The Voice in My Head: Steve Wasserman on Susan Sontag
By Steve Wasserman
Among the first books I’ve acquired for Yale University Press, just now being published, is a valentine to my late and beloved Susan Sontag. For decades, she was something of an Auntie Mame figure for me. We spent years haunting used bookstores in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and New York, talking for hours over ever-bizarre dishes of Chinese Hakka cuisine in a hole-in-the-wall eatery at Stockton and Broadway in San Francisco and other cities, watching Kenneth Anger flicks and the fevered stop-motion puppet masterpieces of Ladislas Starevich, which Tom Luddy would screen for us at the Pacific Film Archive, over and over again until our eyeballs nearly fell out.
We met in the spring of 1974 at a dinner in Berkeley given by Robert Scheer, author of one of the first pamphlets against the Vietnam War and former editor of Ramparts, the radical slick magazine for which Susan had written in the 1960s. I especially remember a 15,000-word “Letter from Sweden,” which opened with a sentence I never forgot: “The experience of any new country is always a battle of clichés.” I was then a senior at UC Berkeley and was moonlighting as Scheer’s researcher on a book he was writing on multinational corporations and a growing phenomenon which years later would be called “globalism.” I was to graduate in June and Scheer and I planned to go to New York to finish our work on the book. His editor at McGraw-Hill was Joyce Johnson, a former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac’s. Scheer was to bunk with his old pal, Jules Feiffer, the gifted cartoonist for The Village Voice, and I would repair, at her invitation, to Sontag’s penthouse, Jasper Johns’ former studio, located on the Upper West Side at 340 Riverside Drive.
I remember the apartment well. Flooded with sunlight, surrounded by a generous terrace overlooking the Hudson, it was spartan: hardwood floors, white walls, high ceilings; in the living room a single Eames chair, an original Andy Warhol of Chairman Mao, and in the dining room a long monk’s table made of oak with a brace of long benches on either side; in the kitchen’s cupboards a stack of plates, a few glasses, and row after row of back issues of Partisan Review; leaning against one wall of Susan’s bedroom a curious stained-glass window from Italy of a spooky Death’s Head, a kind of memento mori and, perhaps most impressive, by her bedside a 24-hour clock featuring time zones spanning the globe. Most important, of course, were the walls which bore the weight of her 8,000 books, a library which Susan would later call her “personal retrieval system.”
I spent the summer nearly getting a crick in my neck from perusing the books and I remember thinking that, while I had just finished four years of college, my real education was only beginning. I discovered scores of writers I had never heard of as well as writers I distantly knew but had never read. For reasons wholly mysterious I found myself drawn to four blue-backed volumes: the journals of Andre Gide. These, like others in Susan’s library, were filled with her pencil underlinings and marginal notes. One such passage by Gide made a deep impression: “When I cease getting angry, I shall have already begun my old age.”
For my twenty-second birthday in early August, Susan took me to see Waylon Jennings at The Bottom Line, the new hot club which had opened to great success six months before. (Five years later, I would return the favor by taking her to see Graham Parker and The Rumour at the Roxy in L.A.) Her son, David Rieff, my age exactly, had long been besotted with country music and boasted a dazzling collection of bespoke cowboy boots, and we spent many humid evenings walking his dog, Nu-nu, an Alaskan husky with Paul Newman eyes, through the streets of the neighborhood, while talking politics and literature and the higher gossip over endless cups of espresso and smoking Picayunes, the strong unfiltered Kentucky cigarettes he then favored and would later give up. Thus, was a lifelong friendship forged.
Six days later, President Nixon resigned in disgrace. Scheer’s book had to be retitled: now it was to be called America after Nixon: The Age of the Multinationals. Those were the days before computers, of course, and it fell to me to comb through the page proofs, meticulously changing all the present tenses to past, as in Nixon was. Nothing so tedious was ever so pleasurable.
Susan and I kept up our friendship and during the near-decade I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review, she was a cherished contributor. When she fell sick in the spring of 2004, thirty years after we had first met, I feared it would prove to be her final illness. I last saw her in April 2004. She was in Los Angeles to receive a lifetime achievement award from the city’s Library Foundation. We met at her hotel. She looked, as ever, full of life, ardent as always. She drew me aside and confided the grim diagnosis she’d just received from her doctors. Referring to her previous cancers, she said: “Three strikes and you’re out.”
Months before she died on December 28, I began to draft what would, in the event, be front-page news. Twenty-five years before, I had clipped from the pages of Rolling Stone what I thought was the best interview she’d ever given: a passionate and far-ranging conversation with Jonathan Cott, an original and longtime contributor to the magazine. I quoted generously from it in my obituary. Here is Susan declaring what amounts to a credo, asserting that “thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking”:
Years went by and it came to pass that Jonathan discovered in his apparently bottomless closet the tapes he’d used to record his interview. It turned out that Rolling Stone had only used a third of their twelve hours of talk. And since Susan spoke in complete sentences and paragraphs, we decided to publish the entire conversation as Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview.
Doing so has been, for me, a way of keeping alive a voice that continues to echo in my head. I miss her like the amputee is said to feel the pain of the vanished limb.
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Steve Wasserman is Executive Editor-at-Large for Yale University Press.