The Guggenheim family name is attached to three major cultural institutions. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, on Upper Fifth Avenue in New York, is best known for the 1959 Frank Lloyd Wright building—its greatest single work of art—that houses the collection of what its founder called “non-objective painting.” The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, established in 1925 in honor of a nephew of Solomon’s who died at seventeen, awards fellowships to writers, artists, and scientists. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed since 1951 in a single-story palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice, is an idiosyncratic culling of some of the masterworks of modern art, from Brancusi’s Bird in Space to major paintings of Jackson Pollock, whom Guggenheim, who died in 1979 at the age of eighty-one, regarded as her “most important discovery.” With her characteristic eagerness to shock, Peggy—who called herself “Guggenheim Jeune” to avoid confusion with all the other Guggenheims—dismissed Wright’s inverted ziggurat in New York as “Uncle Solomon’s garage.”*
It is one of the main arguments of Francine Prose’s consistently lively and nuanced short biography, part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, that Guggenheim’s notoriety—the result of decades of gossip about her money and her appearance as well as her own flamboyant memoir, Out of This Century—has shielded us from an accurate understanding of her accomplishments. Guggenheim herself considered calling her memoir “Five Husbands and Some Other Men” and claimed to have slept with over four hundred of the others. “The capricious and slightly daffy ingénue we encounter in the pages of her book,” Prose maintains,
was only a partial representation of the intelligent, determined woman who worked hard and overcame any number of obstacles (not least, the prejudice against women that then, as now, prevailed in the art world) to run galleries, build her collection, fund worthy political causes, and support a long and remarkable list of artists and writers.
Marguerite Guggenheim—first known as Maggie and then Peggy—was born on August 26, 1898, the second of the three daughters of Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman. The Seligmans had made their fortune in retail stores and California gold; they manufactured uniforms during the Civil War and were bankers during the railroad boom after it. The Guggenheims had thrived in the rougher pursuits of copper mining and smelting. It was felt that Florette was marrying down. A telegram sent to European relatives identifying the bridegroom as “Guggenheim smelter” was mistakenly transcribed, to the delight of the Seligmans, as “Florette engaged Guggenheim smelt her.”
Peggy described her childhood as “one long protracted agony.” Educated at home, she was banished from the table for saying, accurately, “Papa, you must have a mistress as you stay out so many nights.” A…
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