I was Susan Sontag's San Diego escort and I was sorry

Heart of darkness

I was amazed that someone of her stature could be so ungenerous.
  • I was amazed that someone of her stature could be so ungenerous.
  • Steven Cerio

This was my question: How does being Southern Californian affect artists and thinkers? I set out to find people with whom I could discuss my notion that a recognizable artistic regionalism had at last emerged from Southern California. I made lists. I made phone calls. And it was perhaps the sin of pride, or of over-reaching ambition, that caused me to make my fatal mistake: I wanted to speak with someone truly famous. Someone whose words might lend glamour to my not entirely original or interesting idea.

I made more phone calls. I chatted. At last I hit upon a friend who worked often with the famous and their publicists. He had, he said, a splendid suggestion: Susan Sontag. She had been raised in Southern California. She was touring the country promoting her novel, The Volcano Lover. She would, he felt, be willing, if not eager, to talk. If I was interested, he would be happy to arrange things. After all, he was on a first-name basis with “Susan.”

“Geez,” I said, coy and overanxious. “Susan Sontag? Do you think she’d really want to talk to me?”

“Publicity,” he said, “is publicity.”

Albeit early in our story, it is already time for me to digress. And I must in order to express the enormity of what happened: I had been forewarned. Like every young and prideful person, I had been forewarned. And like every young and prideful person who has been forewarned, I disregarded sound advice. Years ago I asked someone who had worked in publishing for several decades, “Who is the most dangerous writer in New York?” Without hesitation she replied, “Susan Sontag. She is very powerful and rules with an iron fist. You don’t ever want to cross her. She can be unpleasant.”

I cannot describe the degree of nonchalance with which I heard, chuckled over, and discarded this mature and learned person’s tidbit of heartfelt, hard-earned advice. To my dreamy, Southern Californian sensibility, New York, its literary saints and ogres were, well, a continent away. (A seasoned traveler could warn you, for example, that in West Africa, poisonous spiders the size of ashtrays were a clear and present danger. However, this caution would have no practical import, no legitimacy, until you, as a nervous tourist, were lost in a three-canopy jungle somewhere in the Congo. Only then could you appreciate the spiders for their reality...and their size.)

In this spirit of informed, forewarned nonchalance I pursued my interview. My friend, Susan’s friend, gave me Susan’s publicist’s number in New York: “Call and explain who you are and what you want. Everything will be fine. You might want to ask about an article Susan wrote recently on growing up in Los Angeles. Ask for a copy.” And I called. The publicist was a cheerful, charming woman, glad to arrange an interview, and equally quick to ask favors.

“Maybe you can help me out,” she asked. “Susan’s got interviews in San Francisco and L.A., but I’m having trouble getting her into the alternative press. I’ve sent a copy of Volcano Lover to the L.A. Weekly, but so far they haven’t replied. Do you have any suggestions?”

In a frenzy of generosity, I said I did. I’d call around, send out some feelers, and get back to her. But could she, I asked, send me Susan’s Southern Californian childhood article? She said she’d never heard of it, said she didn’t think that one existed with such conviction that I would have felt foolish to have insisted otherwise.

Every time-worn element of the classical “set-up” was creaking slowly into place — the early warning, my undue enthusiasm, the feckless intermediary, and my pride, which blinded me to them all. Fate, life’s loyal usher, guided me surely along my way.

I called the publicist back, gave her a few names and suggestions, said that newsweeklies of a more political bent might be willing to interview Susan if she were to speak on some issue, feminism, say, and use it as a segue for a discussion of her book. Swell, the publicist enthused. Susan, a universal genius whose intelligence embraced every conceivable aspect of the material world, would be more than glad to discuss absolutely anything: “She has opinions on everything— politics, photography, AIDS, literature, art!”

“And what do you,” she added, “want to talk about?”

I meekly rattled off my brilliant idea about Southern California.

“That’s nice,” she said.

