Memories of Sontag: From an Ex-Pats Diaryby Harriet Sohmers Zwerling
December 15, 1957
Susan Sontag is coming to Paris next week—Will it be good to see her?
(Susan and I met in 1949 in Berkeley where she, a sixteen-year old prodigy, was auditing classes. I was in my junior year at the university, working at a bookstore to support myself and in love with Peggy Tolk-Watkins, my first lesbian lover, who owned a jazz bar in Sausalito called The Tin Angel. Susan and I connected and I initiated her into the world of women lovers, by which she was already fascinated. Before I left for Paris in 1950 she came to visit me in New York and we renewed our relationship. She went to the University of Chicago, married her professor and had a son, David. In 1957, she came to Oxford on a Fulbright fellowship and contacted me through the Herald Tribune where I worked. She relinquished her Fulbright and stayed with me in Paris for nearly a year.)
Susan is here. What a beauty she is! But, sadly, I dislike so much about her—the way she sings, girlish and tuneless; the way she dances, phony-sexy and unrhythmic. I was annoyed with her (poor kid) for having an upset stomach at the Eiffel Tower and especially at the Cinematheque last night. Does she attract me at all? I really don’t think so, but then, she says she loves me, and I certainly need to hear that!
Saw Han the other night with his German painter friend, Reinhard—a very attractive man.
Have had no word from Irene.[ed.’s note: Maria Irene Fornes, the playwright and later Sontag’s lover.]
I may still love Romaine; think of her constantly.
Susan’s vulnerability and insecurity annoy me. She seems so naive, so easily flattered. Is she too honest? No, no, I can’t believe she really means what she says.
January 13, 1958
Irene, Irene—my real and only love. Last night in bed with Susan I said, “Move up, move up, pupi,” and shocked us both with my old pet name for her. And I wept but tried not to let S. see so she wouldn’t comfort me, as she did, by throwing her big body over me protectively. How heavy, how brusque she is!
I haven’t written about my visit to Dublin where my sister is living. I had sex there with an Irish actor named Charlie Roberts, very male and charming, who kept his socks on in bed. (It’s cold in Dublin). My sister’s lover Paddy is an exciting man but so afraid of feeling; he won’t be good for her in the end.
What shall I do about Susan? Just lie back and enjoy being loved? But my sick jealousy is already starting. Everyone wants her, men and women, and although I don’t really care about her, my envy reflex is still there. We are moving to the Poitou, my old hotel. Probably a mistake.
I don’t like her smell. Bobbie said, “That’s more important than anything else.”
Blessed solitude! Susan has gone back to England for a week. Yesterday I felt a bit lonely but today I am enjoying being by myself again. I am back here in Irene’s room which is mine now. Moving into the Poitou with S. was painful. My pitiful brain rejoiced at the memories and balked at being there without Irene, with someone else. But here in this room I am happy, recalling our crazy afternoons of sex when we just at the last minute remembered to turn off a light or pull a curtain…
Communing time again in my sun-filled tower. I might be getting my old translating job back. How terrific that would be, to be free again!
Here’s a description of Charley Roberts whom I slept with in Dublin. Long greasy black hair, very Spanish, slicked back with occasional loose locks hanging down around his very white face. A big American Indian nose, small thin crooked spitty mouth, dark shifty wicked eyes. When dressed up, wears a rather grubby red wool vest, dandyish, and a dirty shirt with a removable celluloid collar.
The first time I met him at my sister’s party he was wearing a black turtle-neck sweater and an Aran sash around his waist—looked much better like that. Never removes his socks; feet seriously stink! Best sex I’ve had in a long time—The stove is not working right—it’s freezing!
Got a good fire going. The poor, black, wood and coal man just struggled up all these stairs carrying fifty kilos of wood on his back. I always feel guilty when he comes; it seems so awful for him to have to do this. If they would only let the servants use the front entrance elevators as the apartment owners do, such an inhuman effort would not be necessary. Les salauds!
