American city would put a clothespin in the middle of downtown."

Did she say 'weird?' Was this the same woman who praised the novels of William S. Burroughs and who found much to like in the anti-novels of the French avant garde?

The last encounter was at a two day event at the Kelly's Writer's House, where I'd gone on the second day to hear her read from her work and participate in a Q and A. Arriving late for the pre-lecture breakfast, I joined the crowd around the buffet table, and collided with a woman in a dark sweater who was going for the same cream cheese dip that I was aiming for.

I was surprised when I discovered that the woman was none other than Susan Sontag herself.

"Oh...hello there," she said, before being ushered away by Kelly Writers House brass for her seat behind the table lectern.

It was during that talk that I asked her how she weathered the storm caused by her essay on Sept. 11 in The New Yorker.

The essay was written in fifteen minutes, she said, and she didn't think it controversial at all when she sent it off. After the essay's publication, the vehemence with which she was attacked was unlike anything she'd experienced to date. Even her anti-Vietnam War stance did not attract the same kind of hatred and viciousness.

True to form, Sontag turned a Stoic's eye to the anger and death threats.
As Kates told me, "She did pretend that she was Athena springing from the head of Zeus."