Life on the Edge
Sontag: Her Life and Work
I was excited by the recent debuts of two posthumous biographies of famous women writers I admired, Sheila Weller’s Life on the Edge about Carrie Fisher (FSG) and Benjamin Moser’s Sontag (Ecco). The juxtaposition of their subjects, both treasured celebrities, paints an interesting picture of the late 20th century. Carrie Fisher made her Hollywood debut at 18 in 1975, the same year that Susan Sontag published her famous takedown of Leni Riefenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism,” in the New York Review of Books.
“Never, perhaps, has a great beauty worked less hard at being beautiful,” wrote the 43-year-old, Houston-born Benjamin Moser in his introduction to the exhaustive, 860-page Sontag. He reduces the earlier Susan to “a beautiful young woman who was intimidatingly learned.”
In contrast, the 60-something Sheila Weller wrote, “Carrie Fisher was a rare woman in American culture, one who embodied wit, honesty, originality, complexity, and feminism,” in her dazzling, softer, 416-page chronicle. Not once in the first chapter does Weller refer to Carrie Fisher’s physical attractiveness. “Iconic” yes, “Hollywood royalty” even, but remarks on looks were noticeably absent. This isn’t because Carrie Fisher wasn’t stunning—countless admirers and Princess Leia fans beg to differ—but because physical virtue was secondary to understanding Fisher, who as Josh Rottenberg wrote in the Los Angeles Times, was “famous and beloved for simply being herself.”
In my favorite biographies, the author develops a realistic and compelling two-dimensional portrait. In the language of Susan Sontag, it could be critique as art. Yet the leaps that Moser and Weller make in their approach made me question if the difference between them was the gender of the biographer.
In Sontag, Moser glorifies male figures in the late writer’s life while painting every female influence as tragic, a failure, “doomed” or a masochistic victim of the bullying Sontag. Moser is especially adulatory to Sontag’s father, Jack Rosenblatt, who died when Susan was five. He notes that Rosenblatt, “dropped out of school at ten and headed to work as a delivery boy in the fur district, on the West Side of Manhattan, where his energy and intelligence were soon noted.” Moser writes admiringly that Susan’s father “braved the Gobi Desert, bought furs from Mongolian nomads and eventually set up his own business.” He goes on to reveal Rosenblatt’s extramarital affairs in euphemism: “Jack’s energy manifested itself in another area as well. Susan remembered a mistress and Judith described him as a ‘playboy.’” Shockingly, Moser appears to redeem the man’s cheating: “Perhaps this, too, reflected his tortured awareness that his time was short: determined, as his daughter Susan would be, to make the most of it.”
At 17, Sontag agreed to marry her 28-year old University of Chicago professor, Phillip Rieff, after knowing him for less than a week. Rather than condemn Rieff’s predatory conduct, Moser minimizes the trademark controlling behavior of emotional abuse. He writes that, “She anatomized her family and he his; he showed her how worthless her friends were, and confessed that he had none of his own.” He goes on to add that Phillip “had his own clear notions of propriety—and enforced them.” Moser describes a trip to the movies with Sontag and her friend, Joyce Farber, where “Phillip refused to go until the ladies changed from blue jeans into skirts.” The section ends ominously in the voice of Farber, “We never went to see the movie. It stayed in my mind all these years.”
Moser was equally charitable to other men, writing of the late scribe Joseph Brodsky that, “with his red hair and bright green eyes, he was very attractive to women and much of his magnetism derived from the authority he claimed, unapologetically, as a great poet’s birthright.” He describes Brodsky with reverence befitting his importance to Sontag. He was one of two people Sontag mentioned on her deathbed; the other was her mother. Yet the most important relationship of her later years, with Annie Leibovitz, is introduced bizarrely in the book as “the third and most opulent source” of money for Sontag in the early ’90s.
