Sontag was active in writing and speaking about, or travelling to, areas of conflict, including during the Vietnam War and the Siege of Sarajevo. She wrote extensively about photography, culture and media, AIDS and illness, human rights, and communism and leftist ideology. Although her essays and speeches sometimes drew controversy, she has been described as "one of the most influential critics of her generation."
Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City, the daughter of Mildred (née Jacobson) and Jack Rosenblatt, both Jews of Lithuanian and Polish descent. Her father managed a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis in 1939, when Susan was five years old. Seven years later, Sontag's mother married U.S. Army Captain Nathan Sontag. Susan and her sister, Judith, took their stepfather's surname, although he did not adopt them formally. Sontag did not have a religious upbringing and claimed not to have entered a synagogue until her mid-20s. Remembering an unhappy childhood, with a cold, distant mother who was "always away," Sontag lived on Long Island, New York, then in Tucson, Arizona, and later in the San Fernando Valley in southern California, where she took refuge in books and graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15. She began her undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley but transferred to the University of Chicago in admiration of its famed core curriculum. At Chicago, she undertook studies in philosophy, ancient history and literature alongside her other requirements. Leo Strauss, Joseph Schwab, Christian Mackauer, Richard McKeon, Peter von Blanckenhagen and Kenneth Burke were among her lecturers. She graduated at the age of 18 with an A.B. and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. While at Chicago, she became best friends with fellow student Mike Nichols. In 1951, her work appeared in print for the first time in the winter issue of the Chicago Review.
At 17, Sontag married writer Philip Rieff, who was a sociology instructor at the University of Chicago, after a 10-day courtship; their marriage lasted eight years. While studying at Chicago, Sontag attended a summer school taught by the Sociologist Hans Heinrich Gerth who became a friend and subsequently influenced her study of German thinkers. Upon completing her Chicago degree, Sontag taught freshman English at the University of Connecticut for the 1952–53 academic year. She attended Harvard University for graduate school, initially studying literature with Perry Miller and Harry Levin before moving into philosophy and theology under Paul Tillich, Jacob Taubes, Raphael Demos and Morton White. After completing her Master of Arts in philosophy, she began doctoral research into metaphysics, ethics, Greek philosophy and Continental philosophy and theology at Harvard. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse lived with Sontag and Rieff for a year while working on his 1955 book Eros and Civilization. Sontag researched for Rieff's 1959 study Freud: The Mind of the Moralist prior to their divorce in 1958, and contributed to the book to such an extent that she has been considered an unofficial co-author. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who later became his mother's editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as a writer.
Sontag was awarded an American Association of University Women's fellowship for the 1957–1958 academic year to St Anne's College, Oxford, where she traveled without her husband and son. There, she had classes with Iris Murdoch, Stuart Hampshire, A. J. Ayer and H. L. A. Hart while also attending the B. Phil seminars of J. L. Austin and the lectures of Isaiah Berlin. Oxford did not appeal to her, however, and she transferred after Michaelmas term of 1957 to the University of Paris. In Paris, Sontag socialized with expatriate artists and academics including Allan Bloom, Jean Wahl, Alfred Chester, Harriet Sohmers and María Irene Fornés. Sontag remarked that her time in Paris was, perhaps, the most important period of her life. It certainly provided the basis of her long intellectual and artistic association with the culture of France. She moved to New York in 1959 to live with Fornés for the next seven years, regaining custody of her son and teaching at universities while her literary reputation grew.
Sontag's literary career began and ended with works of fiction. While working on her stories, Sontag taught philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and City University of New York and the Philosophy of Religion with Jacob Taubes, Susan Taubes, Theodor Gaster, and Hans Jonas, in the Religion Department at Columbia University from 1960 to 1964. Sontag held a writing fellowship at Rutgers University for 1964 to 1965 before ending her relationship with academia in favor of full-time freelance writing.
At age 30, she published an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963), following it four years later with Death Kit (1967). Despite a relatively small output, Sontag thought of herself principally as a novelist and writer of fiction. Her short story "The Way We Live Now" was published to great acclaim on November 24, 1986 in The New Yorker. Written in an experimental narrative style, it remains a significant text on the AIDS epidemic. She achieved late popular success as a best-selling novelist with The Volcano Lover (1992). At age 67, Sontag published her final novel In America (2000). The last two novels were set in the past, which Sontag said gave her greater freedom to write in the polyphonic voice.
