Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheimby Mary V. Dearborn
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Peggy Guggenheim emerges in Mistress of Modernism as the ultimate self-invented woman, a cultural mover and shaker who broke away from her poor-little-rich-girl origins to shape a life for herself as the enfant terrible of the art world. Peggy's visionary Art of This Century gallery in New York, which brought together the European surrealist artists with the American abstract expressionists, was an epoch-shaking "happening" at the center of its time.
Dearborn's unprecedented access to the Guggenheim family, friends, and papers contributes rich insight to Peggy's traumatic childhood in German-Jewish "Our Crowd" New York, her self-education in the ways of art and artists, her caustic battles with other art-collecting Guggenheims, and her legendary sexual appetites: her lovers included Max Ernst, Samuel Beckett, and Marcel Duchamp, to name a mere few. Here too is a poignant portrait of Peggy's last years as l'ultima dogaressa -- the last duchess -- in her palazzo in Venice, where her collection still draws thousands of visitors every year.
Mistress of Modernism is the first definitive biography of a woman whose wit, passion, and provocative legacy come compellingly to life.
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sunday dinner, summer 1941: sojourn on the coast of portugal
Having recently fled German-occupied France, Peggy Guggenheim found herself on a Sunday afternoon in late June 1941 holding court at a large table in the dining room of a Portuguese resort hotel, surrounded by a motley band of friends and family, including a painter, a writer, an ex-husband, children, and others who were depending on her to get them out of wartime Europe. They were cooling their heels in Estoril, a resort town on what was once known as the Portuguese Riviera and home to exiled European royalty, including Juan de Borbón of Spain, Karl von Habsburg of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and King Carol of Romania, which lent a certain frisson to the Guggenheim party’s experience. The town lay between the small coastal fishing village of Cascais and Lisbon, the latter near enough so that members of Peggy’s party could make forays there to try to determine when their enforced exile would end—for Estoril was just a way station on the journey to America. For the past three weeks they had been waiting for passenger lists that would tell them when they could, all eleven of them, get passage on a Pan American Clipper flight bound for America.
Lisbon at that time was the single most important point of embarkation for refugees from Europe who wanted to go to the United States.
Portugal was a neutral country, and more than 70,000 refugees passed through the port during the war. In the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca, Lisbon is the destination for the refugees stranded in Morocco.
Because of its transatlantic connections, and because it was a city crowded with foreigners of all nationalities, it became a rendezvous spot for spies and a hotbed of intrigue.
It is difficult to overstate the anxieties of those wishing to flee the Nazis—not to mention the fears of the Jews among them. One observer took measure of the atmosphere on a train heading for Lisbon after the war commenced: “Outside the sun beats down in muggy waves, but inside . . . fear—like a blanket of dark cobwebs—lies over the lives of the passengers. Fear that visas may expire before a destination can be reached. Fear that each new border check might bring a gruff order to get off the train and turn back. Fear that scanty funds may not last until a safe place is reached in the New World. Fear that an outbreak of war in a new theater will slam the gates to freedom at the last moment. Fears by the hundreds—by the thousands.” The Guggenheim party was not immune to such fears; just keeping their papers together was an anxiety-ridden chore.
Most refugees got out of Lisbon when they could, and many of them went to America. The war saw a torrent of them making their way to the United States, through Lisbon or through Marseilles, another jumping-off point. In the French city, the American intellectual Varian Fry ran the Emergency Rescue Committee, which conspired to help refugees from a list of two hundred mysteriously given to him in the States. Fry risked everything as he maneuvered around and away from the Gestapo and the Vichy police to secure passage to the United States—usually through Lisbon—for the writer Hannah Arendt, the painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among many others.
Peggy Guggenheim—herself, as a Jew, in a very vulnerable position —had aided Fry materially, giving the committee 500,000 francs in December 1940: she also arranged and paid for the flight to the United States of André Breton and his family. The surrealist potentate, whom Peggy would support for a good part of his stay in America, would reassemble his court around Art of This Century, Peggy’s wartime gallery in New York City. Among the other artists seeking haven in New York were Chagall, the Chilean-born Roberto Matta Echaurren, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, and Kurt Seligmann. In fact, Peggy’s gallery would become a place where the European refugees could meet with emerging American artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell in a heady mix of cross-pollination and creative collaboration, out of which came abstract expressionism, and which saw the center of the art world move from Paris to New York City.
