Terrance Heath

Leaving Out Part of the Liebovitz Story

Filed By Terrance Heath | September 13, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: Annie Liebovitz, bankruptcy, marriage equality, same-sex marriage, Susan Sontag

I don’t know if this BBC article is typical of all the coverage of Annie Leibovitz’s financial trouble, but it seems like some of the media is covering only part of the story.

Annie Leibovitz - A Photographers Life Press Conference

Ms Leibovitz’s most famous images include a photograph of John Lennon taken hours before he was assassinated, and a nude portrait of the pregnant actress Demi Moore for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

But the millions she has made from her work have been accompanied by a history of unpaid bills and taxes.

She has multimillion-dollar mortgages on properties she owns in New York.

And her plans to renovate three town houses in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village landed her with a $15m (£9m) lawsuit from a neighbour.

There’s something missing here.

This Globe and Mail article get in a mention, but only in an insulting fashion, between quotation marks.

Her notoriety as a perfectionist earned her scores of lucrative jobs, with some contracts totalling millions of dollars in salary plus lavish expense tabs, and rumoured six-figure single-day jobs. Ms. Leibovitz was known to occasionally shoulder the costs of a shoot herself, but more often billed them to her employers, be it Condé Nast or Rolling Stone.

But Ms. Leibovitz was also a noted spendthrift, amassing three townhouses in New York’s Greenwich Village, a sprawling property in upstate New York, a Chelsea penthouse and a large nearby studio, as well as a Paris atelier overlooking the Seine. She also has three children and spent many years as self-described "lovers" with the late writer and intellectual Susan Sontag.

This Times Online article is a bit more respectful of Leibovitz’s relationship with Sontag, but then goes on to cast her financial troubles as a “necessary recalibration” and a sign of the times.

Leibovitz's financial meltdown presents us with a fresh reflection of the times in which we live. Financially wildly overstretched, maybe not fully understanding the implications of her debt arrangements, she has clearly been badly advised or perhaps not advised at all. But as Bailey points out, it is just money. Leibovitz, as we have now seen from her personal photo albums, has magnificent talent. It can still rescue her, and all this may effect a welcome recalibration of her work.

The point that these articles leave out is that — while she may have spent unwisely and made bad financial decisions, or focused on her art at the expense of her business. — Leibovitz wouldn’t be in nearly as much trouble if she and Sontag had been able to marry.

The rich and famous aren't spared either. Annie Leibowitz made headlines when she pawned the copyrights to her work to pay off debts. But part of those debts stemmed from the 2004 death of her partner, Susan Sontag, and the taxes Leibowitz was required to pay on what she inherited from Sontag because they were not (and could not be) legal spouses.

As Suze Orman pointed out in her Valentine's Day wish for gay marriage, same-sex couples do not have the same privileges as straight married couples when it comes to inheritance. If your partner passes away and leaves her estate to you, you have to pay up to 50 percent of the value of your inheritance in taxes. However, if you and your partner were recognized as a married couple, you wouldn't have to pay a dime. And it is precisely this unjust double standard that got Annie Leibovitz into financial trouble.

When Sontag died in 2004, she bequeathed several properties to Leibovitz, who was forced to pony up half of their value to keep them. Yes, she makes a nice chunk of change from Vanity Fair, and yes, she probably could have just sold the properties when the market was good in 2004, but that's not really the point. The point is she should never have been in the position of paying or selling to not pay as much in the first place. Her wealth and poor decision-making are incidental.

And, if she and Sontag had been a married heterosexual couple -- even if they married as Sontag lay on her deathbed -- she wouldn't have been in that position.

Put differently, if Susan Sontag had been Sam Sontag and Leibovitz had be heterosexual and legally able to become “Mrs. Sontag” her current financial troubles might still exist, but might not be a deep or as dire as they are.

Funny, how that gets left out of the story. Not so funny that there are thousands of LGBT couples who are neither rich nor famous, and whose troubles won’t make the news, but suffer the same double standard.

Not so funny that nobody sees fit to mention it.


