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.


Selected Works: Click on titles for reviews and photographs

e.g. Fiction, History, Magazine Articles, etc. goes here
Carl Rollyson not only provides an introduction to her essays, novels, plays, films, diaries, and uncollected work published in various periodicals, he now has a lens through which to reevaluate classic texts such as Against Interpretation and On Photography, providing both students and advanced scholars a renewed sense of her importance and impact.
This first biography of Susan Sontag (1933–2004) is now fully revised and updated, providing an even more intimate portrayal of the influential writer’s life and career. The authors base this revision on Sontag’s newly released private correspondence, including emails, and the letters and memoirs of those who knew her best.
Chapters on Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, Sylvia Plath, Amy Lowell, Michael Foot, Jill Craigie, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan, and Willam Faulkner.
A Private Life of Michael Foot adopts a no holds barred approach to biography, leaving a political figure stripped bare, and revealing a deeply complex, introverted man for all to see.

The first biography of the prodigiously hard-working actor who embodied the Western ideal
A documentary approach to the life and legend. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies.
A riveting examination of Amy Lowell’s private life and lover, Ada Russell, who did so much to make Lowell’s career possible The startling discovery of a new Amy Lowell lover who perished on the Lusitania. A compelling window into Lowell’s gregarious character. Concise readings of Lowell’s most important poems reveal the depth and range of her erotic imagination. An astute analysis of the way biographers and critics have maligned Lowell as a person and poet.
A revisionist view of the poet, her fellow writers, and their biographers. In this series of essays, beginning with a look at how her own biographers have behaved, I have tried to re-conceive the familiar anecdotes and episodes, circling back again and again to certain incidents and contretemps, as the point of view shifts from one writer to another. As a kind of coda to my quarrel with biographers is an essay, “Remembering Amy Lowell,” in which I assess the varying degrees to which the memoirs of her present a credible person and poet. I have not paused to define in any great detail terms such as Imagism, although I’ve included an essay on the Imagists in an appendix as well as the full texts of the poems discussed in this book. These appendices provide a context for the discussion of Lowell and her contemporaries and serve, I hope, as an inviting introduction to her work.
A biography of the great film noir actor. Here at last is the complete story of a great actor, his difficult struggle to overcome alcoholism while enjoying the accolades of his contemporaries, a successful term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and the love of family and friends that never deserted him. Based on diaries, letters, home movies, and other documents, this biography explores the mystery of a poor boy from Texas who made his Hollywood dream come true even as he sought a life apart from the limelight and the backbiting of contemporaries jockeying for prizes and prestige. Called “one of nature’s noblemen” by fellow actor Norman Lloyd, Dana Andrews emerges from Hollywood Enigma as an admirable American success story, fighting his inner demons and ultimately winning.
Here, at last, is the true story of Sylvia Plath's last days and her estate's efforts to shape her husband's role in her death and the world's understanding of Plath and her work. Here, too, is a new Sylvia Plath, immersed in popular culture and proto-feminism, presaging the way we live now.I wrote this biography because there were aspects of Sylvia Plath that other biographers have overlooked or misunderstood. But as I wrote I re-read my predecessors. I checked to see how others had handled the same material. I think my practice in doing so is worth mentioning because I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate that most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents. I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history. I do very little scene setting. Previous biographers do all this and more, and what strikes me about their work is how distracting all that background is for someone wishing to have a vision of Sylvia Plath, of what she was like and what she stood for. To put it another way, since earlier biographers have done so much to contextualize Plath, I have not wanted to repeat that exercise, as valuable as it can be for the Plath novice. Instead, I have concentrated on the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath, restricting my discussion of her writing only to the truly crucial pieces that advance my narrative. I have tried to write a narrative so focused that a reader new to Plath biography may feel some of the exhilaration and despair that marked the poet’s life. I wrote this biography because there were aspects of Sylvia Plath that other biographers have overlooked or misunderstood. But as I wrote I re-read my predecessors. I checked to see how others had handled the same material. I think my practice in doing so is worth mentioning because I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate that most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents. I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history. I do very little scene setting. Previous biographers do all this and more, and what strikes me about their work is how distracting all that background is for someone wishing to have a vision of Sylvia Plath, of what she was like and what she stood for. To put it another way, since earlier biographers have done so much to contextualize Plath, I have not wanted to repeat that exercise, as valuable as it can be for the Plath novice. Instead, I have concentrated on the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath, restricting my discussion of her writing only to the truly crucial pieces that advance my narrative. I have tried to write a narrative so focused that a reader new to Plath biography may feel some of the exhilaration and despair that marked the poet’s life.
