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Recalling the precious, private, unguarded moments of Susan Sontag

A few words, three or four, addressed to those readers, straight, gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual—and to other readers of Gay City News broadly sympathetic to our aims—concerned with the question of Susan Sontag’s sexual preferences and multiple transactions––get over it, please.

Pick another topic to discuss amongst yourselves––say, for instance, what will happen to the comely mayor of San Francisco after his divorce. That’s the kind of thing in which Susan would have taken a keen interest. If you want to know the truth, she loved you all––and if she had an odd way of showing it sometimes, so did your mother, darlings.

Susan’s own mother, Mildred Sontag, didn’t even bother being funny; she remained a bitter-cold and withholding woman to the end of her life––“I don’t know why you keep coming to see me. Surely you have better things to do.” “But mother, you know how much I’ve come to like hospitals.”

If I deliberately mention this, it is as essential prelude to wondering, first, how a girl deprived of the love that has made its name ambiguously notorious, at least since Sigmund Freud––if not since Johanna Schopenhauer, Lady Macbeth or Medea––should have had visited upon her the moral grace and the intellectual heft to set out with such courage and determination to do to others as she had not had done to herself, and, second, how the woman became such a powerfully cultured humanitarian, justly recognized in the international arena, in the face of the increasing indifference, disapprobation and mockery of a nation dissolving in crisis around her, overrun as it is by contemptible, miserably educated, narcissistic drek.

Well, fuck them, and all the spavined horses they ride around in circles. Benjamin Franklin said that all good Americans when they die go to Paris, and that’s where Susan’s remains are to be interred. (I don’t know what they’re planning on playing at the memorial service in New York in March; I’d be sure to include “Sur les lagunes” from Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’ete,” David Daniels’ recent recording). Come summer, my partner Vincent and I shall fly to Paris from Dublin (no need to ask “what is it?” only “where?”) and pay our visit and read something. It seems odd too, to use an Oscar Hammerstein lyric in regard to matters of the heart where Susan is concerned (do I commit a solecism? Very well, I––and anyway, who’s writing this, bub, you or me?), but the fact is she did at least one time I know about know how it feels to have wings on her heels and to fly down the street in a trance. In France. So yes, it makes a lot of sense, her being buried there.

The earliest inscription in a book (“The Benefactor”) I have from her is dated 1972, so Vincent and I knew her for 33 years, somewhat more than half our lives, somewhat less than half hers. I’d known of her for at least a decade before that––at first while still an undergradu­ate––in connection with Hannah Arendt, to whom my rather testy, seasoned German professor, a Christian refugee from Nazi Germany, referred as “that Weimar Republic flapper.” It turned out also that William Barrett, the Irish Catholic on the editorial board of Partisan Review––he’d been the first to offer her reviewing assignments there––had talked about her as well, in that same fairly closed circle in which certain of my intellectual mentors were not-so-coincidentally made welcome. (Liberal Catholics were themselves hot stuff in those heady late-and-post-Eisenhower days.)

We met because Vincent Virga, with whom I’d been living, mainly in London since 1965, was at that time the newly installed production manager of The New York Review of Books. He would always willingly stay late at the office waiting for her to finish an essay, and while typesetting it, engage her in conversation. Quite naturally, right at the beginning, she asked about his life, and when he said he lived with a writer recently published in New American Review, whose book he thought was foundering at its publisher, she immediately jumped in.

“But I know this writer’s work, and that’s an absurd situation––he must be switched to my publisher right away.”

And so he was.

Susan’s father had run a thriving China-trade fur business in New York, and I used to kid her that had my mother, who was the shiksa traveling saleswoman for a rival firm, worked for him instead of L.B., Susan might have met not me, but David, my older brother, before the war, which made her laugh. I don’t know if, drawn as she was to Chinese culture she was taking into account the ancient Chinese dictum that if you save a man’s life you become in some degree responsible for him from there on out, but so far as I was concerned she was then and there established as the godmother to my work.

And if she liked your work, she often invested in your life. The following is a bit of dialogue between Susan and a writer-painter friend of mine in Boston, where she’d gone to introduce a Japanese film.

David Rollow: I know that you were instrumental in getting James’ first book to the right publisher, yours.

Susan: Yes, but Jimmy and Vincent are my friends––that’s something else.

David: That’s right, you knew Vincent first, didn’t you––at The New York Review of Books.

Susan: Yes, for about ten minutes. I never think of them separately. They’re almost the only argument for marriage I know.

A marriage she wasn’t at any time going to see dissolved if she could help it. When Vincent and I once split up for about six weeks in the early months of 1977, she hauled me off to a Chinese restaurant for lunch and gave it to me straight. “Darling, I don’t know who you think you really are, but if you think for a minute you’re going to find somebody like him again, you’re really crazy, so apologize, or do whatever you have to do, but I don’t want to hear about this ridiculous separation going on.”

