Writing Sontag's Life and Work:
an interview with Benjamin Moser

photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Benjamin Moser was born and raised in Houston. He graduated from Brown University and received his Ph.D. from Utrecht University. Moser’s first book was a biography of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector titled Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press, 2012); he subsequently edited a series of translations of Lispector for New Directions, and has published translations in Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Based on his biography of Lispector, he was invited to write a biography of Susan Sontag which took seven years to complete. Sontag: Her Life and Her Work (Ecco, $39.99) is the fruit of this labor; the book is a revealing, in-depth portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most powerful intellectuals.

The following interview was conducted in October of 2019 at the ZAZA Hotel in Houston, while Moser was in town to give a talk about the book.

Allan Vorda: How is the tour going, what has been the reception of the book, and what is it like to be back home in Houston?

Benjamin Moser: The tour is great. This is the tenth city I’ve visited, and it’s always great to be back in Houston, where I grew up. I’m lucky the reviews have been good. Sontag was so polemical I thought I would get more negative reception; I’ve received some, but I thought it would be 50/50, when in fact it’s been more like 90/10. That’s a great thing for a writer, especially when you know you’re playing with fire with someone like Sontag. The opinions can be so ferocious—people hate her, people love her, people hate that you love her, etc. It was great to write about such a controversial person.

AV: You received your B.A. from Brown University and a Ph.D. from Utrecht University. How did you wind up in the Netherlands to do your graduate work, what was your dissertation on, and why did you decide to become a biographer?

BM: Ending up in the Netherlands had nothing to do with my graduate work. I met a Dutch person when I was living in New York, and I moved to Holland because of that.

Typically, in America, you enter a graduate program and do your years of misery for a Ph.D., but I had already written Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, which became my first book. A Dutch friend of mine was writing a biography of a Dutch writer, and he was submitting it as his Ph.D. at a Dutch university to the Dutch department. He suggested I submit Why This World to the Portuguese department. Why This World was never meant to be a dissertation, but it was long enough and substantial enough to be one; I had to do some bureaucratic stuff and I had to take some classes, but basically your dissertation is your Ph.D.

AV: Why did you choose to write biographies about Lispector and Sontag?

BM: Because of my work on Why This World, I was asked by Sontag’s son, her agent, and her publisher to do her biography. I didn’t really decide to become a biographer—basically, I had written one biography I thought I was finished with biographies, but I realized I wasn’t because it’s an irresistible subject. It was a big honor to be asked to write about Sontag.

AV: Sontag moved to New York from California and began writing essays, yet at age thirty-two she ends up dining with Leonard Bernstein, Richard Avedon, William Styron, Sybil Burton, and Jacqueline Kennedy at a New York restaurant. Everyone looking at this table would have had to wonder who the hell is this beautiful, young woman? How do you explain Sontag’s fame that seemed to rise from out of nowhere?

BM: This is a hard question to answer. You think, okay, she’s good looking, she’s interesting, and she’s smart, but there are a lot of good-looking, interesting, smart writers who never end up hanging out with Jackie Kennedy. Sontag enters the world as this nerdy, grad student type. She spent several years writing a book on Freud with her husband, and then suddenly she becomes very famous. I think what put her over the boundary between well-regarded young writer and famous person was the essay “Notes on Camp,” which was published right around the time Jackie Kennedy’s husband was killed in Dallas.

“Notes on Camp” seemed to tap into something very subversive and very surprising. It basically had to do with the emergence of both women and homosexuals into a broader awareness. It was scandalous. It’s hard to imagine. So much has changed since that time. Diane Carroll just died and she was eighty-four years old—she was the first black person to ever be on television and not play a servant—so you can see how far we’ve come. To write about gay culture in public was completely shocking at that time, and it made Sontag seem dangerous, and sexy, and subversive. Suddenly, she was catapulted to this level of celebrity which she occupied for the rest of her life.

AV: You state Sontag’s “equation of sleep with death would never change” since she viewed sleeping as sloth and “tried to avoid it, and was often ashamed to reveal that she slept at all”; she became a chronic user of amphetamines in order to write longer. Sontag also stated: “My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality.” Sontag had a lot of issues in her life, including a fractured relationship with her mother; a pathetic marriage; the use of drugs and alcohol; smoking two packs of cigarettes a day; lack of hygiene for days at a time; and her sexuality. Yet this was a driven woman. What do you think were the driving forces behind Sontag’s desire to write and be famous?

