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.
It was made possible initially by a bequest from her mother, who had died in November 1937 and left her $500,000 in trust, which meant that she could spend more than before, but not too much. Since May 1937 she had been thinking of opening a gallery for new art. In that matter, she had the advice of Marcel Duchamp. Not only did Duchamp know everyone in the Parisian art world, but he bestirred himself on her account. Moreover, he was completely disinterested. He never expected a penny for his years of assistance to Peggy, and he wouldn’t have accepted money if she had offered it.
By 1920, Duchamp had already been a key player in the efforts of a collector called Katherine Dreier to found a museum of modern art in New York. Duchamp had taught her French in New York toward the end of World War I, and when she needed help she appointed Duchamp as the unpaid president of her adventure, with the painter and photographer Man Ray as its secretary and general organizer. Its name was the Société Anonyme. In the twenty years of its existence, it was to present in all eighty-five exhibitions. Among them were the first-ever one-man shows in New York of Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, and many others.
Marcel Duchamp was therefore the ideal adviser for Peggy Guggenheim when she decided to open a gallery on Cork Street in London that would be called Guggenheim Jeune. Everything possible can go wrong with a new gallery that is opened by a novice. But when the gallery opened in January 1938 it had some very creditable shows. Thanks to Marcel Duchamp, Jean Cocteau had sent from Paris for her opening exhibition a show of drawings for his play Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Cocteau’s preface for the catalog was translated by Samuel Beckett, and Duchamp came over to install the show.
Her first and only season also included shows by Kandinsky (his first one-man show in London) and Yves Tanguy, as well as a miscellany of sculptures by Brancusi, Laurens, Arp, Duchamp-Villon, and Henry Moore. The gallery’s losses in its first season (£600) were not catastrophic. Peggy had been seen to be serious, and its farewell party in July 1939 was a fête and not a wake.
Meanwhile she had in mind an altogether larger adventure. This was the establishment of London’s first museum of modern art, with a collection formed and given by herself. A suitable house would be acquired and the director would be Herbert Read, the respected editor of the Burlington Magazine. The Tate Gallery in London at that time was completely hostile to avant-garde art. Peggy was to go to Paris in August 1939 and tour the studios with Marcel Duchamp. She had set aside $40,000 for the purchase of works of art. Though laughable by today’s standards, this was a considerable sum at that time, and all the more so since buying major works of art was not then on many people’s minds and many in Paris reckoned they would be happy to have ready cash once World War II was over.
The declaration of war with Germany on September 3, 1939, was followed by an eerie seven-month period in which Britain and France, though at war with Germany, were apparently immune from attack. Among well-disposed foreigners there was a general belief at that time that the French army was the best in Europe and that the French defenses—known as the Maginot line—were impregnable. This being so, people continued to move around France as if the German armed forces would forever sit at home. Those who had left Paris returned. Marcel Duchamp, for one, did not come back until the middle of December 1939.
As to what Peggy Guggenheim bought when she, too, returned to Paris, all is told (along with much else) in the 821 pages of the magisterial catalog of her collection by Angelica Zander Rudenstine that was published in 1985.* Practically all her purchases were made in the few months in 1940 during which the German forces were still biding their time. Even after they launched their irresistible attack in May 1940, there were Parisians who could not believe that in a matter of weeks the Germans would be in Paris.
It therefore made even more sense for Peggy to buy while there were vestiges of normal life in Paris. Sometimes she went straight to the studios. Sometimes there a chance meeting, as when she was in Lefebvre-Foinet’s, the packer and shipper of first choice, when René Magritte walked in with a picture under his arm. He was hoping to sell it so that he could get out of Paris. She bought it on sight, paid cash, and walked out with Magritte’s La Voix des Airs of 1931.
Brancusi was more difficult. But Peggy was able to buy one of the seven versions of his Maiastra of 1912. It came from the former collection of the couturier Paul Poiret and was not quite in a perfect state. For the Bird in Space by Brancusi, she had to deal directly with the artist, who had asked a prohibitively high price. This was, in a way, Brancusi’s signature piece. Over some eighteen years, he had made sixteen Birds in Space, seven in marble and nine in polished bronze. The one that Peggy bought, which was derived from a gray marble version now in the Kunsthaus in Zurich, is in polished bronze. With the help of her friend Nelly van Doesburg, the widow of Theo van Doesburg, the painter and a sometime friend of Mondrian’s, Peggy was able to get the Bird in Space for exactly four times what she had paid for the Maiastra. When she hurried to Brancusi’s studio in her Talbot to take delivery, he is said to have wept.