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Terrance,

You're repeating a popular canard that you were partly responsible for, judging from your Republic of T post. The melodramatic story that Liebovitz's financial situation is due to her supposed inability to marry Sontag has been disputed by now. For a more up to date version of why Liebovitz is in the state she's in, see New York magazine's extremely illuminating piece here:

http://nymag.com/fashion/09/fall/58346/

For the specific paragraph on Sontag's estate, see this:

"When the state of Leibovitz’s finances later became public, outlets like Salon trumpeted the “gay tax” theory, the idea that Leibovitz’s finances had been depleted by the taxes she’d had to pay on her inheritance from Sontag. That wasn’t true. With the exception of four items of only sentimental value, the bulk of Sontag’s estate went to David Rieff, Sontag’s only child. Leibovitz’s relationship with Sontag was not mentioned in Sontag’s New York Times obituary, and Leibovitz did not speak at Sontag’s memorial service."

If Sontag had wanted to leave more to Liebovitz, she could have and would have. Liebovitz was not financially broken by Sontag's estate simply because she did not inherit vast amounts of property to begin with. The fact that she didn't doesn't imply any love lost between them (even if that were the case). Here's the point: Lovers don't have to leave things to each other to prove anything to the world. Their relationships can operate outside the box of wealth and possessions. They might, horrors, be content to simply have sustained bonds of love. Yes, imagine that, love without marriage! Shocking concept, but let's remember that our ties to each other don't need marriage to justify them.

Let's all remember that Sontag and Liebovitz had a complicated relationship, not one easily defined by the usual gay-lesbian rhetoric around everlasting love and couples sworn to be attached at the hip. What, pray tell, is disrespectful about describing two people as lovers, especially since the two women seemed to have preferred that term? The word "lovers" is in quotation marks, yes, but it's preceded by the word "self-described." Hence, "lovers" is how they described themselves. It's also the word a lot of us prefer. Believe it or not, not every queer relationship is about marriage or about being defined as partners in conventional ways.

By the way, Liebovitz just got some breathing space: http://tinyurl.com/r3r5dc

The lesson to be taken from Liebovitz's woes is not that lesbians ought to be able to marry (and Sontag was never comfortable with that word, for a myriad reasons). The lesson is: hold on to your assets, and try not to believe that present prosperity will last for ever. In that, the Times Online piece and the New York piece provide more illumination.


On a related note: I disagree with the Times piece in one regard. Liebovitz has never been a magnificent photographer. She has been a photographer uniquely able - in part because of the infinite resources handed to her - to capture the zeitgeist of celebrity. But she has never been an inventive and daring photographer.

Here's the point: Lovers don't have to leave things to each other to prove anything to the world. Their relationships can operate outside the box of wealth and possessions. They might, horrors, be content to simply have sustained bonds of love. Yes, imagine that, love without marriage! Shocking concept, but let's remember that our ties to each other don't need marriage to justify them.

And you don't need to leave posts here to prove that you have no understanding of the circumstances of other people's lives or that your personal opposition to marriage and unrealistic radical political vision trumps empathy.

Why not adopt a live and let live approach? It's not as though anyone is forcing you to settle down and marry. Otherwise, maybe you should put your money where your mouth is and donate to the efforts to repeal domestic partnerships and marriage in Washington and Maine. If you're really so opposed to marriage, then shouldn't you be actively working against it?

Thanks for the post on this, Yasmin. A New Yorker myself, I was aware of the controversy and of the reality of what Susan had left which did not impact Annie's financial position.

Annie has been an "A-list" artist in the City and lived the lifestyle, and has done so grandly. Well, the day of reckoning has come for many of us who were part of that, myself included (anyone in the market for a 4000 sq ft late-Georgian 170 yr old summer home on 15 acres, mostly vertical on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania?)

Further, marriage was available to them, New York recognises marriages performed elsewhere though the Fed does not.

But the real problem that Annie is experiencing, as some of the rest of us are, is that we got used to the 90's and kept living the life. Like the Irish Aristocracy in the 19th cent, we are closing out this decade with big houses, a lot of property, but no money and the cupboard is bare

Maura,

Thanks for your additional clarifications - I'd even forgotten about NY's marriage laws.