BM: I don’t think her drive existed despite these issues, I think the drive existed partly because of these issues. She was someone who was in flight from death in a certain way, as we all are. She was nervous about being gay, and she was always nervous that she was falling short in various ways. But I think that feeling motivated her. If she didn’t have those qualities, she wouldn’t have been the person that she became. If she had lived happily in Tucson or Los Angeles, she would not have been Susan Sontag.

AV: Philip Rieff was twenty-eight when he married the seventeen-year old Sontag after knowing her for one week. Briefly describe their marriage and the likelihood that Sontag, and not Rieff, should have been credited as the author of the book Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.

BM: This was something that everybody knew, because Sontag had always said it privately. But she gave up this book because she was trying to get divorced. Rieff was threatening to her. She had a child with him, and at the time you could easily get your child taken away from you if you were gay. She wanted to be rid of Rieff, so she said just take the book, let me have my kid, leave me alone. I don’t think this is something she did immediately, but it’s something she arrived at because she was sick of the whole situation.

She regretted it for the rest of her life. She would always talk about it. I worked on the Sontag biography for seven years, and I think she worked on Freud for eight or nine years. The thought of someone taking away a piece of work after all those years is maddening. So it doesn’t surprise me that she was resentful.

AV: Since you have a Jewish background, as do your subjects Sontag and Lispector, did this prove helpful and give you a better insight into writing these biographies?

BM: On Lispector, definitely. For Sontag, not really. Sontag was an American Jew like I am—it wasn’t a big issue for her. I think you can overstate these similarities, like I’m Jewish and she’s Jewish. I’m gay and she’s gay. I’m American and she’s American. I think her Jewish background is pretty standard, and in New York it’s not a disadvantage. It might have been a disadvantage if she were like Lispector, who came from a place of deathly anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, but that wasn’t the case for Sontag.

AV: Irene Fornés, a Cuban-American playwright and director, became Sontag’s lover in 1959. Despite having been married and having a son as well as a lengthy affair with Harriet Sohmers, you state that “Irene introduced her to the orgasm” at age twenty-six. Sontag wrote: “I feel for the first time the living possibility of being a writer. The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of my ego. For me to write I must find my ego.” How important, both sexually and intellectually, was Irene Fornes in transforming Sontag’s life?

BM: It’s so funny: when I got to the UK to do some publicity, which was three weeks ago, people immediately asked me about the orgasm. Everybody was really interested in this, and I thought it was fascinating because it’s one of these things that you see has changed so much. Now there is so much more awareness of sex, but a lot of older women told me: “We really didn’t know about this, no one told us!”

There was no sex education. It was unspeakable in the media. I think what the orgasm represented for Sontag is a possibility of freedom. She’s locked into this marriage and this conservative society and all these ideas, and suddenly she has an orgasm with this incredibly sensual and sexual woman. This was really appealing to someone like Sontag, who had always been living in her own head.

Sexual liberation, if you want to put it that way, was extremely exciting, and in fact she starts writing more after that. She had already written the Freud book, but she starts writing with a lot more excitement. She starts looking for that thrill you get from certain forms of sex—and from certain forms of art.

AV: Another person who heavily affected Sontag’s life was Roger Straus, of the Farrar, Straus, Giroux publishing firm: “He published every one of her books. He kept her alive, professionally, financially, and sometimes physically.” Without Roger Straus, would Sontag have achieved the heights she reached?

BM: That’s a good question, and it’s hard to say. Straus provided unstinting support, and not a lot of writers have that. He loved her, and he saw her through some of her more reader-unfriendly phases. He would take care of her son when she was on vacation. He would pay her light bills. He protected her. She didn’t have a father; her father died in China when she was five. So Straus was a father figure, and a lot of other writers were jealous of this. That sort of relationship is rare for a writer, and she found it at a young age; I think it was incredibly helpful.

AV: You state that “hidden in ‘Notes on Camp’—not, it must be said, well hidden—is a still more aggressive contention. Camp, as Sontag posited it, was not about leveling: au contraire. It meant the establishment of a new hierarchy. The true ‘aristocrats of taste,’ she proclaimed, were homosexuals.” How important was this essay, which was a bold statement of homosexual superiority?