I believe it was this specific candor and in general the mis á nu attitude on both our parts when confronting one another––not to mention my cooking, which she loved, eating it up like a kid at a party—or her continuing and strikingly ardent affection for Vincent, with whom she had a particular thing about Japanese literature, the two of them giving one another novels each hadn’t yet read, while I spent time in the kitchen working on the combinations––that led me over the years to be concerned almost entirely with the private, mercurial and, yes, vulnerable woman (susceptible—imagine!—to bouts of intense self-doubt, and not-so-incidentally routinely capable of an enormous number of anonymous acts of kindness) and to view the public power persona with studied equanimity.

So far as that persona went, I concentrated on the Arletty-as-La Pasionaria aspect and ignored the supposed Wicked Witch of the West Side aspect. I did not react with splenetic distemper when she so often so obviously leapt to others’ conclusions––and she really always did know she was Suzanne Farrell and not Balanchine. I cheered the leap.

l was neither afraid of her anger nor guardedly contemptuous of her tendency to succumb to it. She really could be beautiful when she was angry––another supposedly mannish thing, like the fact that you could easily get to her heart through her stomach. However, I liked her better nature better––there was plenty of it––and have no wish now to sentimentalize it; indeed she could be a real bruiser on a person’s behalf. Her principles had long since led her to stake out her own territory, a personal America in the long and once-honored contrarian tradition––read “In America” to locate it, and see in the heroine her most complete self-portrait––but as dearly as she might have loved it, and want it defended, it is a country she would have certainly have betrayed rather than betray a friend in mortal danger.

Which brings me to the stories: two.

A December afternoon, late in the 1990s. We were coming up from lunch in Chinatown, and instead of letting her drop me on the East Side, I rode with her back to her place––she wanted some advice on a Christmas present for David, her son. As we stood looking at the sun setting over Jersey, I remarked on the view, which she loved, especially at sunset, pointing out that when I was growing up visits to penthouses had usually featured a view of the other river, which wasn’t of course a river, and all that.

“Looking back over that bridge to where you’d been raised, correct?”

“Yes––as my grandfather used to say of his Irish ancestors, until the rope dropped.”

“You should write about that bridge he said he’d built.”

“Well... writing about bridges is a tricky thing after Hart Crane.”

“You know I climbed the Brooklyn Bridge last January.”

“You what?”

“Yes, for my 65th birthday. For my 60th, we’d climbed the Great Pyramid––you know it’s not really a sheer incline.”

(I’d heard that: distance lends enchantment, truly.)

“So, up we go on one of the pylons, and there’s this guy in charge of the climb––he’s given us grappling hooks and rope and whatnot––who is way up there above me, and I just looked down and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ At which point he calls down ‘You can do it, Sue!’”

Some more back and forth about the Christmas present––I’d drop her at Barney’s––and although she’d be using her credit card for the purchase, she needed some cash for the fare back and maybe a coffee.

“Want to see where I keep my money?”

“An intimate revelation, certainly.”

“Come on.” And she led me over to a bookshelf, bent down and took up a well-worn copy of “Treasure Island.” There in a page break was a cache of 20s

“They would never think of looking in a book.”

A morning late last spring. She’d stopped going out to lunch regularly and had asked me to come over at ten. Somewhere in the meandering conversation, probably on the topic of evaluating a book, I invoked the term “curate’s egg.”

“I’ve heard that many times, and never understood what it meant.”

“It’s English; in fact it might have gone into ‘The Volcano Lover’––however don’t worry.”

“I won’t––so what does it mean?”

I explained the curate’s egg—a way of expressing neither total satisfaction nor total disapproval—and she smiled, as if to say very them, isn’t it. Really.

“Speaking of eggs, have you had any breakfast? I know ten is early for you––you just fell out of bed and into a taxi.”

“That is the truth.”

“Well, I don’t cook—”

“But I do, and there are eggs, and between us––you know there’s an Irish expression for any two people who are generally, shall we say, format-challenged. ‘Between the two of them they couldn’t organize a boiled egg.’ We’ll show we can––and anyway, you should be eating to keep up your strength. A couple of hard-boiled eggs and a pot of coffee should do us both.”

Somehow––not hard to figure, but I don’t remember the progression––hard-boiled eggs led us to Raymond Chandler.

“Should I really read him? Is he really any good? I’ve always supposed he was another of those weird enthusiasms of the French, like Jerry Lewis.”

“Interesting you didn’t say Poe.”

“But Poe is good.”

“Yes, indeed, and so is Raymond Chandler––almost as good as Spenser, in fact.”

“Hmmm.”

“I know, you think I’m being a bit coy, but he really is quite wonderful––highly formal, and really, in the American line as good as Hawthorne, no question. The six major novels are all about the same thing and it isn’t really about who done it in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. And the letters are really good too. The Library of America editions are the best.”

“Maybe I’ll look into him.”

“I’d be happy to have made that happen––as my mother would have said, mirabile dictu.”

“Your mother said that?”

“It was one of her expressions––they all had them, Catholic school girls who took Latin.”

“I wish I’d had a mother who used expressions like that.”

“It was, shall we say, a mixed blessing.”

(Silence, eyes lowering.)

“Whatever?”

(Looking up, shaking her head, correcting me) “Even so.”

Ma belle amie est morte. Her trace is indelible.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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