The house sounds lovely, but yeah, I imagine it's a nightmare right now. I hope you find someone to buy it, soon.

I do think our culture in general fosters this kind of shortsightedness about wealth, which is why we keep seeing these waves of high spending followed by wash-ups. I still remember the dot-comers in Seattle and California, and how so many of them lost their money a few years later. And then came the 90s and Trump-style extravagance, and suddenly everyone just *had* to have a table at Ducasse's latest. I'm sure we can think of prior examples.

That's not to say that we're not to be held responsible for how we treat money, but it's scary how the system encourages and even coerces you (witness the whole "you-can't-have-credit-unless-you-amass-credit" logic, which my British friends have found bewildering) into scary habits. And then leaves you with nowhere to go.

Oh, well, as I've said, darkly, on more than one occasion - it's a good time to be poor; I have little else to lose right now.

*She said, looking warily up at the sky, wondering when it might fall.*

Don't think these people haven't ever been told about TRUSTS.

Kevin Erickson | September 13, 2009 6:39 PM

Yasmin, your anti-marriage dogma is taking a mean-spirited turn here, typical of the lack of empathy we see from anti-marriage queer writers.

Anyone familiar with Liebovitz' body of work beyond her celebrity portraits; for example, her extremely touching collection of photos from her relationship with Sontag, including documentation of Sontag's illness and death, would see the incredible skill, sensitivity, and courage at the core of her photography.

Riiiggggght.

Let's not deal with the fact that a blog post presented patently inaccurate information. Let's not engage with any of the issues raised here. Heck, let's not even *discuss* Annie Liebovitz or Susan Sontag's careers. Let's just engage in yet another meaningless diatribe against a blogger who has dared to question the idea that gay marriage defines our community.

Seriously. How does "...you have no understanding of the circumstances of other people's lives or that your personal opposition to marriage and unrealistic radical political vision trumps empathy..." even begin to engage with either Terrance's original post or my comment? What circumstances? Whose circumstances? Or are you, like Terrance, simply assuming that Sontag and Liebovitz are exactly like the fictional lesbian figureheads you'd like to have represent the equally fictional GM movement?

If you'll read the original post, and the New York magazine and then come back with a *relevant* and intelligent comment, one that's actually about this post and not about some battles in your head, we've got a conversation. Otherwise, nada. Good night.


Kevin Erickson | September 13, 2009 8:59 PM

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Yasmin, regardless of the "patently inaccurate information," as you put it, the situation described is familiar to any gay couple in a long term relationship, and there are plenty of examples of that happening in real life.

Your comment that "Lovers don't have to leave things to each other to prove anything to the world" is just so myopic that I'm amazed it even entered your mind. That's what shows you have no understanding of other people's circumstances.

People don't leave property to each other to "prove anything," but because they know that the other person will need those things and will attach sentimental value to them. Duh.

You're obviously someone averse to long-term relationships. That's your freedom, but some of us have built lives with the people we've been with for long periods of time and would like to get the same legal protection that heterosexuals are able to get. You may think that marriage should not be a prerequisite for those protections, but I don't see you presenting a comprehensive plan to secure them for everybody regardless of marital status that looks like it'll actually become reality in the near future.

In every one of your posts and comments on this subject, you've done nothing but show your inability to wrap your head around the idea that not everybody has the same experiences, desires and interests as you. For some of us, gentrification is less important to us than knowing that we won't have our homes taken from us by homophobic next-of-kin should our partner's suddenly pass away.

*Regardless* of the patently inaccurate information? Why not admit that you have no interest in accuracy or fairness? How is saying that lovers don't have to leave things to each other myopic, and not, in fact the opposite - an acknowledgment that our relationships are a lot more complicated than the GM movement wants us to admit. As is amply evident from Terrance's post that simply shoehorns the lives of two of the most famous queer women of this and the last century into its desire to prove a point?