Her greatest single coup was that she bought from Alberto Giacometti the beginnings of a most remarkable group of his sculptures. No one can know Giacometti without reference to his Model for a Square in wood (1931–1932), his Woman Walking in plaster (1932), his Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932, cast in bronze in 1940), and The Piazza (1947–1948). It is therefore unfortunate that, as Ms. Rudenstine points out in her catalog, the Model for a Square now differs in many respects from what it was when it left Giacometti’s studio. The changes in question—just who made them remains unclear—distort Giacometti’s intentions and are contrary to the work of the Basque cabinetmaker who carried them out. When shown a photograph of the sculpture in 1982, Diego Giacometti, the guardian of his brother’s intentions, said, “But it’s completely false! It’s absolutely wrong. It’s impossible.”
In The Piazza five men walk across a square in various directions and quite independently of one another. (Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of them in 1954 that “each one of them secretes his own empty space.”) Mrs. Rudenstine noticed in 1979 that the figures “were seriously distorted out of position.” Not only had the bodies and the limbs been bent, but their movements had been changed. Fortunately Diego Giacometti was able to restore the figures to their original position. It is also clear from Mrs. Rudenstine’s catalog entries that the present state of the Model for a Square is “considerably at variance with Giacometti’s original composition.” This is the more unfortunate in that Giacometti always thought of it as a “project” which might one day be carried out in a city on a life-size scale. To this end he had the individual parts rendered in plaster, full-size.
The owner of major works of art is not, of course, their curator. But in the case of Model for a Square, posterity is the poorer for Peggy Guggenheim’s having owned it. We are all the better off, on the other hand, for the diplomatic skill with which René Lefebvre-Foinet packed up the entire collection in Grenoble, where it was out of harm’s way, and sent it to New York, labeled as “household goods,” with no trouble whatever.
On July 13, 1941, when Peggy Guggenheim left Lisbon and headed for New York on a Boeing B-314 flying boat, she had with her a cast of familiar characters that included Max Ernst, Laurence Vail, Kay Boyle, and the seven children that Vail had fathered. (Vail himself by this stage in her life was like a piece of furniture.) She had two immediate ambitions. One was to marry Max Ernst. The other was to open a gallery in New York that would make history. Wherever he was, Max Ernst was the most fascinating man in town. But he was not in love with Peggy and never would be. Even so, there was a problem that was to work in her favor. Max was still a German national. When the huge flying boat arrived in New York, he had to wait for three days on Ellis Island. Had Peggy not drummed up support for Max at a very high level, he might never have made it into the United States.
Once he was safely on land, she gave him a more than comfortable home, delicious meals, free-flowing drink, a place to work, and her services as a chauffeur and upmarket guide to places near and far. All this notwithstanding, he absolutely refused to marry her. He gave her new paintings to cover household expenses and his personal bills, but the idea of marrying her gave him the shivers. But then, on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor made him think again. The United States was not at war with Germany. Though “since ever” an anti-Nazi, Max was still German. Peggy told him that at best he would lose one privilege after another. His every move would be checked. His short-range radio would be confiscated. There would be internment camps in which he could never paint. He would never be quite free.
Many Europeans in exile were sensitive to this grim possibility. Ernst at that time was at the height of his powers as a painter. To preserve his freedom, it made sense for him (on December 30, 1941) to marry Peggy in Virginia, where delays were minimal. The marriage was not happy and did not last. Max and Peggy separated in the spring of 1943 and before long were divorced.
Meanwhile, thanks to Peggy’s determination and long-term good sense, she made rapid progress with her plans for a gallery unlike any other. Art of This Century opened on October 20, 1942, on East 51st Street near the East River. It was a triumph for Peggy’s sense of strategy. In traditional art galleries the visitor knows where he is from the outset. The lighting is tasteful. The chairs are well placed but discourage lolling. Art of This Century was not like that at all. It was designed by the architect and decorator Frederick Kiesler to subvert and disorient the visitor. His intention was not to discredit or to make fun of the art, but to show it in a way that would set it free from traditional “appreciation.” Showing art was theater, as Kiesler saw it. Scene changes could be instantaneous. Pictures could be shown unframed and supported by suspension columns from floor to ceiling. Or they could be supported by wooden arms made with sawn-off baseball bats.
Marcel Duchamp swathed the interior of the gallery in a spider’s web of two miles of string. The 171 works of art in the show were all from Peggy’s collection. In the Abstract Gallery there was direct fluorescent lighting. Curving canvas walls were attached to the ceiling and to the floor with rope. The wooden floor was painted turquoise. Paintings were hung on triangular suspension columns. The new art was not ridiculed or degraded. Thanks to the inspiration of Kiesler, it lived its own life in its own way. And Kiesler’s achievement has not been forgotten. Even his chairs are sought after. (Three of them were sold at auction not long ago for $55,000.)
