For much of her long lifetime, Peggy Guggenheim was the archetypal “celeb”—a person, that is to say, who is known for being known. In the gossip that never spared her, there was buzz but little substance, and envy but no insight. Stories about her were told and retold at third or fourth hand, worldwide, but they were often baseless to begin with. The gossip shows no sign of subsiding. Such is the bulk, and such the almost day-by-day coverage of Peggy Guggenheim’s life, that Anton Gill’s four-hundred-thirty-seven-page biography could be renamed “The Way We Lived Then.”
Mr. Gill has read all the books, and sought out survivors of every kind. He wins our confidence with an engaging and persuasive chapter about the first shipload of Guggenheims from Switzerland who arrived in Philadelphia in 1847. One of them was Meyer Guggenheim, Peggy’s grandfather, from whom she inherited the bulbous nose that was to be a lifelong embarrassment to her. From Peggy’s birth in 1898 to her death in 1979, Mr. Gill is with her in childhood and first youth, and thereafter at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and through a thousand parties he follows her in her adventures in the art world, and is in and out of the bedroom (her own or other people’s). He also has an eye for period detail. Without Mr. Gill, we would not know that in 1932 the gossip columnist for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune was named Wambly Bald.
It was fundamental to Peggy Guggenheim and her story that her grandfather was the prototypical European Jewish immigrant genius. After an eight-week journey in steerage in a sailing boat from Hamburg, he and his family arrived in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia at that time, one in forty of the population was a Jew. Partly for that reason, Meyer Guggenheim adapted fast. Initially he had no money, but he soon cased the rural outskirts of Philadelphia, where shops were few. He found out what people were short of and he came back a day or two later, bearing on his back a heavy load of irresistible goods. As a salesman-supplier who never missed a deal, he flourished.
He had flair, courage, drive, and a genius for diversification. He began small, producing a form of blacking for iron stoves that did not come off on the users’ hands. (To make this product, he used a secondhand sausage-stuffing machine.) Four years after he had stepped off the boat, he was already a person of substance in the business of supplying stove blacking and coffee essence (both of them lucrative at that time).
Mr. Gill is thereafter very good on Peggy’s grandfather’s irresistible rise in the lead and silver business. In mining and smelting, Meyer Guggenheim soon had successful operations worldwide. By the time that Peggy was born, the name of Guggenheim was well known, if not always loved, in Mexico, Chile, Alaska, and Angola. According to Mr. Gill, Meyer Guggenheim …