Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag

This book includes a selection of Rollyson’s New York Sun book reviews dealing with female icons such as Mary Stuart, Mary Wollstonecraft, The Brontës, Marie Curie, Harriet Tubman, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Sylvia Plath. Rollyson’s writing about icons has provoked him to question the process by which selves are defined. Discovering the shaping mechanisms of the self is simultaneously a way of understanding how biographies are built.

Female Icons includes two chapters that were cut from Rollyson’s the Sontag biography he wrote in collaboration with his wife and a long essay on the difficulties of researching Sontag's life. Other pieces such as "Marilyn Monroe and the Idea of Biography" and "Writing about Women" give an overview of how he constructed his biographies, of the nature of icons, and why icons tell us so much about ourselves and biography.

This book should be of interest not merely to devotees of Monroe, Sontag, and other icons but also to anyone curious about the nature of biography and the biographer.

Linda S. Watts
Post Script 26.2 (Winter-Spring 2007): p142.
Edward Field. The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag, And Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era.

Carl Rollyson. Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag.

In a 1984 interview, Susan Sontag shared her opinion that "what seems distinctively modern as a unit of thought, of art, of discourse is the fragment" (Poague, 211). At the time, she was discussing verbal images, specifically the use of quotations within her work, but she could as easily have been describing visual images, such as those associated with photography or cinema. In fact, Sontag established this connection between frames and pages elsewhere, explaining her contention that, "Photographs convert works of art into items of information. They do this by making parts and wholes equivalent. ... The camera elevates the fragment to a privileged position." (Poague, 51) For Sontag, the quintessential modern form was the fragment, whether sound byte, film still, or snapshot.

In a sense, both of these 2005 books present Sontag by means of fragments, glimpses that stand in for a full view. Field's work depicts Sontag through a series of anecdotes of private life, while Rollyson's volume compiles some of his short takes on her public image. Neither work, then, is devoted solely to Sontag. Field's book is a literary memoir and seeks to evoke life within a Bohemian circle in which Sontag played a part--a group that included such figures as Alfred Chester, Robert Friend and Paul Bowles.

Rollyson, who has previously published two book-length studies dealing exclusively with Sontag [Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon (2000) and Reading Susan Sontag: A Critical Introduction to Her Work (2001)], now places Sontag in the context of the biographer's art and in the company of other women; in these terms, Sontag stands beside such iconic figures as Madame Curie and Harriet Tubman. Rollyson features Sontag prominently in six selections appearing in this collection. "Susan Sontag: The Making of a Biography" provides a backstory on Rollyson's co-authored Sontag biography. In "Susan Sontag: The Writer as Icon," a reworked version of a 1998 essay for Excavatio, Rollyson contends that Sontag consciously self-promoted a particular public image. In fact, he concludes that, "To treat herself as an object of study even as she studies the world has been Sontag's mission" (130). "Susan Sontag: Sui Generis," originally written as the introduction to Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, was cut from the earlier book on the grounds that its placement there might unduly influence the readers of the biography by prefacing it with judgments regarding the subject. In this piece, Rollyson characterizes Sontag as someone whose "name has become associated with a set of expectations--most notably of the dream of standing alone, articulate and attractive" (134). "Susan Sontag: Encounters and Sightings" was first intended as an appendix to Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, but ultimately was deleted from the final manuscript. It consists of sketches of Sontag--often impressions formed just in passing. With some of these observations appearing unattributed, the effect is one of overheard gossip. The remaining two pieces--"Sontag Bloody Sontag: Camille Paglia Takes Down A Popular Culture Queen," and "Susan Sontag Watches The Simpsons'--began as talks delivered at academic conferences on popular culture. Both situate Sontag's work in the context of current studies of mass culture.

Perhaps the richest portion of Rollyson's treatment of Sontag within Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag details the struggles he and co-author, Lisa Paddock, faced in researching and publishing their 2000 Sontag biography. While it is not unusual for living subjects of book-length biographies to regard such projects with caution, even suspicion, the story Rollyson tells is vastly more complicated. As he reflects on his experiences with editors, publishers, interview subjects, and Sontag herself, Rollyson demonstrates how high the stakes can be in the genre of biography, especially when the biographee is a well-connected author accustomed to controlling her own literary reputation and public image. Since it is Sontag's figure as both icon and iconoclast with which Rollyson is most concerned, this account offered in retrospect dramatizes the challenges with which unauthorized biographers must contend. Intriguing, though somewhat less clear, is Rollyson and Paddock's analysis of the process by which "modern, aggressive, self-imaging" produced a distinctive moral, aesthetic, or literary sensibility (Rollyson, 2005, 1).

Although Rollyson and Paddock may have faced opposition to the release of their Sontag biography, Edward Field seems undaunted by such concerns in his presentation of The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag, And Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era. Field is an essayist, novelist, and poet. He is the recipient of such honors as the 2005 Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2005 Sheep Meadow W. H. Auden Prize. Field's friend and colleague, Alfred Chester, looms largest in this account of a shared literary past. While his autobiographical volume does not attend as closely to the figure of Sontag as its title implies, Field does devote numerous portions of the memoir to his impressions of the author/​critic. For the most part, Field juxtaposes portraits of Chester as "arch-bohemian" with depictions of Sontag as someone assuming the pose of bohemian for the purpose of achieving celebrity (xiii). Where both Rollyson and Field portray Sontag as a canny impression manager, Field's self-described "Susan-bashing" makes no pretense to even-handedness. (Field, 276) Field's characterization of Sontag as "mistress of spin" within these tales of Village Bohemia seems at once offhanded and unjust (151).

