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 “rogue gene” manifested itself in disturbing behavior among her mother’s Seligman relatives, enumerated with comic relish by Prose:
Peggy’s obese Aunt Adelaide conducted a love affair with an imaginary pharmacist named Balch. Uncle Washington survived on a diet of ice and charcoal, wore jackets with zinc-lined pockets, and killed himself at fifty-six…. Her pathologically miserly Uncle Eugene was known for arriving precisely at dinnertime and assuring his relatives’ welcome by performing a trick that involved moving the dining-room chairs together and wriggling across the seats on his belly, like a snake.
Her mother neurotically repeated everything three times while Peggy herself felt compelled to retrieve used matches from the street to prevent fires, and had a nervous breakdown at age twenty.
Peggy was certainly “rich compared to most people,” Prose notes, but not “by Guggenheim standards.” Her father had gambled away much of his share of the family fortune on dubious investments, including a scheme for installing elevators in the Eiffel Tower. When he drowned on the Titanic in 1912—wearing formal evening clothes and refusing a life preserver as he helped passengers into lifeboats—his brothers arranged to support Peggy’s mother and sisters.
Guggenheim was often accused of stinginess, but “the barbed critique of her parsimony,” as Prose calls it, was the result of a generous woman with limited funds to bestow on the many artists and writers who depended on her. The “clichés of antisemitism,” so often applied to Guggenheim’s money, were also applied to her appearance; Prose has a vigorous short chapter titled “Her Nose.” Despite a botched nose job (she had hoped for one “tip-tilted like a flower,” as in Tennyson), Guggenheim was, as Prose notes on the basis of surviving photographs, “quite pretty” as a young woman, “not a striking beauty, but appealing nonetheless.”
Prose resists the temptation to divide the chapters of Guggenheim’s adulthood according to the men in her life, as Peggy herself does in her memoir. Of Guggenheim’s five “husbands” (she was legally married only twice), it is difficult to say which one was the most odious. In 1922, she married Laurence Vail, a writer and Dada artist, who liked to humiliate her in public—making cutting remarks and, a favorite but enigmatic pleasure, rubbing jam into her hair—and beat her in private. He once came close to drowning her, holding her head down in a bathtub, and more than once knocked her down and walked back and forth across her stomach. She endured six years of this alcohol-fueled mayhem and remained cordial with Vail, sharing—or rather, dividing up—their two neglected children, Pegeen (a painter who later killed herself) and Sindbad.
Prose places Vail in a chapter called “Education,” a little hopefully, one feels, since Guggenheim seems to have learned little from her time with him. Like a number of other gifted women, she came under the spell of a pretentious failed writer named John Ferrar Holms, described by Prose as resembling “a tubercular, pre-Raphaelite satyr,” who drank heavily and belittled her just as Vail had done. Guggenheim supported Holms—whom she considered “the love of her life”—and his female entourage in Hayford Hall in Devon, a country house Peggy’s friends referred to as Hangover Hall; in exchange he told her she was “pea-brained,” and claimed that his friends “wondered why he lived with her.” Other Holms acolytes, all of them freeloaders on Guggenheim’s largesse, included the writers Djuna Barnes (whom Guggenheim supported financially for many years, and who dedicated her novel Nightwood to her and Holms, only later to accuse Peggy of stinginess), Antonia White, and Emily Coleman.
Coleman, a free-spirited friend of Guggenheim who had helped Emma Goldman write her celebrated autobiography, described a typical, sexually charged evening centered around the “predominantly…lesbian” Barnes, an occasion that exhibits what Prose calls “the group’s shifting loyalties and boundaries”:
Djuna, who had just washed her thick red hair, “began to get very loving with John.” Waking up from a nap on the couch, Peggy noted, “This looks like rape.” As Barnes continued to embrace Holms, Peggy predicted, “He’ll assert his lump,” and went on to make a remark that tied Holms’s erection to the likelihood of her continued financial support. “If you rise, the dollar will fall.” When John told Barnes that she had written the best work of any woman in fifty years, Djuna kissed his neck.
Then she began to pound Peggy in the bottom, and Peggy shrieked, “My God, how this woman hates me,” and Djuna kept pounding her, then began to pound me. She hadn’t hit me four times before I had an orgasm.