The year before Peggy and her party arrived in Lisbon, as a German invasion threatened, she had tried desperately to find ways to preserve her remarkable trove of surrealist and abstract art, which would serve as the anchor of her New York gallery and which by then included, she wrote, “a Kandinsky, several Klees and Picabias, a Cubist Braque, a Gris, a Léger, a Gleizes, a Marcoussis, a Delaunay, two Futurists, a Severini, a Balla, a Van Doesburg, and a ‘De Stijll’ Mondrian. Among the surrealist paintings were those of Miró, Max Ernst, Chirico, Tanguy, Dalí, Magritte and Brauner. The sculpture [included] works by Brancusssssi, Lipchitz, Laurens, Pevsner, Giacometti, Moore, and Arp.” When the Louvre declined to store the collection, a museum director in Grenoble had agreed to show it and to store it afterward, but he kept putting off the exhibit. Finally, a shipping agent and family friend suggested that she wrap up all her artworks with the rest of her possessions—dishes, furniture, and her car—and send them to America as “household goods.”
The woman who assembled this remarkable collection was not a conventional collector or patron. Peggy had found her vocation within the larger frame of a life in quest of a personality separate from the confining world of her prominent and wealthy family. Instead of a respectable marriage and a stable home, she had opted for an itinerant life with a succession of male companions, friends, and hangers-on in the literary and artistic circles of France and the United Kingdom. The entourage she took with her on her constant travels across Europe—and now to America—was an inextricable part of her life, for better or for worse. Out of these circumstances Peggy became one of the most colorful figures in the expatriate community of the 1920s and 1930s, and her New York endeavor would prove the most distinctive and individual in America in the 1940s. The collection she assembled represented her iconoclasm: decidedly modern art, heavily surrealistic, a genre that was sexually and ideologically confrontational. She had been brought up on old masters. True, her uncle Solomon Guggenheim was collecting the works that would form the backbone of his Museum of Non-Objective Painting—later the Guggenheim Museum in the Frank Lloyd Wright building on Fifth Avenue in New York—but he was thought to be eccentric himself, and at any rate he thoroughly disapproved of his niece having a career in the first place, not to mention dealing in modern art.
The party in the hotel dining room on a summer Sunday made a de- cidedly unconventional family picture. Peggy, at the center, was then forty-two and had maintained her attractive, slim figure; her build was delicate in the wrists and ankles, and she waved her hands when she talked, giving her an air of fragility and vulnerability. She could be a strikingly handsome woman, with raven black hair and bright blue eyes, but her crudely applied makeup—a crimson gash for her mouth —and her famously ugly nose marred her looks. She spoke in vaguely English-sounding, plummy tones, her voice often dryly amused, radiating an ironic air that masked an underlying insecurity about how others regarded her.
With Peggy in Portugal was her ex-husband Laurence Vail, a harddrinking literary and artistic dabbler, equipped with a volatile temper but a wonderful sense of fun. Once known for his yellow mane, Laurence wore his light, receding hair long on top but clipped underneath, giving him a boyish air even in his late forties. He too had striking blue eyes, and his large, aquiline nose, rather than detracting from his appearance, made him look distinguished. He was a naturally graceful man. In group conversation, he was witty and ebullient, and in one-onone discussion he was capable of creating a rare intimacy. He was also very much the proud papa, affectionate toward his large brood.
With Vail was his second wife, the writer Kay Boyle, a beautiful and patrician American who had managed to curb her husband’s scenes by throwing impressive ones of her own. Kay was at the hotel with the others reluctantly. She spent the rest of the week in a Lisbon clinic, supposedly because of a sinus infection but really to escape family turmoil.
Kay intended to divorce Laurence as soon as she got to the States and to marry her new lover, an Austrian baron named Joseph Franckenstein.
Between Peggy and Kay there was no love lost. Kay had urged Laurence to obtain custody of their two children by any means possible, including dredging up some nasty gossip about Peggy’s family in an attempt to prove that all Guggenheim women were crazy, unfit mothers.
Laurence eventually won custody of their son, Sindbad, and inevitably Kay and Peggy fought a tug of war over him and later, over Laurence and Peggy’s daughter, Pegeen.
In Estoril, the assorted children, however appreciative of the drama of their situation, were themselves going through difficult passages, especially Peggy’s children, Sindbad and Pegeen, eighteen and sixteen respectively.
Pegeen, a beautiful blond girl who projected a lost, otherworldly vulnerability, inherited her mother’s mannerisms, including a habit of drawing her mouth inward and downward when she laughed.
She had bonded deeply with Kay and defended her stepmother’s actions —which was hard on Peggy. And Sindbad told Kay, “You haven’t only ruined one man’s life. You’ve ruined two!” With Kay’s departure, he felt that he was losing the only real mother he knew. Sindbad, with soulful, large eyes, was darkly handsome, having inherited the paternal, not the maternal, nose. This summer, he was obsessed with losing his virginity, a burden he did not want to bring to America. The adults made this a topic of much amused conversation—Peggy urged her son to forswear the local girls, from whom he might acquire a venereal disease.
