Annie Leibovitz is the in-house photographer for Vanity Fair, whose work, depending on who you ask, is either masterful or schlocky. Leibovitz is also a big lez, which means she’s plenty affected by the current tax code, which discriminates against same-sex couples, especially when it comes to inheriting your dead partner’s estate. Which is what happened when Leibovitz’s lover Susan Sontag died in 2004 from illnesses including leukemia. An accomplished author and filmmaker, you can imagine what type of bank and goodies Sontag left behind. But given the way we tax estates when they pass on to someone other than your spouse, taking control of Sontag’s belongings left Leibovitz subject to some hefty taxes: up to 50 percent of the estate’s value. Which might explain why Leibovitz is in debt upwards of $700,000 to her vendors, why she had to borrow more than $15 million against her $5 million townhouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village, her second home in the country, and her entire collection of photographs.
The New York Times last month explored Leibovitz’s debt, citing anonymous informant who say she needed the cash to “to pay off mortgages and deal with other financial stresses.” Depending on the size of Sontag’s estate, it’s entirely feasible Leibovitz owes seven- to eight-figures to the government. But had she been legally married to Sontag? They tax penalty, says AfterEllen, would’ve been zero.
Meanwhile, it’s forced those who report on this sort of thing into an interesting position.
In Sontag’s 2004 obituary, the New York Times never once mentioned her partner of 20 years: Liebovitz. The New York Daily News gossip columnist Ben Widdicombe asked the Times to explain the decision, and they responded: “Our extensive reporting in recent weeks did not substantiate the widespread reports of any relationship of Miss Sontag and Miss Leibovitz beyond friendship. … We should probably have mentioned the friendship, but nothing further was warranted by the facts we could gather.” (Noted Widdicombe: “The paper did note that Sontag was once ‘photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut Vodka ad.'”)
In a 2006 article about a Sontag photo show Leibovitz was putting together, the Times could barely bring itself to mention the two were in a relationship. (Even NPR had trouble. In a 2006 report, it labeled Sontag as “Leibovitz’s longtime friend.”)
But my how things have changed. In reporting on Liebovitz’s money woes last month, the Times “extensive reporting” managed to find such a “relationship.” It wrote: “Robert Pledge, the founder of Contact Press Images, which represents Ms. Leibovitz’s editorial work, said she had faced many stresses in the last eight years, including runaway expenses at her Chelsea studio, which she has since closed; the renovations; the deaths of her lover Susan Sontag and her parents; and the birth of three children.”