After Holms’s death, from the effects of anesthesia for minor surgery compounded by alcohol, Guggenheim took up with a struggling writer named Douglas Garman, who insisted that she read Marx instead of Proust. Peggy, who confessed that she had “pretentions to inferiority,” blamed herself, as usual, for the violence that ensued. “Garman and I had a row about Communism. And I got so bitchy that he hit me.”
Peggy Guggenheim’s real life, the life for which she is remembered, began in 1937, just shy of her fortieth birthday, when her mother died and left her a large bequest. Until then, she had never been, in her own words, “anything but a wife.” At that point, financially and, for the moment, emotionally independent, she decided to make something of herself. Her decision to open an art gallery, Prose observes, provided the occasion both to compete with her Uncle Solomon and to “unnerve her family and their stodgy friends.” Her first exhibition, at her London gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, “featured drawings that Jean Cocteau had done on bedsheets,” incorporating “his lover’s pubic hair covered over with leaves.”
Guggenheim had little background in art, beyond reading seven volumes by Bernard Berenson as she toured European museums in her early twenties. “If I could find a painting with tactile value I was thrilled,” she wrote. She made repeated visits to the 1937 Paris Exposition, where Picasso’s Guernica was shown. “There for the first time I was able to study modern art,” she recalled. Marcel Duchamp, whom Peggy thanked “for my introduction to the modern art world,” became the first of her trusted advisers. Her unlikely affair with the “slightly vulpine” Samuel Beckett, eight years younger than Peggy and not yet the celebrated author of Waiting for Godot, confirmed her preference for the most advanced contemporary art. According to Prose, Beckett, whom Peggy met at a Boxing Day party at the home of James Joyce’s son, Giorgio, “not only talked Peggy out of her preference for the Old Masters by persuading her that modern art was ‘a living thing,’ but talked her into buying modern art, which he said was her duty.”
“I am in Paris working hard for my gallery and fucking,” Peggy proudly told her friend Emily Coleman, with her usual “urge to unnerve.” Coleman compared Peggy’s profligate sex life to Djuna Barnes’s self-destructive drinking, eliciting what Prose calls a “startling” response indicative of Peggy’s newfound self-confidence and independence:
When you compare my fucking with Djuna’s drinking I think you are wrong again. Djuna’s whole life has collapsed because of her drinking. But my fucking is only a sideshow. My work comes first every time & my children are still there. Both the center of my life. Everyone needs sex & a man. It keeps one alive & loving & feminine. If you can’t manage to make a life permanently with inferior people, & thank God I can’t, you must still now & then indulge in a physical life and its consequence…. I find men & man really stimulating but now, thank God, I have my own strengths & my inner self to fall back on.
The most controversial episode in Guggenheim’s life concerns her “art-shopping bender” as German troops approached Paris in 1940. Telling herself, with some accuracy, that she was supporting endangered artists and that her money was limited, she determined to buy a painting a day, often at bargain prices. “The day Hitler walked into Norway, I walked into Léger’s studio and bought a wonderful 1919 painting from him for one thousand dollars,” she wrote with typical jauntiness. “He never got over the fact that I should be buying paintings on such a day.”
Her unseemly negotiations with Brancusi over his Bird in Space, one of the supreme masterworks of modern sculpture, are even more disturbing:
The Germans were nearing Paris when Peggy arrived to claim her sculpture, which Brancusi had been polishing by hand. Peggy professed not to know why the sculptor was unhappy to sell his masterpiece for a fraction of what it was worth. “Tears were streaming down Brancusi’s face, and I was genuinely touched. I never knew why he was so upset, but assumed it was because he was parting with his favorite bird.”
At such moments, one can’t help feeling that something was missing in Peggy Guggenheim’s temperament. This “lack of empathy”—acknowledged by Prose as a trait that “led her to fail the people she loved in ways that seem far more problematic than the flaws of which she was more often accused: promiscuity, shallowness, stinginess, and a sense of humor that sometimes crossed over into malice”—makes it difficult to share Prose’s high regard for Out of This Century, which she finds “as well crafted, as original, and as engaging” as that enigmatic masterpiece Nightwood.
Guggenheim met her match for cold calculation when she fell in love with the German Surrealist artist Max Ernst. Ernst was among the “degenerate” artists targeted by the Nazis, who found themselves unwelcome in Occupied France as well. Guggenheim worked closely with the journalist Varian Fry, “a sort of Surrealists’ Schindler,” as Prose calls him, to get Ernst and other endangered artists and writers out of France. Fry was head of the International Emergency Rescue Committee, and managed to get, by subterfuge and bribes, two hundred prominent artists and scientists out of France.