One member of the group, Pegeen’s close friend Jacqueline Ventadour, fifteen, had fallen in love with Sindbad, creating another subject for gossip among the adults. But Sindbad was still in love with Yvonne Kuhn (the sister of Pegeen’s first lover) from the previous summer at Lake Annecy in the French Alps, and paid no notice to Jacqueline’s attentions.
The fourth adult in the ménage was the surrealist artist Max Ernst, Peggy’s latest lover. She had met the German painter just two months before in Marseilles, when they were all arranging for their departures for the United States. Peggy had fallen in love with the strikingly handsome Max, who, with his long whitish blond locks, piercing blue eyes, and beaky nose, closely resembled a younger Laurence. Max had allowed Peggy to take him in tow, grateful to her for making it possible for him to get an emergency exit visa, despite a stay in a French internment camp, as well as for paying his way—for which Peggy, driving a hard bargain, got her pick of his artworks. Yet Max was inscrutable.
Sometimes boisterous, he could also be frigid and taciturn, emitting waves of European displeasure. With his aloof manner, he kept Peggy guessing. A believer in personal anarchy, he introduced a wild, unpredictable note into a household that already contained enough conflict to keep it at the brink of chaos. On this Sunday, his hair was dyed blue— he had soaked it in mouthwash—to the children’s delight and the grownups’ titillation; yet he made no reference to the hue of his hair.
Max could be a little frightening, especially to the children; just that morning, Kay and Laurence’s daughter, the twelve-year-old Apple, had seen him naked in front of the mirror in his room, solemnly applying the blue to his hair.
Peggy was dismayed by what she felt was Max’s lingering affection for the English painter Leonora Carrington, who had turned up in Lis- bon independently. Yet, as she wrote in her memoir, “I soon had a definite feeling that my life with [Max] was not yet over.” One evening Peggy and Max went over to nearby Cascais, and Peggy took a nude midnight swim: Max implored her to come out of the water, as the sea at night looked threatening and the sight of the naked Peggy bobbing in the black waves frightened him. Afterward, Peggy dried herself with her chemise and they made love on the rocks. Repairing to a nearby chichi hotel bar, Peggy hung her chemise on the bar railing to dry as they sipped their brandy. “Max loved my unconventionalities,” Peggy later recorded.
That evening in late June, Peggy sat, as was her custom, at the head of the great table, with Max on one side and Laurence on the other. Kay, sitting next to the various children, tended to them and generally ignored the other adults, though at one point she piped up to tell Peggy she had heard a rumor that the ship carrying Peggy’s art collection to the United States had sunk, a malicious remark she repeated several times during the group’s long wait in Portugal. Peggy had been greatly relieved when she saw her collection off for America, but now her relief gave way to worry about its safe passage. Her father had gone down with the Titanic, and Peggy had a deep mistrust of boats.
“Our life in the hotel was rather strange,” Peggy later wrote fondly.
She hugely enjoyed the confusion their seating arrangement caused the hotel staff. “No one knew whose wife I was or what connection Kay . . .
had with us,” Peggy wrote. Once, the hotel’s head porter—nicknamed, by Laurence, Edward the Seventh, because of his resemblance to the English king—took a telephone call from Peggy with information about when her train would arrive in Estoril. “[H]e guessed my dilemma and, not knowing to whom I wanted the message delivered, went to the dining room and facing both Laurence and Max, said impersonally, ‘Madam arrives on the nine o’clock train.’”
It was no accident that Peggy took the presiding post at the table. It was she who was paying the $550 Clipper fare (roughly more than $6,000 in today’s currency) for everyone in her party, with the exception of Jacqueline Ventadour. In Marseilles, the wartime hub of visa activity and travel arrangements for those seeking to leave Europe, she had arranged for her party’s travel documents and for money from the Banque de France to be transferred to her account, and she made sure that everyone’s passports registered the sums.
What this footloose, unconventional, gypsyish collection of expatri- ates had in common was Peggy. She was the glue that held them together.
The entire band would be going to America because they had to, not because they wanted to. Peggy, Kay, and Laurence—Laurence especially, having grown up in Europe—had adapted themselves to expatriate life. They viewed the United States (from a distance) as commercialistic and tawdry, devoted exclusively to business. Max was essentially stateless and had been for some time; there was no place for him in Germany or in any other European country for that matter. He would go where the winds of change carried him. Peggy, however much she may have dreaded revisiting the city of her childhood, had been frustrated by the shutdown of her artistic efforts by the war and saw only possibility in a new life in America. She and her collection, she hoped, would find a worthy home, and Peggy could continue a life among artists and other creative people.