Sheila Weller, who grew up blocks from Carrie Fisher in Beverly Hills, refrains from sexualizing celebrities the way Moser has with literati. Weller characterizes Fisher’s “rakish” Star Wars co-star Harrison Ford as merely “ironic and undemonstrative by nature” and “a Hollywood hipster.” Even the well-known cad Eddie Fisher, Carrie’s father, was simply “curly-haired and handsome in a boyish way.” Interestingly, Weller does not shy from chastising the older Fisher, writing that, “Luckless, feckless Eddie popped in and out of Carrie’s life haphazardly and opportunistically.”
In Weller’s book, women characters are permitted to make mistakes. Characterizing Fisher’s relationship to her movie star mother, Debbie Reynolds, Weller describes “the grittiness of their ‘fierce’ mother-daughter love, the rough-and-tumble history behind it,” acknowledging that love off the silver screen can be genuine and yet imperfect. “Being a good mother to Billie mattered desperately to Carrie,” she later adds, sympathizing with the bipolar Fisher’s struggle to give her daughter a stable life.
Mental illness was another thing that Carrie Fisher and Susan Sontag shared, which their biographers depicted in opposite ways. Weller shows respect for bipolarity, evidenced in her care for accurate representation. She devotes two pages to explaining the subtle nuances of bipolar one and bipolar two. Moser brushes by the personality disorders known as “Cluster B,” offering an armchair diagnosis of Sontag based on observable symptoms. He says that “sufferers tend toward drama and—to compensate their sense of low self-worth—are prone to attention-seeking and grandiosity.”
Whether the result of troubled minds or absent parents, it’s undeniable that both Fisher and Sontag wanted more than anything to be loved. The manic Fisher was famously generous. Sontag struggled with imposter syndrome, despite wielding a “larger-than-life” persona in public channels. Both women lost their fathers at a young age, then later married, and divorced, older men. Both were irresistibly drawn to stardom. Yet Moser appears to want to punish Sontag for choosing celebrity, ridiculing her every misstep.
Moser seems surprised that Sontag pivots on her views of Communism, or the usefulness of “images that might translate to action,” after criticizing photography in earlier work. He glosses over the fact that the precocious, married woman of Susan’s private journals was, though a mother at 19, only a teenager. Describing Fisher’s affair with Harrison Ford, Weller writes that “Carrie was a typical 19-year-old in a disadvantaged love affair with a man who would never love her back.”
Moser enjoys pointing out hypocrisies, like when Sontag analyzes Jean-Paul Sartre’s work for “evidence” of addiction to speed without mentioning her own abuse of the drug. He is baffled when Sontag insists that her 1986 story “The Way We Live Now,” “which is obviously about AIDS, was not about AIDS.” Moser acknowledges that homosexuality had a long history of consequences for perpetrators—Susan could have lost custody of her son—while implying that not coming out after her son David reached adult age was somehow a moral failure.
Weller is more forgiving of Fisher’s shortcomings. When the star repeatedly relapses with drug addiction, the author writes, “It’s not that Carrie didn’t try to curb her problem, but the dearth of good—lastingly good—medication made it a challenge.” This stands in sharp contrast to Moser, who refuses to see Sontag as hapless against seismic currents (the neglect of an absent mother; queerness in an era where she could lose her child for it). He seems to believe that a woman of her faculty should be able to overcome them.
In Weller’s hands, Fisher’s flaws are softened into recognizable human characteristics. “On the set, Mark Hamill would remember later, Carrie would brandish the work of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, while in her dressing room were copies of the Star and the National Enquirer. Carrie still had to prove how smart she was, and—ever questing—she wanted to read the great philosophers.”
There are aspects of a person’s life that aren’t subject to opinion: age, country of birth, or the manner of their death. Within the murkier, subjective areas is where the historian's prowess—and prejudice—may lurk. While Weller elucidated Carrie Fisher’s inner world, Moser’s “mansplaining” of Susan Sontag reveals more about him than his subject.