She wrote and directed four films and also wrote several plays, the most successful of which were Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea.
It was through her essays that Sontag gained early fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art and expanded the dichotomy concept of form and art in every medium. She elevated camp to the status of recognition with her widely read 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'," which accepted art as including common, absurd and burlesque themes.
In 1977, Sontag published the series of essays On Photography. These essays are an exploration of photographs as a collection of the world, mainly by travelers or tourists, and the way we experience it. In the essays, she outlined her theory of taking pictures as you travel:
The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures. (p. 10)
Sontag writes that the convenience of modern photography has created an overabundance of visual material, and "just about everything has been photographed". This has altered our expectations of what we have the right to view, want to view or should view. "In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notion of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe" and has changed our "viewing ethics". Photographs have increased our access to knowledge and experiences of history and faraway places, but the images may replace direct experience and limit reality. She also states that photography desensitizes its audience to horrific human experiences, and children are exposed to experiences before they are ready for them.
Sontag continued to theorize about the role of photography in real life in her essay "Looking at War: Photography's View of Devastation and Death", which appeared in the December 9, 2002 issue of The New Yorker. There she concludes that the problem of our reliance on images and especially photographic images is not that "people remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs ... that the photographic image eclipses other forms of understanding – and remembering. ... To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture" (p. 94).
She became a role-model for many feminists and aspiring female writers during the 1960s and 1970s.
During 1989 Sontag was the President of PEN American Center, the main U.S. branch of the International PEN writers' organization. After Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa death sentence against writer Salman Rushdie for blasphemy after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses that year, Sontag's uncompromising support of Rushdie was crucial in rallying American writers to his cause.
A few years later, during the Siege of Sarajevo, Sontag gained attention for directing a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in a candlelit theatre in the Bosnian city. In the Daily Telegraph, Kevin Myers called it "mesmerisingly precious and hideously self-indulgent." and wrote, "By my personal reckoning, the performance lasted as long as the siege itself." However, many of Sarajevo's besieged residents disagreed:
To the people of Sarajevo, Ms. Sontag has become a symbol, interviewed frequently by the local newspapers and television, invited to speak at gatherings everywhere, asked for autographs on the street. After the opening performance of the play, the city's Mayor, Muhamed Kreševljaković, came onstage to declare her an honorary citizen, the only foreigner other than the recently departed United Nations commander, Lieut. Gen. Phillippe Morillon, to be so named. "It is for your bravery, in coming here, living here, and working with us," he said.
Sontag drew criticism for writing in 1967 in the Partisan Review:
If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far.… The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.
According to journalist Mark M. Goldblatt, Sontag later "recanted" the statement, saying that "it slandered cancer patients," but according to Eliot Weinberger, "She came to regret that last phrase, and wrote a whole book against the use of illness as metaphor."
In a 1970 article titled "America as a Gun Culture", the noted historian Richard Hofstadter wrote:
Modern critics of our culture who, like Susan Sontag, seem to know nothing of American history, who regard the white race as a "cancer" and assert that the United States was "founded on a genocide," may fantasize that the Indians fought according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. But in the tragic conflict of which they were to be the chief victims, they were capable of striking terrible blows.
In "Sontag, Bloody Sontag", an essay in her 1994 book Vamps & Tramps, art and cultural critic Camille Paglia describes her initial admiration and subsequent disillusionment:
Sontag's cool exile was a disaster for the American women's movement. Only a woman of her prestige could have performed the necessary critique and debunking of the first instant-canon feminist screeds, such as those of Kate Millett or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose middlebrow mediocrity crippled women's studies from the start. No patriarchal villains held Sontag back; her failures are her own.
Paglia mentions several criticisms of Sontag, including Harold Bloom's comment of "Mere Sontagisme!" on Paglia's doctoral dissertation. Paglia states that Sontag "had become synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing". Paglia also describes Sontag as a "sanctimonious moralist of the old-guard literary world", and tells of a visit by Sontag to Bennington College, in which she arrived hours late, ignored the agreed-upon topic of the event, and made an incessant series of ridiculous demands.