BM: It was extremely aggresive, in a way we can’t really imagine now. If you look at the letters to the editor, they were absolutely outraged. It’s almost hilarious to read these letters; they were saying it’s the death of America. What they meant was if gay people were allowed to exist without shame, then culture would collapse, moral value would collapse, and consequently the whole country would collapse. You can see how long and how obsessed the right wing has been with these things. Since we are both from Texas, we know the right wing is still at it.

“Notes on Camp” was very aggressive in a way I don’t think Sontag thought it would be. I think she thought it was kind of prankish. It was almost a joke to her. But as Freud tells us, jokes reveal deeper truths, and the deeper truth she revealed was that there was a whole restless movement in America. There was a desire to not conform, not just live the life that your parents live. She gave permission for that, including a sexual acceptance for people, and it was very exciting.

AV: Can you tell us a bit about Paul Thek, whom Sontag said was “the most important person in my life”?

BM: Thek was a part of the movement in her life of which Fornes which also a part. Neither was educated, while everybody Sontag knew was a super-refined Jewish intellectual. I think Fornes had a fifth-grade education, and I don’t think Paul graduated from high school. Yet they were both geniuses. They didn’t need all the books. They could just create, and they gave Sontag permission to extend her curiosity into areas that wouldn’t have been approved by academia, or by the official voices of the critical-intellectual patriarchy. She was absolutely turned on by him, including sexually. He was hot. This was something completely different from her professors at the University of Chicago.

AV: Sontag was derided for her essay “What’s Happening in America,” where she stated the “white race is the cancer of human history.” What were the short-term and long-term effects of this statement in regards to Sontag’s reputation?

BM: Long-term, zero. To my sadness and pain, I haven’t had any right-wing haters for this book. I thought more right-wingers would come out and attack Sontag, but the right wing now has no intellectual component. It did; there was a completely legitimate conservative school of thought in America. For example, the culture was against expanding the canon of great books; it was a discussion that Sontag was a part of. But now? Does Donald Trump care about Aristotle? One suspects he does not.

“The white race is the cancer of humanity” is really a statement from and about the age of Vietnam. I think it was hard for people to imagine how maddening the Vietnam War was, until Trump came along. Even if you didn’t like Obama, for example, whether from the right or the left, he seemed like a reasonable guy. And then all of the sudden the whole country gets flushed down the toilet. You see the reactions people have. I think Sontag’s real contribution comes when she gives up radicalism, with statements like these that sound so over the top, and embraces liberalism, which is about progressive, democratic change. It’s not about overthrowing the government. It’s not about tanks in the streets. It’s about what she does later in her life, like in Sarajevo.

AV: Your analogy between Trump and the Vietnam War is perfect. I grew up during the ’60s and every day you turned on the television there was horrible news, and people kept asking themselves when it was going to end. And now it’s the same with Trump; every day there is breaking news and you think when is this nightmare going to end.

BM: That analogy helps me understand Sontag. When I first started to research her, I thought it was kind of crazy of her to say things like that. But looking through that lens, I don’t think she was crazy at all. It makes perfect sense.

AV: In the ’60s, Sontag had affairs with Richard Goodwin (her first orgasm with a man), Robert Kennedy, and Warren Beatty; yet she had no real interest in these men. These affairs were merely “amusing” to her, but afterwards “it was back to the monastic cell.” Is this how Sontag spent a good portion of her life, with brief affairs with both men and women?

BM: Her affairs with women were not brief. Her affairs with men were often with men who turned her on because they were so remarkable. The men you listed were fascinating people, but the sexual aspects were often one-night stands, or maybe two weeks as was the case with Warren Beatty. Her emotional involvement was with women; there is not a word in her journals—and there are one hundred volumes of her journals—where she’s tearing her hair out about a guy. It’s all the women that she’s emotionally attracted to.

Mostly, though, I think she did spend a lot of time in the monastic cell. She wouldn’t have produced as much as she did otherwise. There was no way you could write those books if you were screwing around all day. You have to work to write all those books.

AV: Sontag’s son said, “I don’t think Susan ever loved anyone the way she loved Carlotta,” in reference to Anna Carlotta del Pezzo, Duchess of Caianello. The painter Marilu Eustachio said of her milieu that everyone did something, but Carlotta “was the only one who did absolutely nothing.” The poet Cavalli added: “I don’t think she ever read a book in her life.” And, when Eustachio reproached Carlotta for her languor, you state that Carlotta bristled: “So you think it’s easy, doing nothing?” It seems unimaginable that Sontag, a noted workaholic, could be so in love with a woman like this.