As for your words: "People don't leave property to each other to "prove anything," but because they know that the other person will need those things and will attach sentimental value to them. Duh." Okay, I'll leave aside the teenage rhetoric for now. I mean, seriously: "Duh?" How old are you? I'll simply ask - how does anything I say contradict that? That's my point, exactly.

As for the rest, it should be amply clear that you're carrying on a conversation in your head, one that you've been carrying around with you for a long time.

I address my next words to puzzled readers who might be wondering why Alaric makes this all seem so personal "You're obviously someone..." and completely irrelevant "For some of us, gentrification is less important..." I invite you to check all my previous posts, especially the last three or four which have dealt with gay marriage. There, you'll find that Alaric has popped up numerous times and has been repeating the exact same comments, practically word for word, ad nauseum, in the same posts. The same has been true even when I comment on other blogger's posts - as is the case here. I make a comment and up pops Alaric with the same comments, clearly simply cut and pasted from a little Word document with my name on it. Not towards anyone else who says anything against gay marriage. Just little old moi. Hmm... why would that be?

Alaric, I'm clearly your bête noire. If this goes on any further, I'm going to assume you've got a thing for me. Really, darling, I wish I could say I'm flattered but... nah, it's just getting strange. You might want to talk to someone about your obsession with me. Seriously.

Chill.

I think that none of us is able to calculate the mess this lady may have made of her financial life and because of that, we cannot calculate the impact of the Sontag- death transaction. The fact remains that Leibovitz would have done better as Sontag's spouse.

I cannot express how strongly I am comforted by being married to my partner in Connecticut. It will help fend off greedy relatives (mine, not his) and protect the survivor of our marriage. We already had good legal instruments in place, but ain't nothin like the real thing baby.

My dear Tony;
You know that I am fine with marriage, since I entered two of them before comong over "to the pink side of the force" and marriad a woman once I got there.

But Yasmin is quite right on this, Annie's financial situation would not be positively affected by havng been married.

I'm fascinated by the fact that Terrance's utterly inaccurate post is still being treated as truth. It would, of course, be nice if he'd step in and address some of this.

There was no Sontag death transaction to calculate the impact of. Please re-read the NYMag quote again. Why would she have done better as Sontag's spouse? Even if she had no desire to be a spouse? Does it occur to people that there are reasons why people might actually do worse as someone's spouse, for any number of emotional and economic reasons?

You're talking about two fairly wealthy women here, neither of whom needed anything, in the material sense, from each other. I mean, really, do we have any evidence that either of them desired to be spouses? Why are we so determined that, come hell or high water, the two women were just dying to get married?

And even if they did: A lot of people would like to leave estates, jewellery, children etc. to their friends/partners/lovers. Why not expand our ability to leave things to those we choose? That's not unrealistic - it can be done, and it is done. I've written about this before and it's addressed more directly in Polikoff's book.

Writing things like "The fact remains that Leibovitz would have done better as Sontag's spouse" is yet another example of the shoehorning I wrote of earlier. It ignores the complexity of queer relationships. And, worse, it baldly presumes that these women, any two women, really, are just standard-issue-flagbearers for gay marriage.

Calling marriage's benefits "the real thing" is yet another disservice to queer and straight relationships everywhere, and is yet another signal that we should all roll over and play dead while the state dictates what kinds of relationships deserve inheritances and what kind don't.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 15, 2009 12:13 AM

evidence that either of them desired to be spouses

On the contrary, didn't the two women deliberately maintain separate residences for the many years they were together? Which suggests they had an individualistic--dare I say, "radical" -- concept of their love and relationship. I don't know enough about them to say more, but clearly they were not poster children for the GM movement and Terrance got it wrong.

Thanks, Yasmin, for clarifying the issue.

And Geena, If Osama Bin Laden owed money to the IRS they would have found him by now got me laughing out loud.

Hi Brynn,

Yes, to the best of my knowledge, the two did not live together for extended periods of time, even though they did have separate apartments in the same building, at least at one time. The article notes that Liebovitz bought an apartment overlooking the Seine "for them to use," as the NYM writer puts it. The phrasing suggests a pied–à–terre rather than a shared home. In addition, Sontag doesn't appear to have taken on a co-parenting role with any of Liebovitz's children - who are always referred to as *her* children - even though she may have had strong relationships with them.