“Self-serving, faithless, and cruel,” Ernst was Peggy’s Gilbert Osmond, cynically taking her money to support his own career and his infatuation with the mentally unstable British painter Leonora Carrington. Peggy, to her dismay, appeared as an ogre in Ernst’s paintings, Carrington as a goddess. When Ernst, safe in New York, met the artist Dorothea Tanning, young and beautiful as he liked his women, he dropped Guggenheim. Still, one almost prefers Ernst’s reptilian but hard-earned cynicism—he had survived prison camps in both Nazi Germany and Vichy France, which he described “as casually as if he was referring to St. Moritz or Deauville,” and his first wife died in Auschwitz—to the monstrous brutality of Vail and Holms.
In a suspenseful prologue, Prose tells how Fry and Guggenheim managed to get both of their collections, the artists and their art, out of Marseilles in June 1941. The writer Kay Boyle, who had married Laurence Vail and bickered with Peggy about their children, told her that she had heard that Peggy’s art collection had sunk—a particularly nasty joke given the drowning of Peggy’s father.
The rescued works of art found temporary safe harbor during the war in Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in New York, where she made a point of showing young artists, many of them women, and continued to add to her collection. A jury for one of her shows selected a large painting called Stenographic Figure by Jackson Pollock, who had been fired from his WPA job and was working as a handyman at Uncle Solomon’s “atrocious” museum. “Pretty awful, isn’t it?” Peggy said to Mondrian as he contemplated Pollock’s picture. “That’s not painting, is it?” Twenty minutes later, still studying the picture, Mondrian said, “Peggy, I don’t know. I have a feeling that this may be the most exciting painting that I have seen in a long time, here or in Europe.”
Peggy soon agreed with Mondrian. She gave Pollock four solo shows at her gallery and hired him to paint a mural in the hall of her 61st Street apartment. “From…1943 until I left America in 1947,” she wrote proudly, “I dedicated myself to Pollock.” Guggenheim (who insisted that she never slept with Pollock, and described him, when drunk, as “like a trapped animal who should never have left Wyoming”) essentially introduced Abstract Expressionism—Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Arshile Gorky—to European artists when she took her collection to the 1948 Biennale in Venice, where she established her museum three years later.
People who knew Peggy Guggenheim well were often surprised at the nasty innuendo that followed her. In January 1958, the Beat poet Gregory Corso, twenty-three at the time, met her in Venice, when she was almost sixty. In an extraordinary letter to Allen Ginsberg, Corso tried to correct what he considered the many misconceptions about her:
Very strange marvelous lady. Didn’t you see that in her? How did you miss it? Perhaps you didn’t have time, but really she is great, and sad, and does need friends. Not all those creepy painters all the time. I told her painters were making her into a creep, she laughed, led me to the boat, there we sat and when the boat came fifteen minutes later, I kissed her good-bye, while I watched her walk away I saw that she put her hand to her head as though she were in pain. I suddenly realized the plight of the woman by that gesture. She is a liver of life, and life is fading away. That’s all there is to it. It is going. God, how painful to see and know and watch it. But I will say funny things, and she will laugh, and who knows what may happen.
What happened, as in nearly all Guggenheim’s relationships with men, simply added to her pain, as Corso’s interest shifted from Peggy to her daughter. And yet, according to Prose, Corso’s letters remain “perhaps the most tender, unjudgmental, compassionate, and clear-sighted” of all the literary portraits of Peggy Guggenheim, “the most resistant to the temptations of gossip and condescension.” Prose herself, following Corso’s lead, is determined not to miss either the strangeness or the marvelousness of her subject. Guggenheim, that “intelligent, determined woman,” will no longer be quite so easily dismissed after Prose’s incisive book. Unlucky in so much else, Peggy Guggenheim is certainly fortunate in her generous and bighearted biographer.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is now managed by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, in New York, along with branch museums in Bilbao, Spain, and other cities. The foundation recently survived a lawsuit from Peggy’s heirs, who claimed that her collection should be preserved as she left it and not augmented by loans and later purchases. See Doreen Carvajal, “Peggy Guggenheim’s Kin Lose Bid to Challenge How Her Collection Is Displayed,” The New York Times, September 23, 2015. ↩