Just came back from l’epilation (leg waxing). My dear Mlle. Christiane has disappeared again so I went to a strange, rather sordid place in this quarter. The woman who worked on me had long straight hair hanging from her armpits; was wearing a sleeveless dress with low cut neckline, in this weather! A sneaky-looking, gray-haired man kept coming into the room to watch.
Then she took me to the shower to rinse down my poor burning thighs. What was going on behind the shower curtain in that room? A man and a woman talking; no lights.
Some day I must write a story about these beauty salons with their atmosphere of perversion, where women hiding physical defects from their husbands or lovers, repair themselves in secret.
I’m working hard on the translation, a way to gain my freedom, at least from the job. But how free can I be with this choice of burdens: loneliness or Susan! I am already dreading the thought of our travel plans, of being with her in cities where I don’t know anyone. I don’t think I have ever been in such an absurd situation. At least with Sven there was sometimes good sex and the security of being with a man in social situations. I’ve never before lived with someone I neither desired sexually nor felt strongly about. It’s so decadent! I feel terrible about it all, brooding depression—
Just a few more days at the Herald Trib. Susan and I are living in a flat borrowed from Sam Wolfenstein. It’s great to be in an apartment, but it also means that she never lets me out of her sight. What will happen when I am no longer working at night? Will she stop seeing other people and spend twenty-four hours a day with me? Our sexual relationship is really bad. When I do, infrequently, make love to her, I am either drunk and totally incompetent or technical, brutal, and cold. It’s hideous of me but what can I do? I am simply not attracted to her. Even her tenderness repels me; her tentative touch, so unreal.
Today I had a date at the Flore with a Negro man who stood me up. Susan insisted on coming with me in the Metro; she’s going to the Deux Magots. I guess it serves me right that he didn’t show, but I had really been looking forward to getting fucked!
All this winter’s lucky breaks: the translating job, the apartment, seem calculated to underline my real dissatisfaction. If only I weren’t so afraid of being alone!
My sister, Bobbie, is here! Our connection is strained, although some of the childhood complicity remains. For example, she smuggled this notebook to me behind Susan’s back. But she flirts with everyone and it embarrasses me. She came on to Han, for one. Maybe I’m just jealous; maybe some of the old feelings are still there. I am beginning to think she wants to fuck all my ex-lovers. Is the childhood competition between us for Daddy’s love still going on? My feelings toward her range from harsh disapproval to a distant tenderness.
The bottom line is, I think, that I’m really fed up with women. Susan is more relaxed than she was but still so quick to take offense, so vulnerable. Those anxious eyes probing my slightest mood remind me annoyingly of my mother!
At the flea market today I was aware of how totally I dominate her. If I picked up some buttons, looked at a doll, pointed out a necklace; she immediately enthused. “Oh, I like that! Oh, they’re the prettiest!” That over-eager desire to please is pathetic. I simply must do something about this relationship. It is hurtful to her and makes me feel guilty. Even as I write this, I worry that she might come in. What a coward I am! I should have simply sent her packing. Soon she will leave and then I’ll suffer through my usual abandonment anxiety all over again.
Twenty-nine, a dangerous age!
It’s a rainy, warmish day. Susan has been very sweet. Got presents from Dad and Bobbie, but nothing from Irene, not even a word.
I am feeling very tall, a symptom of my loneliness—Am I still growing!
Spring is here and summer coming. Traveling with S.; how will that be?
April 3, Sevilla, Spain, Holy Week
We just got here after two days in Madrid. Now I sit on the bed in the typical dim Spanish electric light. Susan is under the covers with her eyes closed. Music comes up through the open patio doors from the fonda downstairs. We’ve just been to watch a Semana Santa procession. The crowds are noisy and detached, as if they were at a movie. I’m sure they take football games more seriously. But it is tremendously moving to me. To add to the pathos, a saeta (lament) rose up from a corner of the square. My eyes overflowed, watching the penitentes in their pointed hoods, their wind-stirred gowns, bare, bloody feet; some with chains clanking on their ankles; some carrying heavy wooden crosses or the gaudy candle-lit figures of saints in velvet and gold. Susan drives me mad with her long explanations of things one only needs the eyes and the sensitivity of someone like Irene to see. She discoursed on Bosch at the Prado and was just now explaining that women are the main support of the Church. She launches into these textbook dissertations, like footnotes, which I find unbearable.