It was in Europe that Peggy Guggenheim had asserted her independence and begun to sketch out a role for herself as a patron, collector, and occasional savior to a generation of modernists.With her marriage to Laurence at twenty-four in 1922, Peggy had put behind her what she considered a ridiculously conventional and confining destiny as the daughter of a prominent family in New York’s old guard German- Jewish elite, exchanging it for a life among artists and writers in Europe. Marriage to Laurence was a round of adventures, but many of them were sordid.Too often, Peggy felt she was living the life of the idle rich, and she wanted more—to be engagée, actively on the scene of artistic or literary production. Divorcing Laurence, she had moved on to the man she considered the love of her life, John Holms, a would-be writer and literary critic, and they surrounded themselves with writers, most notably Djuna Barnes and British critics such as Edwin Muir.
Peggy was trying out possible destinies for a woman of independent means in the twentieth century. Not until she turned forty, in 1938, four and a half years after Holms’s sudden death, had she begun to see her way. She opened a London art gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, which became, despite her inexperience, an overnight success. For two years Peggy exhibited the best in modern art, giving shows to Tanguy and Kandinsky and displaying sculpture by Brancusi, Moore, Arp, Calder, and Pevsner, among others, developing the habit of buying at least one piece from every show.When the gallery failed to realize a profit, she closed its doors and attempted to open a museum of modern art in Lon- don, setting a higher goal for herself. She came to collecting motivated in part by economics, reasoning that in Europe’s threatening climate artwork could be had for rock-bottom prices. With an eye toward amassing a personal collection that could be the basis for her museum, she took advice from Marcel Duchamp, who had assisted her at Guggenheim Jeune, and later from Howard Putzel, an astute American art dealer, and set out to buy, as she put it, “a picture a day.”
In France, with invasion threatening after the outbreak of war, Peggy gave up the idea of a museum—for the time being—and put her collection in storage. She roamed around the country, toying with the idea of opening an artists’ colony but really marking time until her departure became inevitable. When she had turned forty, coincidental with the start of her career as an art patron, Peggy had begun to take lovers. She chose them from the literary and artistic milieux she knew; they included, among others, Samuel Beckett (perhaps the closest she came to a true match), Tanguy, Brancusi, the British surrealist Julian Trevelyan, and James Joyce’s son, Giorgio. Some of these affairs were more difficult than others, but sexual freedom energized Peggy and gave her a new vitality. All the while she supported—financially—her growing and colorful caravan of family and protégés, including Djuna Barnes, Laurence Vail, the anarchofeminist Emma Goldman, and now, in Portugal, Max Ernst. Sometimes the world whispered, and she heard the whispers. But she chose to disregard conventional morality and the gossip of those who seemed to her excessively narrow-minded and prudish.
Peggy had come to Europe twenty-one years before and, except for very occasional family visits, she had never looked back. In June 1941, from her temporary perch outside Lisbon, America loomed disconcertingly ahead again. In a sense, she was following her art collection, for increasingly that was what defined her. It gave her confidence, a gift to one whose life thus far had been riddled with personal insecurity.
Though she had little inkling of what awaited her in New York, and no idea of the full role she had yet to play in twentieth-century art, she knew she would have to rely on that confidence.
Copyright © 2004 by Mary V. Dearborn. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
Mary V. Dearborn is the author of MAILER: A BIOGRAPHY, as well as biographies of Henry Miller, John Dewey and Anzia Yezierska, and Louise Bryant. Dearborn holds a doctorate in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, where she was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities. She lives in New York.
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When one hears the name Guggenheim, you think of the Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim Museum. But now I will also think of Peggy Guggenheim, a collector that helped birth and nurse Modernism and Abstract art into Europe and America. A bohemian by lifestyle, she flaunted the morels and mores of second generation American Jewish Germans, using her name and her money to live a good life. Stingy she might have been, but she personaly saved many fleeing the Nazis during the war. Friends with anarchists, socialists and well-heeled aristcrats all over the world, she knew them all from Man Ray to Yoko Ono, and was a major supporter and proponent of Jackson Pollock. She is portrayed realisticly in this biography and well documented in its extant endnotes and wonderful pictures. Mary Dearborn has done it again, a book well deserving of praise
Well written, insightful and very entertaining. The life of Peggy Guggenheim has been examined before but never to my mind with such a sympathetic eye.