We must hurry now. We must gloss over weeks and days. We must stop, but only briefly, to open the package from New York that contained Susan’s book, a sheaf of highly flattering interviews, and Susan’s portrait, lovingly, tenderly photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

I kept the photograph on my desk. After long, unproductive days of too much diet ice tea and too many cigarettes, I’d stare at her and imagine another life: a brainy, East Coast, upbeat version of Sunset Boulevard: late fall, golden light slanting through the large windows of Susan’s apartment overlooking the Hudson. The two of us, Susan and I, in bulky, writerly sweaters, slouch down in her plush couch. We speak in French, of Paris, of her time there, of my time there. She plies me with claret and first editions. Moved by her generosity, I give her white forelock a good-natured tug and confess my boyish designs for a literary future. Her wise dark eyes fill. She weeps, talks of her intellectual career, sympathizes with my sincere though unformed ambitions. “Please,” she says, “let me help you. Let me encourage you. I know how difficult a life of the mind can be.”

Time passed. More phone calls were made. A date and time were set. My photographer and I were to meet Susan’s Los Angeles handler in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. I was then to go with the handler to the airport and conduct my interview in the car on the way back.

The subsequent events have colored my retrospection in such a way that certain details of my trip to Los Angeles have acquired the weight of commandment. The night before an interview with Susan Sontag:

• Do not stay in a TraveLodge across the street from a Mormon Temple.

• Do not forget your special Navy blue interview slacks. If you do, turn back.

• Do not eat an innovative pizza topped with "four kinds of smoked salmon, fresh herbs, and spices."

• Do not stop at an Irish pub for a nightcap. If you do, do not speak to the drunken Scotsman who sits beside you muttering about his unlikely sexual conquests in Europe.

• Above all, do not assure your younger-than-you photographer, who has been kept awake all night because of your stertorous snoring, that “everything will go just fine.”

Like all survivors of significant trauma, my memories of the event are either agonizingly precise or tend to the surreal. I remember standing in the carport of the Four Seasons on a gorgeous morning. I remember the handler’s arrival; I have repressed her name. I remember children’s toys in the back seat of her light-blue Buick. I remember the burnt buildings we passed on the way to the airport. I remember black faces stared out at us from those buildings as we proceeded on, inexorably on, to the airport. I remember talking about the riots, about prices for single family homes. I remember smoking my last cigarette at the snack bar while we waited for Susan’s plane to arrive. I remember my palms were sweaty.

Then Susan, chipper and beguiling in well-worn running shoes, was with us, after getting herself freshly adored, I supposed, in San Francisco. We joked. We laughed. We headed toward the escalator, I in a state of giddy optimism. And it was there, a mere few steps before the escalator, a glittering river to take us down, down, down, that our descent into darkness began. I hesitate to state its cause, not because it sounds irrational and implausible, but because French intellectuals, many of whom Susan admires, have already freighted the subject with a great deal of interpretive weight.

We began to talk about Disneyland.

And down, down, down we went.

“Is it true,” Susan asked, “that they have the words ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ inscribed over the entrance to Disneyland?”

They certainly were not inscribed over the entrance to the Los Angeles International Airport. At least not on that morning. I don’t know how I replied. Maybe yes, maybe no. I did, I remember, make a few jokes about Disneyland. Apparently remarks Susan did not like. Mid-stream down the escalator, she turned to me and with ferret-like intensity growled, “I’ve written a great deal about it, you know?”

Perhaps she had, perhaps she hadn’t. She’s written many things, few of which I’ve actually committed to memory. It is unlikely, however, that I will ever forget her face as it met mine on the escalator that unfortunate morning. Her transformation was as stunning as it was complete: her brow furrowed, her shoulders hunched, her white forelock reared cobra-like and assumed an attack posture. I responded with a few more light-hearted jokes.

“Don’t!” she hollered. “Stop!”

She fled, hands to her head, to the luggage carousel.

Bewildered, I stood, not quite knowing what it was I had done. I considered calling airport security because, obviously, someone, some phantom prankster — perhaps a terrorist? — had planted a great, black, itchy bug up this famous writer’s butt, and also I wondered if possibly, inadvertently, the culprit might have been me.

“Mr. Kurtz. Mr. Kurtz. Please meet your party at the baggage claim area. Mr. Kurtz.” A husky voice rumbled, I seem to recall, from the ceiling.

Susan, by this time, paced in a holding pattern, arms out at her sides, fists clenching and unclenching. “I have to stay focused!” she hissed to no one in particular.

This famous creature pounding the well-polished tiles at Los Angeles International Airport bore little resemblance to the Leibovitz portrait I’d studied and adored. Susan had become, rather, a Warner Brothers’ cartoon caricature of her public self. Carrying-on outlandishly, stomping, sputtering, taking on airs, she was a Saturday-morning satire of the temperamental artiste.