Of course, being here, I can’t get Irene out of my thoughts. That was inevitable, given this language, these streets and tapas bars, these beautiful small plump Spanish girls with their gorgeous round asses. I was wretched in Madrid, felt ill and off balance. It’s better here. But God, when I remember the awful fights we used to have and realize how patient I am with S., who is a far greater nuisance! It’s a measure of my weakness and dependency.
April 16 Tangiers, Morocco
Now we are in fantastic Tangiers. It’s a really international city. Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen and Arabs mingle and speak each other’s languages. The Arab men are tall and handsome in their djellabas. Our room in the hotel, La Grande Poste, is big and square and fragrantly clean. Our window looks down over the port. The sea, a wedding of Atlantic and Mediterranean, is now calm and dark. In the morning, when we roll up the metal shutter, the light is dazzling. Small boats dance on the water.
What is surprising to me is the excellent behavior of the Arab men, their dignity. (So different from their manner in Paris.) We had coffee in the tearoom of the Sultan’s palace with a musician playing, seated on cushions on the floor. Shish kebab and couscous for lunch.
Last night we went to a bar, La Mar Chica, where a beat-up Spanish woman came on to both of us. A tiny woman, who looked like an old child, sang Flamenco badly. Today we went to visit a lesbian couple, Americans, Sandy and Mary. Mary is an attractive gray-haired woman with full breasts and thighs. Sandy is the typical, good-looking California blonde, college girl-dyke. Their apartment was all cozy and modern and in mediocre taste. They play bridge weekly with “the girls”; all very domestic. “What shall we give them to drink?” Sandy asks.
Tomorrow we leave Tangiers, depressing. Things with Susan are, as usual, up and down.
April 30, Paris
In the Jardins du Luxembourg on a bright warm day. The gardeners are spraying something onto the grass. The sun is so real; it is melting down all my terrors, longings, boredom. A little round tree, like a child’s drawing, is being brought in on a truck.
Oh, I wish Susan would go away; she bores and depresses me. Strangely, Bobbie is becoming a good influence; she is so alive now, especially sexually; she inspires me.
Irene is living her new life in NY and forgetting me. I am forgetting her too. Not exactly forgetting, but the remembering is becoming a sort of option. I’m not forced to do it as I used to be.
It’s her birthday and I haven’t heard from her in weeks. In spite of what I wrote above, I can’t really forget her and am terribly dragged with Susan. Yesterday, she said she was moving out. If only I had the strength and the money to let her go instead of weakly saying, “I’d rather you didn’t,” which she only too eagerly seized upon as an invitation to stay.
We’re living in the Hotel Ste. Marie Gallia , a charming place. I love the dark wood floors and the patronne and the polite, gentle maids. Last night, because I had told her it was Irene’s birthday, Susan came to me in the dark bed and we made sweet love. But I just don’t love her.
May 20 Strasbourg
Crisis time in France. The Republique is falling victim to its own weakness, pettiness, meanness, complacency. People are fleeing Paris. There is fear of a right-wing coup led by the pieds noirs (French colonists in Algeria). Last night Sydney Leach nervously invited us to “Come and sleep in the lab tonight if you want to see action”; little groups all over Paris are keeping vigils, preparing for a fight.
We hitch-hiked out. It’s great not to be there tonight while my beloved, free, libertine city is under attack by the ”salauds,” as Sartre calls them, the right-wingers, paratroops, racists.
Tonight in the big empty cafe on the square we watched two paratroopers celebrating. They had bought a Paris paper, with a rude remark to the old paper seller, banging their fists on the table and shouting “On les aura!” (We’ll get them!)
We’re on our way to Germany—to Munich (Nanna), Berlin, Hamburg (Reinhard). Susan read yesterday’s diary entry and now it’s embarrassing to be in bed with her as I write, but I demonstrate my disapproval of her snooping and assert my right to privacy.
