Fact-check the Leibovitz-bankruptcy meme now

There's a new meme going around, begun by a blogger named Julia Miranda and propagated here, to the effect that the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz's money troubles, which have forced her to pawn the copyright to her photos, were caused by inheritance tax she had to pay on property left to her by her late lover Susan Sontag. If lesbians were allowed to marry, the claim goes, Leibovitz wouldn't be in such trouble.

Scott McLemee points out that Sontag developed such an aversion to marrying after her first experience that it's far from clear that she would have taken advantage of an opportunity to marry Leibovitz. But there's also a factual problem: it doesn't in fact seem to be true that Leibovitz took out the loans to pay inheritance taxes. According to the Telegraph story that Julia Miranda cites, Leibovitz "declined to comment on the specific reasons for the loans." According to the New York Times article that first broke the news of Leibovitz pawning her copyright, friends said she planned to use "the money to pay off mortgages and deal with other financial stresses." A Daily Mail story claims that Sontag-estate taxes were to blame, but the story's anonymous author doesn't seem to have interviewed anyone who would know, and according to a squib in Trusts & Estates, Sontag actually left most of her estate to her son, David Rieff. Meanwhile, a blogger named Jason Cochran claims that Leibovitz's money troubles are more likely caused by her renovation of a Greenwich Village townhouse, which damaged the townhouse next door and brought on a costly lawsuit.

Putting all that to one side, of course, it remains true and widely unappreciated that the denial of marriage rights to gays and lesbians costs them money and trouble. It muddies the waters, however, to make claims that are probably untrue, and at best unverifiable.

Both sides then

I just stumbled onto the 1957–58 diary of Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, the lover identified as "H" in Reborn, Susan Sontag's diary of the same period. If you, like me, have read Sontag's diary and were swept up in its heady melodrama, you will probably not be able to resist peeking at Zwerling's version. Among other revelations: Sontag herself was unable to resist peeking at it ("Susan read yesterday’s diary entry and now it’s embarrassing to be in bed with her as I write . . ."). Perhaps most surprising is how much the two agree about the nature of their miserable affair. Here, for example, is Zwerling's diagnosis:

I’ve never before lived with someone I neither desired sexually nor felt strongly about. It’s so decadent! I feel terrible about it all, brooding depression— (5 February 1958)

And here's Sontag's echo-response:

H thinks she is decadent because she has entered into a relation which neither physically nor emotionally interests her. How decadent then am I, who know how she really feels, and still want her? (8 February 1958)

I imagine that if one were to read the two diaries against one another, many small details would fall into place. I happened to noticed one. In one of her unhappy rhapsodies, Sontag writes:

H, whom I love—is beautiful, beautiful. Can she? Will she want to be a little happy with me here? . . . the Negro has a date with [blank] for Tuesday (23 February 1958)

Zwerling's diary fills in the blank. It was Zwerling herself who had the date:

Today I had a date at the Flore with a Negro man who stood me up. Susan insisted on coming with me in the Metro; she’s going to the Deux Magots. I guess it serves me right that he didn’t show, but I had really been looking forward to getting fucked! (25 February 1958)

Upon which Sontag seems to comment in her entry of the following day:

Your insatiability, dear H, that's just the consoling way in which your talent for satiety appears to you. Never to get what one wants is never to want (for long) what one gets—unless, sometimes, when it is taken away. (26 February 1958)


In Bookforum, Craig Seligman, author of the brilliant Sontag and Kael, wonders what to make of the sexual revelations in the first volume of Susan Sontag's journals, which he likens to an explosion and which, like me, he finds "riveting":

So, surprise—she was human. The inverse parabola that Reborn traces—the high of her sexual initiation, the low of her marriage, and her eventual reawakening (her real rebirth)—constitutes a gay-liberation paradigm so obvious it borders on the banal. Except that, as we all know, the story didn’t end so crisply. Sontag came no further out of the closet before the wider public until she was forced to by a pair of hostile biographers in 2000. There’s been endless speculation as to why she remained so tight-lipped. A lot of people have called her a coward.

I don’t think there was anything cowardly about her, though. It was more complicated than that. Her sexuality wasn’t what she wanted the conversation to be about—and she always thought she could control the conversation.

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Susan Sontag

Am in the midst of reading—no, devouring—Reborn, the first volume of Susan Sontag’s diary. What’s unexpected is how devastatingly charming it is. Her earnestness as a child, her intermittent goofiness as a young adult. Her passion throughout. Sontag at age 14:

I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state . . . should be a strong centralized one with goverment control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and aged. State care of pregnant women with no distinction such as legitimate + illegitimate children.