Ellen Lee accused Sontag of plagiarism when Lee discovered at least twelve passages in In America (1999) that were similar to, or copied from, passages in four other books about Helena Modjeska without attribution. Sontag said about using the passages, "All of us who deal with real characters in history transcribe and adopt original sources in the original domain. I've used these sources and I've completely transformed them. There's a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions."
At a New York pro-Solidarity rally in 1982, Sontag stated that "people on the left", like herself, "have willingly or unwillingly told a lot of lies". She added that they:
believed in, or at least applied, a double standard to the angelic language of Communism.. Communism is Fascism—successful Fascism, if you will. What we have called Fascism is, rather, the form of tyranny that can be overthrown—that has, largely, failed. I repeat: not only is Fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies—especially when their populations are moved to revolt—but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face... Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or [t]he New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
Sontag's speech reportedly "drew boos and shouts from the audience". The Nation published her speech, excluding the passage comparing the magazine with Reader's Digest. Responses included accusations that she had betrayed her ideals.
Sontag received angry criticism for her remarks in The New Yorker (September 24, 2001) about the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In her commentary, she referred to the attacks as a "monstrous dose of reality" and criticized U.S. public officials and media commentators for trying to convince the American public that "everything is O.K." Specifically, she opposed the prevalent belief that the perpetrators were "cowards" and argued the country should see the terrorists' actions not as "a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions".
Tom Wolfe once dismissed Sontag as "just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium encumbered by her prose style, which had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review."(1963) The Benefactor ISBN 0-385-26710-X
(1967) Death Kit ISBN 0-312-42011-0
(1977) I, etcetera (Collection of short stories) ISBN 0-374-17402-4
(1991) "The Way We Live Now" (short story) ISBN 0-374-52305-3
(1992) The Volcano Lover ISBN 1-55800-818-7
(1999) In America ISBN 1-56895-898-6 – winner of the 2000 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction
The Way We Live Now (1990) about the AIDS epidemic
A Parsifal (1991), a deconstruction inspired by Robert Wilson's 1991 staging of the Wagner opera
Alice in Bed (1993), about 19th century intellectual, Alice James, who was confined to bed by illness
Lady from the Sea, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1888 play of the same name, premiered in 1998 in Italy. Sontag wrote an essay about it in 1999 in Theatre called "Rewriting Lady from the Sea".
(1966) Against Interpretation ISBN 0-385-26708-8 (includes Notes on "Camp")
(1969) Styles of Radical Will ISBN 0-312-42021-8
(1980) Under the Sign of Saturn ISBN 0-374-28076-2
(2001) Where the Stress Falls ISBN 0-374-28917-4
(2003) Regarding the Pain of Others ISBN 0-374-24858-3
(2007) At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches ISBN 0-374-10072-1 (edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, with a foreword by David Rieff)
Sontag also published nonfiction essays in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Granta, Partisan Review and the London Review of Books.(1977) On Photography ISBN 0-374-22626-1
(1978) Illness as Metaphor ISBN 0-394-72844-0
(1988) AIDS and Its Metaphors (a continuation of Illness as Metaphor) ISBN 0-374-10257-0
(2003) Regarding the Pain of Others ISBN 0-374-24858-3
(1969) Duett för kannibaler (Duet for Cannibals)
(1971) Broder Carl (Brother Carl)
(1974) Promised Lands
(1983) Unguided Tour AKA Letter from Venice
(2002) Liner notes for the Patti Smith album Land
(2004) Contribution of phrases to Fischerspooner's third album Odyssey
(2008) Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963
(2012) As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980. ISBN 9780374100766
1978: National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography
1990: MacArthur Fellowship
1992: Malaparte Prize, Italy
1999: Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, France
2000: National Book Award for In America
2001: Jerusalem Prize, awarded every two years to a writer whose work explores the freedom of the individual in society.
2002: George Polk Award, for Cultural Criticism for "Looking at War," in The New Yorker
2003: Honorary Doctorate of Tübingen University
2003: Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels) during the Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse).
2003: Prince of Asturias Award on Literature.
2004: Two days after her death, Muhidin Hamamdzic, the mayor of Sarajevo announced the city would name a street after her, calling her an "author and a humanist who actively participated in the creation of the history of Sarajevo and Bosnia." Theatre Square outside the National Theatre was promptly proposed to be renamed Susan Sontag Theatre Square. It took 5 years, however, for that tribute to become official. On January 13, 2010, the city of Sarajevo posted a plate with a new street name for Theater Square: Theater Square of Susan Sontag.