If Rollyson's book concerns itself with the construction and maintenance of Sontag's public persona, Edward Field's account approaches image assassination. Most memorable among these remarks are Field's repeated attempts to implicate Sontag, however indirectly, in the decline of associate Alfred Chester's mental health. Near the book's close, Field tempers his characterization of Sontag slightly by calling her the "rare public intellectual" and lauding the frankness of her post-9/​11 commentary, but the overall effect is still undeniably harsh (277). It seems especially so when published after Sontag's 2004 death, precluding any opportunity for response. Since Field has dedicated himself to preserving Chester's memory and enhancing the writer's reputation--chiefly through his efforts as editor of the Alfred Chester Newsletter--it may be that the book deals sharply with those Field considers to have proven unworthy of Chester's interest.

What, then, do such fragments help us discern about Sontag's career or contributions? In one sense, both books underscore Sontag's own arguments regarding the power of popular images. Susan Sontag once asserted that, "Photographs make us all Dorian Grays" (Poague, 92). In an image-flooded society, photographs mask, mock, but never utterly defy our impermanence or imperfections. Public figures, intellectuals included, become heavily invested in marshalling such images to their own best advantage. They develop poses for use before audiences, postures which may not always falsify, but nearly always flatten and flatter. Both Rollyson and Field suggest that and how this might have been the case for Susan Sontag.

In this regard, they are far from alone. Others writers, from Franklin Foer to Lisa Lewy, seem especially intrigued by Sontag's physical appearance and her photogenic properties. They linger, for example, over the star-making portraits Sontag left behind, many taken by photographers who were themselves celebrities, including Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Leibovitz, Philippe Halsman, Peter Hujar, Diane Arbus, and Irving Penn. While it is an impressive archive, the more compelling issue regarding such image-making may be that of consequence. How does the iconography of celebrity or literati shape the lives of their public--their self-images, relationships, choices, and understandings? In other words, how do these public images inform others' dreams?

It is difficult to imagine a more thorough-going--even obsessive--effort of this kind than Wayne Koestenbaum's work on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Koestenbaum's depiction of Jackie explores both the distinctions and the interplay between the woman and her public persona. With section headings reminiscent of the titles of Andy Warhol's silk screens of the famous First Lady ("Red Jackie," "Round Jackie," and "Sixteen Jackies"), Koestenbaum's book explores everything from Jackie's sunglasses to her silence. In this regard, Koestenbaum reminds us of the extent to which we owe our knowledge of figures such as Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Susan Sontag to repeatable images such as films and photos. Koestenbaum writes of the sense in which images of Jackie, as with those other well-known women, begin to stand in for the flesh-and-blood person featured. He writes, "Each time Jackie gets repeated she alters. A narrative emerges, and it is not the story of Jackie's life or the growth of Jackie's soul--but the narrative of the image and of our relation to the image" (Koestenbaum, 134). Koestenbaum has initiated a similar process for considering Sontag in his contribution to "Reflections: Susan Sontag, 1933-2004," the Artforum International obituary. His tribute, coauthored with Arthur Danto, Hal Foster, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau, is itself composed of fragments, and promising ones, at that.

With time, it may become possible to engage more entirely Sontag's impact not merely on the scene, but also on her audience. Until then, I find myself reminded of Sontag's cameo in Woody Allen's Zelig (1983). The first face appearing on screen, as well as the first voice to speak during the film, belongs to Susan Sontag. Along with figures such as Saul Bellow and Irving Howe, Sontag functions as a commentator in this motion picture's mock documentary, in which such expert witnesses are a conceit. The film features a chameleon-like character capable of modifying his appearance in order to blend with his human surroundings. While the film, with its newsreel-style footage of Leonard Zelig's Forrest-Gumpian historical and media ubiquity, tells the story of the man as spectacle, its greater drama rests with the on-lookers left to contextualize the rare phenomenon they witness. Just as Sontag's On Photography lingered over the value people assign to images, Sontag scholars may do well to situate her role as icon and analyze her persona in terms of the spectators, whose beholding eyes must fashion meaning from such captivating fragments.

Works Cited

Castle, Terry. "Desperately Seeking Susan," London Review of Books 27.6 (March 17, 2005): 17-21.

Danto, Arthur C., Hal Foster, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and Wayne Koestenbaum. "Reflections: Susan Sontag, 1933-2004." Arforum International 43:7 (March 2005): 188-262.

Denby, David. "The Moviegoer: Susan Sontag's Life in Film," New Yorker 81: 27 (September 12, 2005): 102.

Foer, Franklin. "Susan Superstar: How Susan Sontag Became Seduced by Her Own Persona," New York 38.3 (Jan. 15, 2005): 34-42.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon. New York: Plume, 1996.

Levy, Lisa, "Critical Intimacy: Comparing the Paradoxical Obituaries of Susan Sontag," Believer (April 2006), http:/​/​ www.believermag.com/​issues/​200604/​ ?read-article_levy, accessed June 1, 2006.

Miller, Nancy K., "Theories and Methodologies: Regarding Susan Sontag," PMLA 120.3 (May 2005): 828-833.

Poague, Leland, ed., Conversations with Susan Sontag. Jackson: UP Mississippi, 1995.

Rollyson, Carl. Reading Susan Sontag: A Critical Introduction to Her Work. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

Rollyson, Carol, and Lisa Paddock. Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2000.

Romano, Carlin. "Public Intellectuals' Private Lives: Who's In on Who's Out?" The Chronicle of Higher Education 46 (June 16, 2000): B7.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1977.