Harriet Sohmers Zwerling was born in New York City in 1928. At 17 she was a student at Washington Square College, NYU. After classes she started frequenting the San Remo Cafe on MacDougal Street, a hangout for writers, artists and bohemians, including the crime photographer Weegee, the author Anatole Broyard, and the poet Max Bodenheim.
Harriet transferred to avant-garde Black Mountain College where she had her first lesbian relationship with the painter Peggy Tolk-Watkins who convinced her to move out to San Francisco. Enrolling at Berkeley in 1949, she was working at the university bookstore when a beautiful olive-skinned girl walked in...16-year old Susan Sontag. Approaching young Susan with a copy of Djuna Barnes' "Nightwood", a lesbian classic, she asked, "Have you read this?" She had ,and Harriet became her first lover, an event chronicled in Susan's early diaries, "Reborn" published in 2008.
In 1950 Harriet moved to Paris where she had many lovers and adventures. She worked at the International Herald Tribune, published three stories in New Story magazine and translated the novel Les Infortunes de la Vertue by the Marquis de Sade for the famous Obelisk Press. In 1957 Susan Sontag was on a Fulbright in Oxford. By this time she had married her professor and had a son. Abandoning the Fulbright, she came to Paris and moved in with her ex-lover Harriet. Harriet was still reeling from the end of a passionate love affair with Maria Irene Fornes, a seductive Cuban-American and later a famous playwright.
The sexual affair that Harriet and Susan rekindled in Paris was ambiguous and tumultuous, and even occasionally violent. Susan returned to the States in August 1958. In 1959, Harriet went back to New York, initially living with Susan until Susan broke off the relationship because she had fallen in love with Fornes. It was Irene's betrayal that devastated Harriet and led her to give up homosexuality for good.
Harriet fled New York for Provincetown where she became involved with the poet Bill Ward, who was just launching his literary journal, The Provincetown Review. Harriet became an editor just in time for the controversial 1961 "tralala" issue, which contained a chapter from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, "Last Exit to Brooklyn.” Ward was arrested on obscenity charges but they were overturned at trial with an all-star defense witness panel, including Norman Mailer.
During the early 60's Harriet worked as a nude model in New York and even as a "Beatnik for Rent". She met and got involved with a merchant seaman named Louis Zwerling, married him, and had her son, MiloZ, now a well-known musician.
For 28 years Harriet taught in a New York City public school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. After she retired, she published "Notes of a Nude Model", (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2003), autobiographical stories that chronicle her wild youth in New York City. This book put her back on the literary map. She has starred in the documentary "Still Doing It" in 2004, about older women and sex. In 2010, she appeared in the documentary, "Norman Mailer the American.”
Here is part of an excerpt from Harriet Sohmers Zwerling's "Expatriate Diaries", originally published in the Brooklyn Rail, November 2006.
Memories of Sontag: From an Ex-Pat’s Diary
by 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.
(Harriet, Pont Neuf, 1950)
January 13, 1958
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 Charley 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…
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…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!
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!
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.
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. 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.
(Susan Sontag in Sevilla)
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 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.
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.
(Harriet Sohmers and Irene Fornes in the 1950s)
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.
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 23 Paris
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 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.
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.…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 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.
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…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.
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!
About the Author
Harriet Sohmers Zwerling is the author of Notes of a Nude Model.