Susan’s handler, Little Popo, let’s call her, stood off to one side, pale and awestruck.

Unspoken, unusual protocols bristled in the air — not speaking about Disneyland appeared to be one of them. Susan glared at me. I approached her. Glamour urged me on.

“Well, let’s get this interview started. What was it you wanted to ask? I see you didn’t bring your notebook and tape recorder with you, so I guess I’ll have to repeat myself in the car and waste my time.”

I started to explain I’d left my tape recorder and notes in the car because I’d thought I’d be helping with the luggage. But as I nattered on, and as Susan, radiating disgust, stared at me, I lost all sense that carrying luggage was something that normal, decent, everyday people do. Luggage? Carry it? Whoever heard of such a thing? Fumbling on awkwardly, watching her lip curl a tad higher with my every word, I twittered out my half-baked, preposterous notion about regionalism. I mentioned something — who knows? at any rate, it displeased her — about the French press’s sophisticated familiarity with Los Angeles.

She sighed, she gazed at the ceiling, she offered with exhausted magnanimity, “There is such a thing as CNN, you know.”

I had the distinct impression, it was hard to tell why, that I was being spoken down to. But from where angels fear to tread, you must remember, all directions lead down.

Suddenly there was a growing murmur of voices and a great tramping of feet. Susan had marched over to her handler, Little Popo, and she stood, arms akimbo, with her back to me. There were sounds of mighty consternation. Hands waved in the air. She returned. Little Popo’s face, already pale, looked absolutely bleached.

“So, did you eat well in San Francisco?” I squealed plaintively, recognizing, of course, that maybe this was not a magnificent question to ask a well-known intellectual of impeccable self-regard, but was at least one question, an innocent one, to buoy us through these precarious moments at the luggage carousel.

Her signature white forelock appeared to spread, widen across her forehead at a speed directly proportionate to her indignation. And my own hair, or what was left of it, although I could not see it — I could feel it — was rapidly turning gray.

“Yes. One does eat well in San Francisco, if one knows where to go.” She spoke so slowly, her tone so icy, that hoarfrost formed on each syllable.

It occurred to me, at this juncture, that Susan was one of those people to whom no one had ever said the word no, as in, “No, Susan. Despite your having seemingly been raised by Cossacks, you must strive to behave in a civilized manner,” or, “No, Susan. No matter how greatly you have been flattered and fawned over, you are still human. You put your strait-jacket on, one arm at a time, just like everyone else.”

The luggage came, black and bulky, tumbling down the chute. A bizarre contretemps ensued when I reached for it and Susan issued a mammalian warning noise from the back of her throat: “DON’T! I’ll get it.” I surrendered and watched, along with several bystanders, as she tried, unsuccessfully, to drag her bags toward the exit. I carried them outside. Silent, edgy Little Popo was dispatched to get the car.

The small, quiet voice within me ranted, “Depart. Disappear. Hail a cab. Take a bus. Walk, even. Walk on your own goddamn hands if you have to. Crawl. Do whatever it takes. Leave. Don’t get in that car!”

I did. I did get in because I was raised to defer in all cases to older people, reasonable or unreasonable, unless, of course, they were trying to bait me into a sedan with a handful of Tootsie Rolls. On this glorious morning, no candy was in the offing. I went of my own free will. I climbed in the back seat. Susan, riding shotgun, lighted a cigarette without offering one either to me or Little Popo and spewed smoke at the windshield. We were off on our merry way.

I must admit that my legal pad, with its 12 pages of notes and questions, lay untouched beside me for the duration of our trip. I could not bring myself to touch it, to be associated with it and the hope contained within. I did wanly wave my tape recorder at the back of Susan’s head — she couldn’t be bothered to turn and address me. Over the noise of traffic, I recorded her scathing remarks and belittling asides. My questions, my ideas were inane. She railed at me for not having read the article her publicist told me didn’t exist. There was nothing interesting to be said about her migration from West Coast to East. Nothing. That there might be was “clichéd” and “mundane.” She made some wisecrack about my being “literally minded” and turned to Little Popo with a slyeyed wicked chuckle. I was so embarrassed I ruined my pair of good shoes by grinding the heel of one into the toe of the other. I was amazed that someone of her stature, who had won a $340,000 fellowship for “genius” from the Society for the Preservation of Savage Customs, or the MacArthur Foundation, or whatever it was, could be so ungenerous.