Peggy never pretended that all this was her doing. Nor did she take credit for the fact that in the gallery’s “Spring Salon for Young Artists” in May and June 1943 the previously little-known Jackson Pollock was singled out for the first time in the press. Over the next five years, Art of This Century won over even the most skeptical judges on the New York scene. When Peggy announced that it would close, Clement Greenberg said that “her departure is in my opinion a serious loss to living American art.” Jackson Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, said later that “her gallery was the foundation. It’s where it all started to happen.”
Nevertheless, Art of This Century closed in May 1947. Peggy by then was anxious to get back to Europe, and the gallery had been running at a loss for years. What made her situation more troublesome was that even after years “in the business” Peggy was no judge of paintings. It was with Marcel Duchamp as her adviser that she had triumphed in Paris in 1940. And it was to a large extent thanks to Howard Putzel that she had made few mistakes in New York. Putzel was one of the genuine saints of high culture in the United States. He could quote from Finnegans Wake at length, and since the early 1930s he had been spreading the word about modern painters both in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. Already in 1935 he was showing Max Ernst in Los Angeles, where he also showed Miró, Tanguy, and André Masson. After a spell in Paris he came to New York.
It was Putzel who urged Peggy to give Mark Rothko a show at Art of This Century. This opened in January 1945. “We are reminded of Walt Whitman,” one reviewer said. “This talent is continually expanding, consistently original, and as spacious as our native land.” It was Putzel, together with the painter Matta, who persuaded her to give Jackson Pollock a show in November 1943, as well as an annual contract. (Initially this was for $1,800 a year for his entire output.) Since Pollock had sold nothing in Peggy’s Spring Salon, this was a solid vote of confidence.
These were inspired choices. When Peggy shut down, it may have been in part because in August 1945 Putzel was found dead in the gallery of his own that he had been quite incompetent to run. Without Putzel to squire her around the galleries, New York would have been a great deal less fun for Peggy Guggenheim.
The long final phase in Peggy’s life began to take shape in 1947, when she returned to Venice in search of a definitive lodging. Everything soon began to fall into place when she was invited early in 1948 to show her collection in the twenty-fourth Venice Biennale. Not only did this give her a place of honor among collectors worldwide, but the Italian government would pay all the expenses of bringing her collection to Venice (insurance included). This was the kind of deal in which she delighted.
In 1949, and through the kind offices of Count Zorzi, long a key figure in the workings of the Venice Biennale, she bought the house in which she was to live for the rest of her life. The Palazzo Venier dei Lioni was (and is) a low-slung, never-finished landmark on the Dorsoduro bank of the Grand Canal, just below the Accademia Bridge. It is like no other house in Venice and, despite its poor postwar condition, it was a bargain at $60,000.
Generations of visitors to Venice were to wonder at its appearance. Whereas almost all other houses in Venice go straight up, this one creeps along sideways. It had plenty of room for pictures, and it had a very large garden suitable for sculptures. Early in 1949, Peggy moved in.
Until her death, just thirty years later, she and the house were inseparable. Great works of art kept company with hospitality that was famously frugal. Numberless visitors to Venice wanted to come and call. Mr. Gill tells us that “as an autograph collection, the guest-books are beyond comparison,” but in reality, as was shown in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York a year or two ago, the books in question list primarily a pack of boozy freeloaders whose signatures often run adrift on the page. This is not to say that memorable encounters with famous people did not occur. On such occasions, Peggy often looked as if she were at a loss with herself, and with others. Did she panic? Just a bit. To the end of her life, she was socially inept and often looked as if she wished she were elsewhere. She may have had deeper feelings but somehow they could not be called upon. It was fundamental that she had never found the steadying second father that she had craved since the Titanic went down.
Nor did she do much in the way of steadying her own children, and above all her daughter Pegeen, who killed herself in 1967. Other hideous events stalked Peggy’s memory, as when her sister took her two sons—one aged four, the other fourteen months—to sit on a parapet of her New York apartment house, from which the two boys inexplicably fell thirteen stories to their deaths. The sisters were incomplete human beings, not accountable in relations with people close to them. It had been impossible to mistake the fragility of Pegeen in her last years. When I saw her mother after Pegeen’s death she said to me, and doubtless to others, “You could have saved her life!” “But so could you!” was the unspoken answer that came to mind.
One of her more constructive actions, and one for which posterity will applaud her, was that both her house and her collection were given eventually to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York. The collection was to be kept intact and looked after in Venice, as it is now. Mr. Gill in all this is like a marathon runner who keeps up a steady pace and finishes fresh. He also does well to quote what was said by the Tate Gallery’s chief restorer, Stefan Slabczynski, when he was in Venice to check on the condition of the collection. He reported that it was “in a very poor state” and that Peggy was “completely ignorant of the basic knowledge of what can happen to pictures.”
Of what can happen to pictures? Yes. But what about what can happen to people?
June 27, 2002