At 16:

With my new eyes I re-survey the life around me. Most particularly I become frightened to realize how close I came to letting myself slide into the academic life. It would have been effortless . . . just keep on making good grades . . . and, at the age of sixty, be ugly and respected and a full professor. Why, I was looking through the English Dept. publications in the library today—long (hundreds of pages) monographs on such subjects as: The Use of “Tu” and “Vous” in Voltaire; the Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper; A Bibliography of the Writings of Bret Harted in the Magazines + Newspapers of California (1859–1891) . . .

Jesus Christ! What did I almost submit to?!?

At 23:

Tonight David [i.e., David Rieff, her son and the diary’s editor, at the time three years old]—on the dressing table in the bathroom, being prepared for bed by Rose—said: “How do people have two husbands? When one dies?” I answered: “That’s right. If one dies, you can marry again if you want.” To which he answered: “Well then, when Daddy dies I’ll marry you.” I was so startled + delighted that I could only reply: “That’s the nicest thing you ever said to me, David.”

He seemed quite calm, but I was almost in tears . . .

At 25:

Tonight (last night!) at Paul’s place I reely wuz speeking French. For owers ‘n ‘owers, with him and his very sweet parents. What great fun!!

. . . and . . .

I am scared, numbed from the marital wars—that deadly, deadening combat which is the opposite, the antithesis of the sharp painful struggles of lovers. Lovers fight with knives and whips, husbands and wives with poisoned marshmallows, sleeping pills, and wet blankets.

It’s a novel, but better, because it’s all real. She knows herself; she doesn’t know herself. She figures it out; she forgets what she has figured out. All the intellect, all the striving, which seemed so fearful and offputting while Sontag was alive, are now revealed as no more than weapons that she took up because she had to, in order to live as she wanted to live, that is, as an intellectual in a world that did not respect homosexual women. With honesty, which neither her mother nor her husband nor even her lovers commend in her, she takes hold of that Proteus her self and simply keeps her hold on it, until its cascades of change slow and at last it reveals its nature to her. It seems to have been stipulated in the terms of her success that she could never write its story except privately. This is the novel she was willing to give up criticism to write. The trick of it is that in her journal she had already written it.

Later. I’ve finished. I’m bereft. I can’t believe I have to wait another year to read the next volume. I think the following was in the New York Times Magazine excerpt from the diaries a couple of years ago, but it’s still amazing:

My need desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.

It doesn’t justify my homosexuality. But it would give me—I feel—a license.

And this, I think, I could have written in my own journal last week:

My “I” is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane me, critics, correct them—but their sanity is parasitic on the creative faculty of genius.

In Sontag’s honor, I will try to be a little more monstrous.


“The big question about Roderick Hudson,” a friend said to me, before I started reading it, “is, did Henry James have any idea how gay it was.” Now that I’ve finished, I agree that this is a good question.

I had read a fair number of James’s other novels before coming to Roderick Hudson, and in that light, what my friend refers to as its gayness is a bit of a surprise. One hears a lot about the alleged homosexuality of James, but in most of the novels of his that I’ve read, it’s so implicit in his subjectivity as to be beneath notice, unless you’re the sort of person who tags delicacy of perception or subtlety of expression as gay. True, it’s possible to see something not quite heterosexual in the valetudinarian, hands-off policy of Ralph Touchett, or in the refined collecting habits of any number of other characters, but the reader doesn’t sense any deformation in the material because of it. That is, if a character seems a tad gay, it’s perhaps because James wants you to understand that he is a tad gay. It’s plausible that Touchett might be, for example, leaving aside the question of whether he knows it about himself; one may entertain the possibility without having to imagine that James has lied to you about Touchett anywhere along the way. There don’t seem to be any substitutions or rearrangements; James doesn’t seem to try the Albertine strategy, for example, Proust’s trick of turning a man’s male beloved into a female character. The women seem to have been conceived of as women, not as men who have been transposed into women. Where he seems to have worked with material that in its original form involved homosexual desire, he omits but does not distort.

But that’s not the case in Roderick Hudson, and there’s something a little off about it, as a result. In the opening chapters, James drops hints that seem almost lurid. When Rowland Mallet, a well-meaning, somewhat purposeless, thirty-year-old heir, visits Cecilia, the sexy, ironic-voiced, twenty-eight-year-old widow who is his not-by-blood cousin, in Northampton, Massachusetts, she at one point apologizes for the town’s meager social resources by saying, “If I refused last night to show you a pretty girl, I can at least show you a pretty boy,” and then reveals a bronze statuette of a “naked youth drinking from a gourd . . . a loosened fillet of wild flowers about his head.” Rowland likes it an awful lot. It was sculpted, Cecilia reveals, by her friend Roderick Hudson, a twenty-four-year-old law student, who, when he and Rowland meet, explains that the cup in the statue is a symbol of “knowledge, pleasure, experience.” Rowland replies, “Well, he’s guzzling in earnest,” and soon decides that what he will do with his life is take Roderick, whom he considers a “beautiful, supple, restless, bright-eyed animal,” to Italy, so that he can study art and blossom into a sculptor.