Neither one of them really identified as lesbians either (and that's a post unto itself; I have memories of the many articles that sprang up at the time of Sontag's death). In sum, you're right - theirs was an unconventional relationship that was no less than any deep friendship or marriage, and Terrance's erroneous post shoehorns it into a fictional history of two lesbians who wanted to be spouses.

How To Be A Dick In 3 Easy Steps!

Yes, you can be a HET DICK, a.k.a. a Heterosexual Dictator. You have to be VERY clever and even a tad evil and sick. And you must want to deny the LGBT community their due rights for as long as possible. Here's how:

#1 ~ STATE-BY-STATE RIGHTS - Make sure this is the ONLY option. This gives you plenty of time to wiggle around and avoid the federal issue. Decades.

#2 ~ RIGHT-BY-RIGHT - (Here's where the DICKS are brilliant). Have the Queers beg and plead for each right individually, so you end up pitting them against each other. Then they will NEVER be organized and unified! This has been proven again and again here at Bilerico and every other Queer website.

#3 ~ CIVIL RIGHTS FUNDRAISERS - Trick people into thinking that they have to spend money to attain their due rights throughout their entire lifetime. Make sure they do NOT realize the POWER they could have when money is withheld, as is a nationwide Equality Tax Revolt. We definitely do not want that; it could bring this entire civil rights nonsense to a STAND STILL.

There you go. It's easy to be a DICK.

John;
Please warn the people that you recruit for the Tax protest that the IRS can lien your assets and clean out your bank accounts unexpectedly if you participate. Happened to a few friends of mine at this point that I've had to lend money to for them to buy groceries

LOL. I'm surprised anyone would consider tax revolt without first THINKING AHEAD and hide their assets, ditch their banks accounts, and live off the books. To me that's like telling someone the coffee they're about to drink is "very hot".

I'm not sure if Alex's comment were refering to my silliness above, but my point was in #2 - how the ANTI-Equality folks must absolutely love how we are fighting for rights one at a time, and thus fighting with each other. Listen to us. It's all blah-blah-ENDA-DOMA-DADT-marriage-transgender-and what of bisexuals?

NO UNITY - NO SUCCESS.

Play nice, everyone. This is a hot topic, I get that people are passionate, but there are ways to talk about this without getting into people's personal lives.

Let's try a new rule of thumb for this thread: if your point doesn't make sense without the word "you," then don't make it. If you feel the need to respond to someone on a personal leave, please take this comment as a reason not to do so without losing face.

Good posts by Yasmin.

Marriage can help or ruin anyone's finances. I don't see it as a good argument for same-sex marriage.

Skip on paying federal or state taxes? Impossible.
If Osama Bin Laden owed money to the IRS they would have found him by now.

I think everyone knows that I don't believe marriage deserves "special rights" -- gay or straight. But somehow no one has mentioned what I consider the most important point (aside from not spreading untruths): THE ONLY TIME AN ESTATE TAX IS LEVIED IS WHEN THE DECEDENT HAS MORE THAN $3.5 MILLION (It was $2 million, I believe, when Sontag died). As far as I am concerned NO ONE should be able to leave ANYONE more money than that without paying taxes. Including spouses.

Now I do believe that a surviving resident of a home should not lose that home when an owner of the home dies. Again, that has nothing to do with marriage. It applies equally to close friends, siblings, etc. If it's your primary residence there should be no tax of any kind that results in you having to leave your home. I actually believe it is possible to get tax reform like this, which would benefit a wide range of people -- many gay -- if we weren't so focused on marriage.

For all of you who commented who want marriage to protect you from estate tax, will you have more than $3.5 million in assets when you die? If so, and you believe that your life partner deserves to inherit all of it without tax, well, we'll just have to disagree on that. Me, I would fit to end the marital exemption and let spouses be taxed above that amount as well.