Sontag's mother died of lung cancer in Hawaii in 1986.
Sontag had a close romantic relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz. They met in 1989, when both had already established notability in their careers. Leibovitz has suggested that Sontag mentored her and constructively criticized her work. During Sontag's lifetime, neither woman publicly disclosed whether the relationship was a friendship or romantic in nature. Newsweek in 2006 made reference to Leibovitz's decade-plus relationship with Sontag, stating, "The two first met in the late '80s, when Leibovitz photographed her for a book jacket. They never lived together, though they each had an apartment within view of the other's." Leibovitz, when interviewed for her 2006 book A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, said the book told a number of stories, and that "with Susan, it was a love story." While The New York Times in 2009 referred to Sontag as Leibovitz's "companion", Leibovitz wrote in A Photographer's Life that, "Words like 'companion' and 'partner' were not in our vocabulary. We were two people who helped each other through our lives. The closest word is still 'friend.'" That same year, Leibovitz said the descriptor "lover" was accurate. She later reiterated, "Call us 'lovers'. I like 'lovers.' You know, 'lovers' sounds romantic. I mean, I want to be perfectly clear. I love Susan."
Sontag died in New York City on 28 December 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome which had evolved into acute myelogenous leukemia. She is buried in Paris at Cimetière du Montparnasse. Her final illness has been chronicled by her son, David Rieff.
Sontag became aware of her bisexuality during her early teens and at 15 wrote in her diary, "I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this)". At 16, she had a sexual encounter with a woman: "Perhaps I was drunk, after all, because it was so beautiful when H began making love to me...It had been 4:00 before we had gotten to bed...I became fully conscious that I desired her, she knew it, too".
Sontag lived with 'H', the writer and model Harriet Sohmers Zwerling whom she first met at U. C. Berkeley from 1958 to 1959. Afterwards, Sontag was the partner of María Irene Fornés, a Cuban-American avant garde playwright and director. Upon splitting with Fornes, she was involved with an Italian aristocrat, Carlotta Del Pezzo, and the German academic Eva Kollisch. Sontag was romantically involved with the American artists Jasper Johns and Paul Thek. During the early 1970s, Sontag lived with Nicole Stéphane, a Rothschild banking heiress turned movie actress, and, later, the choreographer Lucinda Childs. She also had a relationship with the writer Joseph Brodsky. With Annie Leibovitz, Sontag maintained a relationship stretching from the later 1980s until her final years.
In an interview in The Guardian in 2000, Sontag was quite open about being bisexual: "'Shall I tell you about getting older?', she says, and she is laughing. 'When you get older, 45 plus, men stop fancying you. Or put it another way, the men I fancy don't fancy me. I want a young man. I love beauty. So what's new?' She says she has been in love seven times in her life. 'No, hang on,' she says. 'Actually, it's nine. Five women, four men.'" Many of Sontag's obituaries failed to mention her significant same-sex relationships, most notably that with Annie Leibovitz. In response to this criticism, New York Times Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, defended the newspaper's obituary, stating that at the time of Sontag's death, a reporter could make no independent verification of her romantic relationship with Leibovitz (despite attempts to do so). After Sontag's death, Newsweek published an article about Annie Leibovitz that made clear references to her decade-plus relationship with Sontag.
Sontag was quoted by Editor-in-Chief Brendan Lemon of Out magazine as saying "I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the 'open secret'. I'm used to that, and quite OK with it. Intellectually, I know why I haven't spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven't repressed something there to my detriment. Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, but it's never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody's in drastic need. I'd rather give pleasure, or shake things up."
Sontag used a PowerBook 5300, a PowerMac G4, and an iBook. A digital archive of 17,198 of Sontag's emails is kept by the U.C.L.A. Department of Special Collections at the Charles E. Young Research Library. Her archive and the efforts to make it publicly available while protecting it from bit rot, are the subject of the book On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive, by Jeremy Schmidt & Jacquelyn Ardam.
A documentary about Sontag, titled Regarding Susan Sontag, premiered in 2014. It was directed by Nancy Kates, and received the Special Jury Mention for Best Documentary Feature at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.