A decade ago, my husband and I were resident writers for a month at the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, on Italy’s Lake Como. Fellows (artists, scientists, scholars) rotated in and out of the center, a new batch of perhaps ten people being added or subtracted each week. Our month happened to coincide with a team residency by writers and performers associated with New York’s Wooster Group, including Susan Sontag.
The Wooster team’s time at Bellagio was surreal and tragic, because one of its members, the much-admired actor Ron Vawter, fell ill on arrival, finally succumbing to his HIV-related illness at the end of the team’s stay. Another member of that team was a friend of a friend, and we quickly grew close under the extraordinary circumstances at Bellagio. On the one hand, the place was beautiful, the profusion of spring blossom stunning, the service seamless and formally impeccable, the experience of being coddled was mind-blowing — it was like living in one of those gorgeous movies, say “Enchanted April.” On the other, most of our cohort during the month comprised professors emeritus and their long-suffering spouses, finally collecting one of the perks of a long career. So the atmosphere was somewhat stuffy, slightly repressive and disapproving. There were unkind comments about the team’s predicament, and ordinary conversation was peppered with complacent slurs and unthinking prejudices. Together with the Wooster team and one or two other compatible residents, we formed what I thought of as a “kids’ table,” hanging out over daily aperitivos and taking our evening meals together. Being seen (and seeing ourselves) as youngsters was ironic, because the youngest of our group was in her late thirties, and most of the rest were well into our forties. Reckoning from her obituary notices, Sontag was 61 at the time.
The first night we ate together, my husband was seated next to Susan. Already, she was complaining about the formality of the setting, the absence of familiar faces, the banality of the cocktail conversation. Reaching for empathy, my husband remarked that in comparison with the intellectual life of New York, this tiny enclave must be dull. She looked at him with surprise. “All it takes,” she said, “is one other person.” (He did not ask “What am I, chopped liver?” I suppose he was too stunned by the left hook.)
As we all became cozy together, we took to playing dinner table games. For example, on several evenings, someone picked a year and we all told stories from that year. On the night we chose 1973, my husband told a long, involved tale about going out to view Comet Kohoutek that January. The shaggy dog ending was that it took place on January 16th, “And little did I know,” he told the table, “that a few years later I would meet my wife whose birthday fell on January 16th!” “Whoo-whoo,” the table chorused, on a rising note of new age irony.
“January 16th?” asked Susan. We confirmed it. “That’s my birthday too.” (The official accounts put her birth at 1/28/33, but that night she told us it was the 16th; as she was famously evasive about the particulars of her early life, I think I will trust the horse’s mouth.) Rather than the delight one might expect at such a harmless coincidence, she showed dismay. Perhaps she was disappointed to suddenly realize there was nothing to astrology after all, but my thought was rather the opposite. Although I in no way equalled her accomplishment or prominence, I saw some similarities in the scraps of life story we’d shared: we were both smart, discontented, self-dramatizing California Jewish girls; we’d both married at 17, confounding expectations; we both put a lot of stock in speaking truth to power. The table game continued with someone else sharing a story of 1973. At the first pause, Susan looked up, her eyes bright: “Oh, well,” she said, shrugging, “I guess it’s one out of 365.”
There were also many interesting conversations about politics and art. She told us how outraged she was at not having received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in the first few rounds, until someone told her she’d been blackballed by Saul Bellow; she was awarded the fellowship as soon as he rotated off the panel that recommends the awards. She told us that she’d spent three months writing (and rewriting) the first eleven pages of her novel “The Volcano Lover,” which has provided me with a readymade image to symbolize creative privilege and creative control. Kurt Cobain killed himself while we were at Bellagio. When the news reached us, Susan spoke knowledgeably about his music; it was fun in a slightly jarring way to hear her analyze his best-known song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Together with the other “kids,” we saw the local sights a bit and talked on the terrace after the other residents had gone to bed, with Susan holding forth a little too loudly about the second- and third-rate character of the academic institutions most of our fellow inmates represented.
The moment I remember best was a sweet and innocent one. On one crystalline spring evening, twilight poured through the high, ancient windows of the palazzo with a particularly startling cobalt clarity. Looking up from her soup, spoon midway to her mouth, Susan made an urgent claim on our attention. “L’heure bleue!” she exclaimed, using the French phrase for twilight, the blue hour. “They always say that, but I’ve never seen it before. It really is bleue! It really is!”
When I saw her that way, transformed with delight in the miraculous ordinary, I felt the greatest affection, finally understanding what lay behind the arrogant persona. In contrast to my own age group, women of Sontag’s generation—those with brilliance and drive and passion—had only one role model, men. In effect, to succeed they were forced to adopt the aggressive personal style of ambitious male intellectuals, competing toe-to-toe with their male counterparts. Sontage succeeded in spades, but at a cost. At L’heure bleue, I saw a bit of what lay behind the mask.
The same day Susan Sontag died, we lost another creature, one who fully and continuously inhabited the numinous space of wonder. Kitsa Levine wandered into our kitchen nearly twenty years ago, lapped up a saucer of milk and decided to stay. She was tiny and elegant, with long fluffy hair that was mostly black, but like Sontag’s, white where it most beautifully set off her lovely features. Kitsa was my role model in so many ways: fearless in the face of danger or opportunity, relentless in the pursuit of pleasure, always open to new experience, always delighting in the familiar. I would like to think that she will meet Susan in the next world, and spotting a fellow member of the species black-and-white, will hop onto her lap, present her ears to be scratched, and murmur in the language of purrs, “All it takes is one other person.”
As the year turns, may all of us be inspired with the grace of Kitsa and the passion of Sontag. May they rest in peace, and may their memories be a blessing to all they touched.