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Modern Art Groupie


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 was eventually the head of one of the six most prosperous businesses in the United States. By 1890 his annual income was estimated at $750,000, and by 1900 he was making millions.

This being so, and since he had fathered eight sons, Peggy Guggenheim’s financial future was both dazzling and precarious. It was dazzling in that the business would stay in the family. But it was also precarious, in that her father, Ben Guggenheim, had chosen to leave the family firm in 1901, in the belief that he could do better on his own. In doing so, he forfeited an $8 million capital interest in the firm. Even worse was that in 1912 he and his brother William had signed a disclaimer to any participation in the family mining business. Financially, these were suicidal decisions. Peggy’s father was not a hardened man of business, but an easygoing university graduate. He had very good looks, he loved women, and many of them responded to him.

In business Ben Guggenheim had neither his father’s instinct nor his father’s iron hand. Quite rightly, he regarded Paris not only as more amusing than New York, but as a place in which his family would never know what he was up to. He went by himself to live in Paris and founded the International Steam Pump Company, which had a moment of glory when it produced the elevators for the Eiffel Tower. But it did not otherwise prosper, and his pleasures were very expensive; his family in New York saw less and less of him. And his fortunes were way down when he decided on impulse in April 1912 to take ship for New York.

Peggy had not lately seen much of him, but like many another absentee father he was treasured all the more for that reason. His arrival was warmly awaited, and all the more so as he was booked on the maiden voyage of that nonpareil among transatlantic liners, the Titanic. When the great ship foundered, Ben Guggenheim by all accounts went down as a hero. Throwing aside his life jacket, and dressed in black tie, he had gone from lifeboat to lifeboat, shouting “Women first!” and acting upon it.

Thirty years later, Peggy was to say, “My father’s death affected me greatly. It took me months to get over the terrible nightmare of the Titanic, and years to get over the loss of my father. In a sense I have never really recovered, as I suppose I have been searching for a father ever since.”

As to that, there is no reason to doubt her. As for her supposed huge inheritance, it turned out that her father had squandered almost all his fortune. It was thanks to her brothers’ rescue operations that, as of her twenty-first birthday in 1919, her capital yielded her about $22,500 a year. By the 1940s the yield was around $35,000. Mr. Gill remarks that “although this wasn’t hay, it wasn’t John Hay Whitney, either.”

The result of all this was that, at twenty-one, Peggy Guggenheim was launched upon a world for which she had had no preparation. Fortune had passed her by, and she had no father, an ineffective mother, and several high-achieving brothers who would never teach her how to live.

In that situation, she was ignorant, lost, gullible, and an easy prey. Her only course, as she saw it, was to feign a savoir-faire that she did not have and would never achieve. It was also her ambition to live out her life among people who were dedicated to the arts and letters. What happened to her as a full-grown arts-and-letters groupie occupies a great many pages of Gill’s very long book. It has to be said that many of them are degrading to read.

This is partly because of the company she kept. In the world of letters, some of the people in question are familiar figures—Djuna Barnes, for one, and Kay Boyle, for another. Brief appearances by the young Samuel Beckett add nothing to his stature. Most of her life was spent with nonstarters—men and women buoyed momentarily by Peggy’s hospitality, ever ready to spend a night on the town in Paris, and delighted to tour Europe in one of her fancy automobiles. They are no fun to read about.

The subtext to the book is, needless to say, her endless and all too familiar attempts to achieve an enduring and mutually satisfactory sexual relationship with any one man. If she never achieved this, a plausible reason is advanced by Mr. Gill. Though not credited to anyone in particular, it is as follows. Whereas she was ready to try her luck in bed with almost anybody, Peggy is said to have had no interest in foreplay, or afterplay, or any lingering tenderness. What she liked, Mr. Gill tells us, was “the act” itself, with no trimmings. And when “the act” was through and done with, prestissimo, that was that.

Many a tribulation resulted. Her English first husband, Laurence Vail, drank heavily, and threw bottles of vermouth and Amer Picon across the room in a Paris café. He also broke her tortoiseshell dressing set, sometimes invited whores and derelicts to drop by, and specialized in fifty-hour-long quarrels that culminated in his rubbing jam into Peggy’s hair. When he published a novel called Murder! Murder!, it stank of anti-Semitism.

A later love of her life, as she put it, was John Ferrar Holms, an English hero of World War I who had won the Military Cross in France while still in his teens. He was big, strong, handsome, and came of a very good English family. He also saw himself as the epitome of a certain high culture. It pleased Peggy that he could talk like a book. They met in July 1928, at a time when Laurence Vail had not long before burned one of her sweaters, thrown her down a flight of stairs, and walked on her stomach four times in the same evening. John Holms seemed to be just the ticket, and Peggy acquired him with a ruthlessness comparable to that which had distinguished her grandfather in all his dealings.

They had some very good times. Peggy loved nothing better than to tour Europe in a Delage, a Citroën, or a Hispano-Suiza with her favorite du jour. In that setting, John Holms lasted well. Year by year, they had made the tournée des Grands-Ducs, all over Europe, though Peggy didn’t care much for Scandinavia. There was also some awkwardness in Venice. Peggy had been well tutored about Venice by Laurence Vail, whereas Holms had never been there and had nothing to say about it. For a well-adjusted couple, this might have made for an enjoyable reversal of roles. But Holms sulked, and Peggy realized what others had spotted long before—that he had never had an original idea in his life, but talked by rote.

Back in England in the summer of 1933, Holms went riding on Dartmoor in a “mild drizzle,” fell, and injured his wrist. When, with his customary morning hangover, he went to a hospital for an operation, it turned out that alcohol had done such damage to his system that he died under the general anesthetic.

It was in 1938 that the career of Peggy Guggenheim took a decisive turn for the better. For the first time in her life, she was doing what she had most wanted to do, frequent the company of artists and collect their work. Not only did this give her a new and an honorable identity, but she had in Marcel Duchamp an incomparable adviser, from whom she learned on the job. Thanks to her activity as a collector and a wholehearted promoter of twentieth-century art, first in London and later in New York, she was to outsmart those who had derided her. It gave her lasting satisfaction, and her collection is what she wanted it to be, her memorial.

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