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.