BM: It’s like a fantasy for Sontag. Carlotta was beautiful, aristocratic, and fascinating to Susan. There’s a moment in the book where someone says, she’s not the type of person who thinks, “Instead of being at this party in Capri, I should be writing a play.” And that’s exactly what Susan was like—always feeling like she should be doing something important. Of course, Carlotta’s life was not enviable; she’s what the British call a waster. Carlotta hung out and got drunk. But it was precisely this kind of indolence, taken to an extreme degree, that was attractive for someone like Sontag, who was always working so hard.

AV: Another person who affected Sontag’s life was the actress and director known as Nicole Stéphane, but whose real name was Nicole-Mathilde-Stephanie de Rothschild, a member of Europe’s greatest banking family.

BM: Nicole comes after Carlotta. She was connected with all these famous people. She was also a motherly figure for Sontag. I don’t think they were really in love with each other, sexually. But Nicole adopted Susan and took care of her and made sure she bathed and made sure she got in the taxi on time. This was at a time that Susan was really falling apart, and Nicole gave her the strength to pull herself back together.

AV: If it were not for Sontag’s son, David Rieff, needing a physical to enter Princeton, she would have never had her physical in which “a metastasized cancer, stage 4” was discovered in her left breast. This fortuitous event gave Sontag almost another thirty years.

BM: Even with the discovery, she almost died—it was stage 4, and it was forty years ago, when cancer treatment was a lot less effective than it is now. She survived by a miracle.

AV: In what ways did the poet Joseph Brodsky, with whom Sontag fell in love, change her life?

BM: He had come out of the Soviet Union, and he insisted how bad communism was, which she didn’t really understand. I think she knew it intellectually, but she didn’t know it emotionally until she met him.

And, of course, he was a great artist, and she was always extremely attracted to great artists. He bullied her, which is interesting because she was known as a bully herself. When she met some of these stronger forces, she reacted in a completely opposite way, as a lot of bullies do when they meet a stone they can’t move.

AV: You recount how in a Town Hall meeting, Sontag said, “Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face.” What was behind her shift from a radical stance to a liberal one?

BM: This is what Brodsky brought about, and it was also the result of Vietnam. Living in a very small, New York, left-wing, Jewish, intellectual world, Sontag didn’t quite realize that communism wasn’t really part of the conversation in the rest of the country. I think this was the moment where she became a real liberal. She stands up for someone like Salman Rushdie, working at PEN to protest the imprisonment of writers in Korea, and starts going to Sarajevo.

I think communism is attractive as an idea because it promises a complete elimination of injustice. But that’s not what liberals believe. Liberals think maybe you can’t improve everything, but you can open a kindergarten for underprivileged children and help twenty kids get a better education. This requires a bit of humility. The world needs to be changed, and we all know it. But it’s easier said than done. So should you give up and do nothing? Or should you do your little something in your own little place?

AV: In your chapter “The Word Won’t go Away,” you discuss how Sontag, who was gay, failed to address the AIDS epidemic. Why didn’t she address the issue, and do you think she regretted her silence?

BM: That’s a really tough question because of the speed with which these things have changed. My dad grew up in Houston, and he said when he was a kid it was unthinkable that a black guy and a white guy would eat at the same table. It was just something that did not exist. Gay rights were like this in a certain way, but the change was very radical and very fast.

Sontag grew up in a world in which lesbians were considered man-killing dykes, and gay men were guys who flashed little boys on the playground. There was no gay representation, no ideas, no discussion. It was totally taboo. If you were discovered to be gay, you could lose your home, you could lose your job, and you could lose your child, which almost happened to Sontag.

She was someone who was called upon by the community to make a huge change in her life, and she wasn’t able to make the change that quickly, even though she was fifty at that time. Sontag always had relationships with women, but there was an internalized homophobia which kept her from playing a role in certain areas. This isn’t to say she didn’t play a role. The fact was she was gay and everyone knew she was gay, but she never talked about it. I can’t tell you how many lesbians have told me how inspiring she was. She embodied the idea that you could be gay and be an intellectual and write and be respected. Being gay didn’t have to mean the end of your life. This was really meaningful to a lot of people.