Cowering, addled and cigarette-less in the back of an ’89 Buick while Susan the Terrible aimed potshots at my head — this is what it had come to. My dreams of a cozy tête a tête were splintered. I would never be invited to her apartment overlooking the Hudson. I would never see her collection of fancy Western shirts she had shown to People magazine so very long ago. Never.

We sped on. I could not leave. Little Popo had come down with chronic lockjaw. She kept quiet, kept her eyes on the road.

Deep in my humiliation I rallied. My hostile subconscious wanted fun and games: I confused Susan’s son, David Rieff, author of Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, with David Reid, author of Sex, Death and God in L.A. My mistake was a Claymore mine disguised as a Freudian slip. Reid, I had been told, hated Son of Sontag with a passion. Critics’ gossip also had it that Reid’s book had been far better than Sontag’s son’s (much in the same way that Rieff’s book on Miami had been considered a poor second to Joan Didion’s). Susan snarled. I babbled on recklessly. Flustered, I couldn’t remember my own name. At the very least, I provided Susan with yet another opportunity to evince scorn:

“Why don’t you try doing some research before you do an interview? Hmmm?”

“My son,” she continued airily, sounding like a real mother, “Is going to write a letter to the New Yorker from Bosnia-Hercegovina. The most dangerous place in the world at this moment. ”

“Well, one of the most dangerous,” I said under my breath. Susan had become, in my humble estimation, the least sympathetic public figure since Madame Mao. In fact, Chiang Ch’ing had delighted in humiliating intellectuals, had them marched through streets wearing dunce caps, kneel in broken glass, had them jeered by angry crowds. I was beginning to see why.

Tires screeched. Horns blared. Susan’s mention of dangerous places drew my attention to the crazed Angeleno traffic roaring beside us down La Cienega, which, in comparison to my interview, seemed benign. I calculated my odds of bolting from the car, legs pumping Buster Keaton-style before they hit pavement. I shivered with a vision of the resultant wreck from which Susan was the only passenger to emerge unscathed to come to my aid as I lay on the ground, bloodied and quadriplegic.

“I thought we were going to talk about my book. Let’s talk about my book, why don’t we?” she asked, suddenly sweet.

I demurred, said that so much had already been written about it by writers of much greater mental acuity than I, that little else of value could be said. Anyway, my questions probably wouldn’t be any good.

She urged me to try.

“Okay, sunshine,” I thought, “let’s see just who’s literally minded.”

“In your book,” I began, “you write often of passion and tenderness, but most often about tenderness. Is it something that’s important to you?”

Of course it was! She took the question and ran with it. I sat back, turned off my tape recorder, and let her go. Tenderness, tenderness. Ah, tenderness. She could not say enough about it.

We arrived at the hotel where my photographer waited, puppy-like, near the front door. Unfortunately, Little Popo had some bad news for us. Susan didn’t want pictures taken. We would have to wait until seven or eight that evening for a gathering where Susan was to speak. My photographer, a good sport, did not let his disappointment show; the day before he had called his father to tell him that he was going to get some up-close-and-personal shots of the famous Susan Sontag. Susan had been, through her book On Photography, my photographer’s hero.

Although older than my photographer, I remembered my childhood well enough to know that the powerful are always grateful when you apologize to them for their disgraceful behavior. I approached Susan where she stood in the lobby, took her hand in mine, and pressed it tenderly to my chest.

“I wanted,” I said, “to thank you very much. And to apologize if I said or did anything to insult you.”

“But you didn't,” she beamed.

“I know.”

I left and drove my photographer to the La Brea Tar Pits. While I groused about Susan and admired the posters the Department of Health had posted to announce that mosquitoes in the park carried encephalitis, he took pictures of the tar. We sat on a bench and listened to a saxophonist play, of all things, “Moonlight in Vermont.” I complained, agonized, and complained.

On the freeway, on the way home, my photographer opened Susan’s Volcano Lover. He read aloud the book’s last few lines: “But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or well-being. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.”

He laughed. I cackled. He threw the book to the floor among matchbooks, maps, and crumpled beer cans.

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