The first biography that truly shows the actress at work.-- Ellen Burstyn A new edition, revised and updated, from University Press of Mississippi. In American popular culture Marilyn Monroe has evolved in stature from Hollywood sex symbol to tragic legend. Most books about Monroe stress the sensational events that surrounded her-this book is the first to deal honestly and critically with Monroe as an actress, evaluating her moves as crucial forces in the shaping of her identity. Through careful examination of her performances, from her small appearances in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve to her memorable roles in Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot, and the The Misfits, the author traces her development from cover girl innocent to an actress devoted to her craft. Based on extensive interviews with many of Monroe's colleagues, close friends, and mentors, this comprehensive, critically balanced study describes her use of Method acting as well as her instruction with Michael Chekhov and, later, the Strasbergs. Carl Rollyson has written a refreshing analysis and appreciation of Marilyn Monroe's enduring and, until now, underestimated gifts as a creative artist.
America's most controversial radical playwright. Through diaries, letters, government files, and interviews Carl Rollyson draws a vital and vibrant portrait of the life, the work, and the legend of Lillian Hellman, America's most controversial radical playwright. Rollyson explores the sources and backgrounds of her best-selling memoirs, the development of her politics, her successful screenwriting career, and her famous appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He provides entertaining and informative accounts of her feud with Mary McCarthy, her many love affairs and surprising friendships. He also provides a provocative and compelling portrayal of this complex and brilliant woman, who was called everything from a "viper", "a goddam liar" to "an empathetic genius with a highly original and penetrating mind." Near death, Hellman spoke of being blocked; this biography will show what got in her way.
The first biography of Gellhorn, relying on key archival sources and interviews with her friends and associates. Martha Gellhorn died in February 1998, just shy of her 90th birthday. Well before her death, she had become a legend. She reported on wars from Spain in the 1930s to Panama in the 1980s, and her travel books have become classics. Her marriage to Ernest Hemingway and affairs with legendary lovers like H. G. Wells, and her relationship with two presidents, Roosevelt and Kennedy, reflect her campaigns against tyranny and deprivation, and her outrage at the corruption and cruelty of modern governments. This controversial and acclaimed biography portrays a vibrant and troubled woman who never tired of fighting for causes she considered just.
Delves beneath the surface to examine the forces that made Sontag an international icon, exploring her public persona and private passions, including the strategies behind her meteoric rise to fame and her political moves.
The first book to survey the broad range of Sontag's work. Includes a comprehensive glossary of Sontag's extensive allusions to literary figures and ideas.
Twenty-five years of writing about female icons and biography. Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag Bits and pieces that resulted not only in a biography of Marilyn Monroe but also in much of the work subsequently done on Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and on the nature of biography itself. This book includes 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.
The standard biography of one of the 20th century's greatest prose stylists.. What is new in this second edition of Carl Rollyson's standard biography? It begins with a portrait that attempts to evoke the living person in all her dimensions. It concludes with an interview with one of her favorite secretaries, Elizabeth Leyshon, who eluded him in the 1990s but provided new insights into her employer's character for this book. The biography's new title emphasizes that Rebecca West was a prophet-one not always appreciated in her own day. As early as 1917, she understood where the world was headed and realized that the revolution in Russia held out false hope. Because she took this view as a socialist, those on the left scorned her as an apostate, whereas she understood that Communism would result in a disaster for the British left. Readers wishing to gauge the range of West's fiction and nonfiction should read Woman as Artist and Thinker, published by iUniverse. Rollyson has read his words anew, sharpening sentences, omitting words and paragraphs-sometimes entire sections-in order to provide a refreshing, more engaging, and spirited account of one of the world's major writers.
The first book to explore the entire corpus of her extraordinary career.
Religion, politics, and the writing of biographies.
Filmmaker, feminist,, wife--a twentieth century woman.
The first literary biography of Norman Mailer, updated and revised
Essays in Biography is a play on words conveying an attempt to explore the nature of biography in pieces about the history of the genre and in portrayals of biographers (Plutarch, Leon Edel, and W. A. Swanberg), literary figures (Lillian Hellman, Jack London), philosophers and critics (Leo Strauss and Hippolyte Taine), political figures (Winston Churchill and Napoleon), and artists (Rembrandt and Rubens).
For those addicted to reading biography, enhancing their pleasure by providing insight (or you might say, the inside word) on how biographies are put together.
Provocative reviews of American subjects, originally appearing in The New York Sun.
A candid and revealing account, by an expert in the minefield of the biographer’s contentious work
A terrific companion for biography writers and lovers.-- James McGrath Morris, editor of the monthly "The Biographer's Craft"