AV: Your comments make me think about Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, in which he discusses a poll breaking down the chances of being elected President of the United States. At the bottom of the list is being black, gay, and an atheist. Since that short time ago we have had a black President, and Pete Buttigieg is running for President. Perhaps in our lifetime we will have a President who is an atheist, and remove that last prejudicial issue.

BM: I think Americans are sick of having religion shoved down their throats. I hope it won’t even be a question in the future. No religion? Who cares? Let’s talk about healthcare.

AV: How instrumental was the great photographer, Annie Leibovitz, in helping Sontag both emotionally and financially? Their long-lasting affair was bizarre in that Sontag would often ridicule Leibowitz in public, yet Leibowitz put up with the humiliation and gave Sontag a lot of money during their relationship.

BM: This was hard for me to understand, because I heard shocking stories about their relationship, none of which were a secret—it was all in public. Susan would say terrible things to Annie. Annie, on the other hand, was not a pushover. She has now been at the top of her profession for fifty years, and was someone who was powerful in her own right. It made me wonder how she could put up with Sontag’s ridicule.

I finally talked to Annie after a couple years of trying to reach out to her. I was actually walking along the street in Paris when I got a phone call from one of her studios. Some woman said, “Annie wants to talk to you, can you come see her tomorrow?” I said, “Sure. Where?” They gave me an address in the West Village of New York. I got on a plane and I went the very next day.

I talked to Annie all day, and I really understood that despite all these negative stories, Annie is a tough cookie. She didn’t really mind as much as other people thought she did. She’s can hold her own, and she really loved Susan.

AV: Sontag was a natural beauty, but you indicate she never took care of herself, which included not brushing her teeth or taking a shower for several days. It makes me wonder why people were attracted to her, especially the physical relationships. Why did Sontag have such little regard for her own hygiene?

BM: Sontag’s sister said this was a problem even in elementary school. I think part of the attraction was it didn’t look like she was trying hard. She was just different. It’s a mystery as far as the hygiene goes, but she had star power that is hard to quantify.

AV: If Sontag didn’t address the AIDS situation properly, she definitely exceeded expectations regarding the Serbian-Bosnian conflict. Do you think this was the best moment in her life?

BM: The other night when I was in Los Angeles for a reading, there was this old guy in the audience. I was so excited because it was Merrill Rodin, who went with Sontag to see Thomas Mann in 1949. They had this game called the Stravinsky game, in which you would ask yourself how many years would you give Stravinsky in exchange for you dropping dead right here on the spot. They concluded that they’d be willing to die in order to give Stravinsky four years of life.

So she always thought culture and art were worth dying for. She thought art made human life more than the sum of pain and suffering and misery. She found a place where she could put that idea into practice. This is the story of what she did in Sarajevo by putting on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1993.

I can tell you all those mixed feelings people might have had about her in New York, or Paris, or wherever—none of those mixed feelings existed in Sarajevo. People loved her for what she did. They named the square in front of the national theatre for her. She found the thing she was meant to do in her life, and that was to stand for culture and art and civilization and tolerance and antiracism and antiwar.

AV: Sontag had a lot of occasions that helped her to project “her own desire to be reinvented.” In this she was a precursor to someone like Madonna. How was Sontag able to stay in the limelight for roughly fifty years? Do you think her prominence will diminish over time?

BM: It’s interesting you mention Madonna, because reinvention is often a word that comes up with her. The thing is with Sontag, when you look at her life, and her process of going from one thing to the next, it’s not a reinvention that comes about because she has a new album, which is the impression you get with Madonna. That’s not to belittle Madonna; I think she’s more interesting than that. But with Sontag she was always trying to find something to do with herself, and it often comes out of pain and longing and failure. She’s propelling herself, and finding a way to get back on her feet and do something new. I think it’s really American in a certain way, and really courageous. This is a woman who almost died of cancer twice. A woman who was always struggling, who was often unhappy, and who was nevertheless able to keep going and produce this incredible amount of work. One of my ambitions for this biography is that I want people to come back to her work. I realize this is probably romantic, but I really hope people will start reading Sontag.

AV: What plans do you have for your next book? Will it be another biography, or perhaps something else?

BM: I have no idea, but it’s not going to be another biography. I really don’t know what I’ll do, but I think about it all the time. I’m waiting for the love of my life to come along and explain it all to me. It will happen, but for right now, I just have to let Sontag flow out of my system.

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