And no one bats an eyelash—that’s the first thing that seems false. When, in a similar case, Mrs. Touchett takes Isabel Archer to England, there’s no whiff of scandal: the age difference is much greater, Mrs. Touchett is married, however unhappily, and the two women are related. But the motivation for Rowland to take Roderick abroad seems insufficient, unless one supposes that Rowland has a crush. James immediately quashes that supposition by concocting a female love interest for both Rowland and Roderick—in fact, the same female love interest. The reader is asked to believe that as a consequence of Rowland’s invitation, Roderick suddenly proposes marriage to his distant cousin and longtime housemate Mary Garland, whom Rowland just as suddenly discovers that he’s in love with. On second thought, Roderick’s abrupt proposal isn’t the false point—one can easily imagine that a heterosexual, somewhat egotistic young man, in the face of new and unknown risks, might suddenly grab for security at a woman he has long taken for granted—but Rowland’s abrupt tumble into love definitely is. Or rather, the notion that he is in fact in love is implausible. Where Mary is concerned, James’s narrative doesn’t allow us to see too clearly what’s in Rowland’s mind, but the most perspicuous emotion he seems to have is feeling sorry for her. He seems very badly to want to believe he’s in love with her, but that fish belongs to a different kettle.

In Venice, there’s another lurid touch. Faced with masterpieces by Titian and Veronese, Roderick briefly feels inadequate. Then he and Rowland hire a gondola.

Roderick lay back for a couple of hours watching a brown-breasted gondolier making superb muscular movements, in high relief, against the sky of the Adriatic, and at the end jerked himself up with a violence that nearly swamped the gondola, and declared that the only thing worth living for was to make a colossal bronze and set it aloft in the light of the public square.

The reader fans himself with alarm over such passage, but nothing really comes of them. James seems to have toyed with the notion that something in Roderick’s artistic sensibility might have responded to Rowland’s generosity, but he went no further than toying. That’s fine; there’s no real distortion here. Someone like Roderick probably wouldn’t have responded to someone like Rowland, in the way he might have responded to a gondolier. The trouble is with Mary Garland, and with the conceit, which James sticks to grimly until the end, of Rowland’s love for her. I ended up more or less convinced that James had effected a variation on the Albertine strategy with her. (Spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you don’t want to know how the novel ends.) In other words, I felt that James more or less consciously intended for Rowland’s supposed love for Mary to stand in for something he felt he couldn’t represent, namely, Rowland’s actual love for Roderick.

The conviction seems hard to avoid while reading Roderick and Rowland’s final confrontation. In it, Rowland offers Roderick money, which Roderick resists taking, out of what he calls “brute instinct.” He lashes out at the older man’s generosity, making a strange accusation: “Decidedly there are certain things you know nothing about.” Rowland: “These things—what are they?” Roderick: “They are women, principally, and what relates to women. Women for you, by what I can make out, mean nothing. You have no imagination—no sensibility, nothing to be touched!”

To the anachronistic gay reader, this seems promising. “You are incredibly ungrateful,” Rowland answers. “How do you know whether I have loved or suffered?” he continues, and then goes on to call Roderick an egotist. “You are selfish. . . . You regard other people only as they play into your own hands.” The anachronistic gay reader marvels: Is James headed for the éclaircissement that I think he’s headed for—that of an older gay man about to lose patience with a younger straight one who has taken his favors without returning his affections, and is the older gay man about to discover, to his chagrin, that love doesn’t go by tit-for-tat rules?

The two men continue their accusations and confessions. Roderick reaches the point of realizing that Rowland has been suffering at his hands. “I must have been hideous,” Roderick half-apologizes. “It has been a terrible mistake, then? . . . And all this time, you have been in love? Tell me the woman.”

Rowland felt an immense desire to give him a visible palpable pang. “His name is Roderick Hudson.”

Not, of course, though a rewrite is temptingly easy (“The surprise was great; Roderick coloured as he had never done. ‘Heaven forgive us!’ Rowland observed the ‘us’…”). In James’s novel, Rowland outs himself as a man in love with Roderick’s fiancée. Oh well. The revelation sends Roderick careening to his death, as such revelations generally do in melodrama, and the death doesn’t bring Rowland and Mary together, as such deaths generally don’t in crypto-gay fictions. But wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?