Acquiring Art, Acquiring Men: The Busy Life of an Heiress

Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim , by Anton Gill. HarperCollins, 480 pages, $29.95.

The bland title, Art Lover , offers scarcely a hint of what the reader will find in Anton Gill’s monumental biography of Peggy Guggenheim. She was an art lover all right, and also an art dealer, but she could be described in many other terms. She was an heiress who husbanded her resources overzealously, yet gave generously to friends in need; a sometimes indifferent parent who was herself endlessly in search of a surrogate father; and, in middle age, a heroine who led friends and family out of war-torn Europe. Then, too, as we are reminded on almost every page, she was a sexual adventuress who delighted in her conquests and was seldom at pains to keep them secret. Art Lover is only the second biography to appear since her death 22 years ago. I will hazard a prediction: Several more decades will pass before another comes along, so convincing is Mr. Gill’s detailed account of his subject’s every mood and move.

Peggy, née Marguerite, was born in New York in 1898, the second of three children, all daughters, of Benjamin and Florette Guggenheim. A Swiss Jewish family, the Guggenheims were the possessors of great wealth from interests in mining and smelting, thanks to the business acumen of Meyer Guggenheim, Peggy’s grandfather. In 1911, her father, who was in France on business, booked passage to New York on the Titanic . Dressed in his evening clothes, he went down with the ship. He had run through most of his wealth, but left enough to assure Florette and the girls a more than comfortable life, and Florette eventually inherited $2 million from her father, James Seligman.

In 1920, at the fancifully named Sunwise Turn, a New York bookshop where she worked for a while at an unpaid job, Peggy met Laurence Vail, a young writer and artist whose looks and manners impressed her. Like most of the men to whom she would become attracted, he was not Jewish. At 21, she had come into an income of $22,500 a year, enough to insure her independence (later she would have much more). On her first trip to Paris as an adult, also in 1920, she met Vail again. By this time, as she confessed in her memoirs, she had begun to find her virginity burdensome and was disposed to lose it. She chose Vail to perform this service. In 1922, she married him.

Although with Vail she produced a son, Sindbad, and a daughter, Pegeen, the marriage was doomed to fail. Neither party was programmed by nature for monogamy; in addition, Vail was capable of violence when he drank, which was often. The pair were divorced in 1930, but in fact, the marriage had ended years, before. (After the divorce, Vail married the writer Kay Boyle, with whom he had been living.) Peggy found a new love, an alcoholic English writer, John Holms. Like Vail, he was sometimes violent, but nevertheless he was the grand passion of her life. After his death in 1934, Peggy embarked on countless affairs, most of them meaningless apart from a relationship with Douglas Garman, an English poet and devout Marxist, and another, quite unsatisfactory for her, with Samuel Beckett.

It could be said that Peggy’s true life began in London in the late 1930’s, when she hit upon the notion of becoming a dealer in modern art. To advise her on this project, she enlisted the art historian and critic Herbert Read, and also consulted Marcel Duchamp. The name she chose for the gallery was Guggenheim Jeune, echoing the name of the Paris firm of Bernheim-Jeune and perhaps intending to suggest, though Mr. Gill doesn’t say so, that she herself was still in her jeunesse , which, at least in spirit, she assuredly was. The gallery opened in January 1938. In its two seasons it made no money, but the pleasure it gave her made up for the loss. She also began to collect, with the thought of founding a museum of modern art. Her uncle Solomon Guggenheim had done just that in New York, although his museum was then limited to non-representational painting.

In Paris in 1939, she gathered up some of the best in contemporary art at the rate, she claimed, of one painting a day; she was also, as usual, in pursuit of men. She was still in France when the nation surrendered to Hitler. The ensuing months were a test of her strength and courage. With as much hard-headed determination as her forebears had demonstrated in amassing the Guggenheim fortune, she shepherded her children, Vail, Kay Boyle, their four children, and the artist Max Ernst, a new love interest, to America. With her money to smooth the way (and with help from Varian Fry, the American who was in Marseille as head of an unofficial committee to rescue political refugees), this mixed lot of 10 trekked from France to Spain to Portugal, where in July 1941 they boarded a Pan Am Clipper for the journey to New York. She had managed to ship her collection ahead and arranged also for the passage to America of the Surrealist organizer and spokesman André Breton and his family.

In New York as everywhere else, Peggy’s emotional life was tumultuous. Ernst was reluctant to marry her, although ultimately-and disastrously-he did so. The plain fact was that he did not love her, and eventually he left her for the artist Dorothea Tanning. Of greater moment was Peggy’s new enterprise, Art of This Century, the gallery that she opened in New York in 1942. As designed by the avant-garde architect Frederick Kiesler, Art of This Century was itself a work of art: The curving walls from which paintings projected, the innovative lighting and the occasional, unexpected sounds conspired to create an environment like no other in the city. With advice from Duchamp and Howard Putzel, an American who had recommended the purchases to her in the 1930’s, in five seasons Peggy exhibited the work of Hans Hoffmann, Mark Rothko, Jean Arp, Alberto Giacometti, along with scores of others-including the virtually unknown Jackson Pollock, whose paintings, once she recognized their merit, she collected avidly. Peggy closed her gallery in 1947. It had been a rewarding if costly experience. That she could turn her back on it as easily as she did is somewhat puzzling, but with the war’s end and the departure for Europe of many of the artists and writers of distinction who had sought refuge in New York, the intellectual climate had changed.

Peggy also left. Venice, a city she had visited in the past, became her new home. There she bought a palazzo and filled it with her now-massive collection. In this final stage of her life, all the old interests, habits and compulsions remained, including the pursuit of men. All too careful about money, she gave dinner parties at which canned tomato soup was the specialty of the house. The dampness of the palazzo damaged her paintings, but insisting that she liked them in a state of slight decay, she did little to protect them. She had always been a neglectful parent and was remorseful and profoundly disturbed over the death of her daughter Pegeen, possibly by suicide, in 1967. As she grew older, she began to concern herself with the disposition of the collection. After a flirtation with London’s Tate Gallery, she decided to leave it to the foundation established by her Uncle Solomon. Both the collection and the palazzo , where it would remain, would be restored and held under the care of New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Peggy’s final years, movingly described by Mr. Gill, were troubled by a series of illnesses to which, in late 1979, she succumbed. It had been an extraordinary life, if not altogether an exemplary one, and lived entirely on her own terms.

Art Lover is so packed with information that readers may have difficulty taking it all in. Scattered among the pages are biographical sketches of men and women whose lives were only tangential to Peggy’s, along with details about people at even greater remove. A few bits of miscellaneous information are repeated. Art historians may be dismayed, also, by the vagueness of the endnotes. Still, Anton Gill is to be applauded for his sensitive analysis of a highly complex personality. Patient readers will find their persistence repaid in full.

Malcolm Goldstein is the author of Landscape With Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States (Oxford).

Acquiring Art, Acquiring Men: The Busy Life of an Heiress