Short Takes


The question to ask of any biographer is: What story is he telling? And ask: Is he telling it well? And: What kind of biography is it? For example, by titling our biography Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon,my wife, Lisa Paddock, and I signaled that this first biography of our subject would focus on how she and others built her career and public image. Our bedrock source was Sontag’s publisher's archive at the New York Public Library. Access to that collection made the kind of biography we wanted to write possible. Of course, we asked Sontag for an interview (we were denied), and we interviewed several people close to her—although plenty of others rejected our requests to speak with them. As the first biographers of Sontag, we had enough material. Of course, later biographers will have a treasure trove of material we could not consult. But they will not have interacted with those we interviewed who have since died. Biography is a trade-off.

I also don’t think there is anything wrong with overcorrection in biography, the use of praise or blame to shake up our views of a particular subject. Call this the thesis biography, or a biography predicated on a theme—for example, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. We announced our focus in the title, and I don’t see a problem there. Someday there will be quite another kind of biography written about Sontag, and that’s fine with me.

Several years ago a literary critic pointed out that whatever is said in a book review leaves much unsaid. There is just no way for the critic to say that for every argument she or he makes, a counter argument can also be made. Susan Sontag was a master at this sort of argumentation, often refuting  her own positions—most notably her views on Leni Riefenstahl. In "Against Interpretation," she praises Triumph of the Will as a beautiful work of art. Sontag argues that not to appreciate the film's formal structure because its content is vile is to deny there is an aesthetic beyond evil and tyranny. Nearly ten years later, in “Fascinating Fascism,” by then appalled at the way Riefenstahl had been rehabilitated as an artist and even as a figure the women’s movement was celebrating, Sontag contended that a fascist aesthetic, a worship of the beautiful and powerful to the exclusion of everything else, permeated Riefenstahl’s career from first to last.

Susan Sontag wanted to become a writer after empathizing with Jack London’s writer-hero Martin Eden, who takes his own life, and that Cicily Fairfield took the name of the feminist Rebecca West, who kills herself in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. In both cases, young enthusiasts with illusions of grandeur identify with what their heroes dare to do and not what these idols do to themselves.

All of my subjects are cynosures—albeit, in the case of Dana Andrews, a reluctant one who did not want to be forever wearing that trench coat and fedora gazing wistfully at Laura's portrait. Even someone as austere and simply dressed as Marie Curie became a pinup for my sixth subject, Susan Sontag, who modeled her own affectation about not having a career or concern for fame on Curie’s genuine distaste for the limelight

Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon

Whereas earlier studies of Sontag--Sohnya Sayres's Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist (CH, Jan'91) and Liam Kennedy's Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (CH, Mar'96)--have focused strictly on the body of Sontag's work, the current volume sets that work in the rich context of Sontag's life. Because this first biography of Sontag was written without her cooperation or approval, one might expect the authors to be more antagonistic toward their subject than they are. Rollyson and Paddock do give Sontag's adversaries--e.g., Camille Paglia--ample space in which to air their views, but the authors also give generous space to Sontag's supporters. In general, the book does a good job of summarizing both the background of and critical response to Sontag's books, essays, and films and her shifting politics, lesbianism, and "iconic" status--i.e., the image she projects of the avant-garde, cosmopolitan, glamorous, sexy, mysterious intellectual, an image that Sontag seems simultaneously to cultivate and to reject. Though Sontag's few, brief autobiographical essays are extremely good, she may never write a book-length autobiography. But even if she does, this engaging, well-written book will maintain a central position in the secondary literature on one of the major US writers of the second half of the 20th century. All collections.--CHOICE

Known variously (and with varying degrees of kindness) as "the Beatnik Boadicea," "the Paganini of criticism " and "the most curious person alive," Susan Sontag--critic, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, public intellectual--has consistently provoked awe, distrust, veneration and fear as one of the most perceptive, talented and controversial of American writers and thinkers. Although she has occupied a central place in the twin worlds of literary and popular culture since her influential first essays appeared in the Partisan Review in the early 1960s, this is the first full-length biography and one of the few critical studies of the author and her work. Rollyson and Paddock have unearthed a deluge of information on Sontag's personal life--on her early years and family life, her lesbianism (which she has only recently publicly acknowledged), her relationship with son David Rieff and her battles with breast cancer. While the authors provide an intelligent, though not strikingly original, analysis of her work, they are best at detailing how Sontag and her publishers have marketed her image as much as her thought. Often the book has a casual feel that undercuts its seriousness, and Rollyson and Paddock frequently seem willing to quote anyone who will criticize Sontag (Camille Paglia's remarks come off as petty and self-promoting). Yet in the end, this is a respectful, informed first look at an important writer's life.--Publishes Weekly (July)

An engagingly gossipy biography of the most glamorous intellectual celebrity of our time, assessing the impact of the writer's persona more thoroughly than her literary creations. Rollyson (Rebecca West, 1996, etc.) and Paddock skim quickly over Sontag's childhood, pausing only to note her precocious habit of reading through an author's entire oeuvre (beginning with the dog stories of Alfred Payson Terhune), and to quote various high-school classmates' and teachers' tributes to her beauty and brilliance. The authors hit their stride when Sontag "set off to conquer literary New York," allowing them to expound on her growing mystique and her complicated interactions with the reigning intelligentsia. A lively review of the literary and political fads of the 1960s and 1970s follows, tracing Sontag's path through the era of "radical chic." Although the discussions of the content of her writings run more to summary than analysis, offering facile interpretations, the authors vividly evoke the social context inspiring each piece and its reception in the media and the larger culture, offering some highly entertaining if not stunningly original social history along the way. They handle the major events in Sontag's personal life—both those that were highly publicized (such as her treatment for cancer in 1975) and those she has kept more or less private (such as her love affairs)—with equal zest and superficiality. Despite the fascinating gossip, Sontag's own character never emerges; she's observed from the outside. This distance from the subject may be deliberate, since as the title suggests, the authors treat Sontag as an icon or a social construction rather than an individual—and with good reason, considering her continual reinventions of herself and her positions to fit the changing times. However, they dilute their critical approach with frequent unblushing tributes to Sontag's charisma and genius. The biography proudly asserts its unauthorized status, but its authors never tire of celebrating Sontag's "irresistible sexuality, intelligence, and openness," her "combination of sexiness and braininess," her "hip, sexy, and somehow fashionable aura." Although light on both literary and psychological substance, this biography, like Sontag herself, has plenty of charm.-- Kirkus Reviews

"From reading Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock’s biography Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, one gets a sense of how carefully and relentlessly she was promoted, especially by her publisher, Roger Straus."--Joseph Epstein, The Hedgehog Review

"harsh but richly reported . . ." --New York Magazine

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"