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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000


SUSAN SONTAG: The Making of an Icon, by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock (Norton, $29.95)

More like, the un-making of an icon. Sontag groupies might be dismayed by this unauthorized replay of theher career of the writer whom Norman Podhoretz called "the dark lady of American letters." The authors give Sontag some due, but spend considerable effort trying to demystify the mystique -- the image they say Sontag spent her life cultivating while denying she was doing it.

Here is that mystique: Brilliant, captivating expatriate bursts onto scene in early 1960s and instantly becomes piercing essayist, social critic, novelist, and even occasional director, the intellectual voice of a generation. The authors' Sontag, on the other hand, borders on the pretentious. They attribute much of her early success to the boundless promotions of her publisher. In the words of one critic, Sontag was not as much discovered as she was proclaimed.

Yet there could not be so much smoke without a fire somewhere, and the authors examine Sontag's contributions in works such as On Photography and Illness as Metaphor. No one was more courageous in publicly opposing the Islamic death sentence against Salman Rushdie. Sontag also dodged bullets in Sarajevo to stage a production of Waiting for Godot as a symbol of defiance. In the end, the authors concede her genius of style and form, withholding judgment on the content.

* * *

MARIE ANTOINETTE: The Last Queen of France, by Evelyne Lever (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $30)

For the record, Marie Antoinette never actually said "Let them eat cake." But talk about overstaying your welcome! By the time the hapless Maria Antonia Josephina Johanna was put to death in October 1793, the angry mob was ready to believe any accusation, spread any canard to vilify a symbol of the aristocracy hated even more than her husband, King Louis XVI.

Neither did she do much to discourage it. The author, French historian Evelyne Lever, describes a Marie Antoinette who was essentially clueless. Born a princess of Austria, married off to the weak French heir as part of her mother's politicking, she divided her time between extravagant diversions and inept attempts to influence her husband on her mother's behalf. The popular suspicion she was an Austrian agent had a kernel of truth to it.

Lever's book is descriptive, well researched and documented. She does not pile on contempt for her subject but lets her condemn herself. You try hard to work up a little sympathy for the young queen -- she loved her children, she had a wimp of a husband, she had to hide her true love for a foreign noble. But in the end, she and Louis simply would not shed the idea that God had chosen them to rule, and the mob charged them a steep price for it.

* * *

CHRYSLER: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius, by Vincent Curcio (Oxford University Press, $35)

This exhaustive 690-page tome begins with a description of undersea Kansas 120-million years ago and ends with a detailed discussion of the flowers at Chrysler's funeral and the disposition of his estate. It is just as much a history of the auto industry and the wheeler-dealer world of pre-1929 as it is biography. The amount of information involved is colossal. If you are looking for a list of materials used in the Chrysler Building, here's your book.

If Henry Ford represented the triumph of mass production, Walter P. Chrysler represented the triumph of engineering. He was a King Midas of efficiency -- everything he touched, he made better. He rose in the ranks of the railroads, then jumped to the new industry. Author Curcio wonderfully relates the birth and growth of that business and how it coalesced into the "Big Three" of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

This is billed as the first full-length Chrysler biography and is based in part on access to corporate and family records. It has an official-version, Horatio Alger feel to it, and the narrative hurriedly breezes over a few "uncomfortable" facts just before the end -- women, Prohibition violations and so on. We end up with a long and fulsome praising of the man as a modern Roman, striding across the globe like a colossus.

Howard Troxler is a Times staff writer.

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