Susan Sontag, a leading intellectual and activist of the past half-century who introduced the concept of "camp" to mainstream culture and also influenced the way many thought about art, illness and photography, died Tuesday. She was 71.
Her son, David Rieff, said the cause was complications of acute myelogenous leukemia, one of the deadliest forms of leukemia.
Sontag wrote a best-selling historical novel, "The Volcano Lover," and in 2000 won the National Book Award for the historical novel "In America." But her greatest literary impact was as an essayist.
Her 1964 piece "Notes on Camp," which established her as a major new writer, popularized the "so bad it's good" attitude toward popular culture.
She also wrote such influential works as "Illness as Metaphor," in which she examined how disease had been alternately romanticized and demonized, and "On Photography," in which she argued pictures sometimes distance viewers from the subject matter. "On Photography" received a National Book Critics Circle award in 1978. "Regarding the Pain of Others," a partial refutation of "On Photography," was an award finalist in 2004.
Sontag was deeply involved in politics. In 1987-89, she served as president of the American chapter of the writers organization PEN. When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie's death because of the alleged blasphemy of Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," Sontag helped lead protests in the literary community.
She campaigned relentlessly for human rights and visited the unraveling Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, calling for international action against the growing civil war.
The daughter of a fur trader, Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933. She spent her early years in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles. Her mother was an alcoholic; her father died when she was 5. Her mother later married an Army officer, Capt. Nathan Sontag.
Susan Sontag remembered her childhood as "one long prison sentence." She skipped three grades and graduated from high school at 15; the principal told her she was wasting her time there.
At the University of Chicago, she attended a lecture by Philip Rieff, a social psychologist and historian. They were married 10 days later. She was 17; he was 28. Their son was born in 1952. But by the mid-1960s, they were divorced, and Sontag had emerged in New York's literary society.
Sontag wrote an acclaimed short story about AIDS, "The Way We Live Now," and her best-selling novel, "The Volcano Lover," about Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton.
In 2000, her novel "In America," about 19th century Polish actress Helena Modjeska, was a commercial disappointment and was criticized for the uncredited use of material from fiction and nonfiction sources. Nonetheless, Sontag won the National Book Award.
Sontag also wrote and directed the films "Duet for Cannibals," "Brother Carl" and "Promised Lands" and wrote the play "Alice in Bed," based on the life of Alice James, the ailing sister of Henry and William James.
Sontag appeared as herself in Woody Allen's mock documentary, "Zelig."
In 1999, she wrote an essay for "Women," a compilation of portraits by her longtime companion, photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Sontag did not practice the art of restrained discourse. Writing in the 1960s about the Vietnam War she declared "the white race is the cancer of human history." Days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she criticized U.S. foreign policy and offered backhanded praise for the hijackers.
"Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" she wrote in the New Yorker.