Fact-check the Leibovitz-bankruptcy meme now

There's a new meme going around, begun by a blogger named Julia Miranda and propagated here, to the effect that the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz's money troubles, which have forced her to pawn the copyright to her photos, were caused by inheritance tax she had to pay on property left to her by her late lover Susan Sontag. If lesbians were allowed to marry, the claim goes, Leibovitz wouldn't be in such trouble.

Scott McLemee points out that Sontag developed such an aversion to marrying after her first experience that it's far from clear that she would have taken advantage of an opportunity to marry Leibovitz. But there's also a factual problem: it doesn't in fact seem to be true that Leibovitz took out the loans to pay inheritance taxes. According to the Telegraph story that Julia Miranda cites, Leibovitz "declined to comment on the specific reasons for the loans." According to the New York Times article that first broke the news of Leibovitz pawning her copyright, friends said she planned to use "the money to pay off mortgages and deal with other financial stresses." A Daily Mail story claims that Sontag-estate taxes were to blame, but the story's anonymous author doesn't seem to have interviewed anyone who would know, and according to a squib in Trusts & Estates, Sontag actually left most of her estate to her son, David Rieff. Meanwhile, a blogger named Jason Cochran claims that Leibovitz's money troubles are more likely caused by her renovation of a Greenwich Village townhouse, which damaged the townhouse next door and brought on a costly lawsuit.

Putting all that to one side, of course, it remains true and widely unappreciated that the denial of marriage rights to gays and lesbians costs them money and trouble. It muddies the waters, however, to make claims that are probably untrue, and at best unverifiable.

3 thoughts on “Fact-check the Leibovitz-bankruptcy meme now”

  1. How exactly would you argue that this "muddies the waters"? Replace the names involved with X and Y, and the issues are precisely the same, are they not?

  2. I think made-up facts are bad strategy, in general. And in this case, replacing "Sontag" and "Leibovitz" with "X" and "Y" doesn't remove the element of fiction, because it's not clear that inheritance can put someone in financial jeopardy of the sort Leibovitz is in. Thanks to George W. Bush, the exemption for estate taxes when Sontag died was in over a million dollars, regardless of whether the inheritor was a spouse. Moreover, if you think an inheritance will somehow leave you poorer, you don't have to accept it. (And according to the IRS website, real estate values "re-set" at death, so no inheritor could end up owing more in estate taxes than a property is worth, though I suppose they might have to sell the property to be able to pay the taxes on it.)

    A more useful story, if one must be made up: A schoolteacher is survived by her companion, a well-known artist who never made much money and who depended on the teacher's steady income while she was alive. Suppose the teacher didn't have much of a pension, and in her retirement, the couple needed the teacher's Social Security check to get by. If the couple were heterosexual, then after the teacher's death, the artist might be able to continue to draw some or all of the teacher's pension, and would certainly be entitled to a widow's share of the teacher's Social Security benefits. As a lesbian widow, however, the artist will probably receive nothing from the teacher's pension and will certainly receive no share of the teacher's Social Security benefits.

  3. Thank you for this. Some people seem to think compassion and fact are mutually exclusive. It's refreshing to hear from someone who doesn't.

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