The Strasbourg cathedral is divine, all in slim points like an upside-down chandelier.
June 7 Berlin
It is seven years since my first trip here and the city has changed enormously. This afternoon I lay in the sun by a stream in Tiergarten, now rich and fruitful, not like the wasteland it was in 1950. I’ve been really cold to S. for the past three days until sex this morning broke the deadlock. Why am I taking my frustrations out on her? Some of it is jealousy; she gets so much more attention than I do. Not her fault. But I pick on her annoying little mannerisms like, “As you know, VW’s are very popular in the States”, “As you know, of course, etc—” It’s mean and petty of me to attack her awkward use of her hands when she speaks. I shouldn’t be taking out my helpless furies on her!
June 11, on the train to Hamburg
Just had my new passport stamped by the West German police. There is a rather excellent selection of stamps in it; lots of travel this year. We are going to see Reinhard in Hamburg and I know it will be disastrous, given his wife and his crush on Susan (and mine on him). A little old red-cheeked peasant woman sits opposite us in the train. She sucks her teeth noisily.
June 23 Paris
Memories of Germany. Riding horseback in the Hippodrom in Hamburg; Reinhard on horseback behind me. I turn to him in the saddle which seems to disconcert him. He smiles weakly. How beautiful he is! On the beach, rolling his head in the sand like someone he saw in a desert movie. I had a dream in which I was holding his head against my breast, feeling its weight. When I said on the beach, “It’s hot!,” he misheard and asked, “What’s hard, Harriet?” He seemed to have difficulty saying my name. And then, the horrible drunk conversation in the bar when he said, “No, I can’t love you. I have my own life, etc.”
Being on the whore street at night with Susan and Reinhard, alternating malaise and enjoyment. Mainly anxiety. Susan’s terrible beauty eclipses me totally. How I wish she were not my only source of love—back here there’s a letter from Barbara Bank (none from Irene). She says, “Irene has probably written you that I am coming to Europe, etc. Feel very warm and good towards you”—Sure, now that Irene has left me!
July 6 Paris
We leave for Greece on Wednesday and I’m in a mad rush to finish the translation, get money, pack, etc. It has been a gray, rainy, dreary spring. I am so busy; I have no time for misery. Susan will leave in a month and things will change, for the better, I hope.
I wanted to write about our trip to Brittany, with my sister, but it seems like too much of an effort. Except for, oh yes, my early morning on the beach at S. Michel-en-Greves, running with the dogs on mud flats, lying alone on the rocks as the sun rose, feeling healthy! And the wonderful little white room we had, looking out at the sea with the steps up to the windowsill and the high bed. Dinner in the windowed dining room with a long, slow pink and blue sunset over the waves.
July 14 Athens
Just came in from the desert-like heat of the afternoon street to the cool darkness of our hotel room. It is furnished very simply, no carpets; just the essentials. This is Evripidou Street, a market street full of trucks and produce. An enormous trolley car roars and hisses through it, filling it completely and shaking the buildings. We were told this hotel is also a brothel! We fit right in—no questions asked.
On Saturday night we went to the boozookoi bars to watch the working men dancing alone and in couples, slowly, gracefully, hypnotically. One very tall one, powerfully built with a small head, moved stiffly, always looking down. Another lean, wiry one in white shoes made graceful hand and arm gestures and seemed to drift backwards into the air.
Yesterday we were at the Acropolis, such soft, delicious-looking fleshy pink marble. You can almost taste the stone. Blue sky gleams through spaces in the roof. Looking around you can see all the other hills that encircle the city. Off to the left is Piraeus and the sea, opaque silver, ridged like a leaf.
July 16 Athens
In the white room on Evripidou Street, late afternoon. I lie naked on the white bed. Out the window is the ruined roofscape, crumbling buildings with their innards exposed, a swatch of wallpaper, a corner of vanished floor. The trolley car goes roaring by. Much talking and shouting in the street. The heat gets me very sexed-up but there’s nothing to do about it. At least, when she’s not here I can enjoy my fantasies.
This morning walked across a field of stones, pillars, giants, seated women solid in the white heat of the Theseion. The Keramikos cemetery with its singing locusts and sweet-smelling pines. In the little museum there was a very sexy smiling Sphinx with long pink curls and strong leonine haunches.
I am being awful to Susan as always. This morning, when she asked why I was “angry,” I said, “I just can’t stand seeing you twenty-four hours a day!” and she answered mildly, “It won’t be much longer,” which is true and made me feel even meaner. Now she’s gone up to the Parthenon and I’m enjoying the cooling of the day. I like the food here—rice pudding for breakfast, fish and salad for lunch in the workmen’s tavernas. Yesterday I had a plate with one stuffed zucchini, one stuffed pepper and one stuffed eggplant. Lovely subtle differences between them.
Just a thought; could I live here? I like the men.
July 25 Hydra
Another island in my life. I sit at the cafe on the windswept quay in bright sunshine. Boats bobbing, motors thrumming, dark barefooted people; white church steeple above me; white houses on the rocky hill. It could be Ibiza, but unfortunately it’s not!
Susan has gone to Athens to see about money. Our landlord just rushed out screaming for two hundred drachmas. What a fright! He probably saw Susan leaving and thought we were trying to pull a fast one. Or did he really need the money, as he shouted?
I just now shook my head “yes” for grapes but since that means “no” here, the waiter took them away—now he has brought them back. It’s fine to be alone for a while, although the landlord got me worried. Oh well, Fate, my dear, there’s nothing to be done about it.
I stretched dinner out as long as I could. Now I’m at the cafe sitting not too close to the foreign in-crowd… I don’t intend to be depressed. In fact, I feel better than I usually do when S. is here. She has a way of making me feel isolated, alone with her. God knows, though, this group is repulsive.
A big grubby tanker is moored in front of me. It’s a cityish boat and charming, as are the small, dirty, tough-looking men of the crew.
Susan is leaving soon. I suppose I will miss her, probably more than I did Irene, since we were already estranged before she left. Susan truly surrounds me with affection. Too bad I can’t enjoy it and am always rejecting and criticizing. I should be grateful for these nine months with her. Maybe I will be some time. I often feel a certain tenderness towards her, like today, when she left. She really is such a child, and though she can be annoying, her warmth is a child’s, her sulking and suffering too.
August 12 Athens
It’s our last night here. Evripidou Street is quiet, except for the occasional rumble of a late tram. We just made our farewell appearance at Zonar’s cafe where a little middle-aged lawyer said sadly, “Oh then we wont have the pleasure of seeing you again?” We have obviously been the dreamgirls of a small group of elderly men who have watched our comings and goings with naive concupiscence. Their interest in us has been flattering.
Barbara Bank is here and gave me a tiny bouquet of wonderful white perfumed jasmine. She insists on talking about Irene, causing me much anguish. Susan takes it well, after her first neurotic protest. Barbara kissed me, stroking my face, promising to write me in Paris. “Judas kiss”, said Susan, correctly.
The worst parts of it were the painful small details she insisted on sticking to me. “She had a teary argument with Adele,” “She took me to a new girls’ bar”—Finally, Athens has been lovely. Beauties in the archeological museum, the marvelous archaic goddesses, little stone beads of pale pale blue, a bird-shaped vase with its graceful throat bent back in abandon. One delicate gold Cycladic pin with a tiny ram as its head.
August 26 Paris
Susan left three days ago and, wonder of wonders, I am suddenly surrounded by men. Surprise! There is sex on every corner—the Negro on Saturday, the painter on Sunday, and this big handsome perverse man named Henri whose looks kill me! He is like a dark version of the actor Peter van Eyk, complete with scar on his lip.
Poor darling Susan; how little I miss you!
More Articles by the AuthorHarriet Sohmers Zwerling
Harriet Sohmers Zwerling is the author of Notes of a Nude Model.