- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

By Anton Gill
HarperCollins, $29.95, 480 pages, illus.

What, exactly, are we to make of Peggy Guggenheim? Was she a colorful character born to wealth and privilege who managed to escape its more obvious pitfalls prodigality and lack of direction to make something of her life? Or was she a person who achieved what she did building a first-rate collection of modern art and establishing it as a museum in Venice through happy accident, a combination of better-than-average luck and more than a little opportunism
This is the central conundrum presented in "Art Lover," Anton Gill's excellent new biography of the collector, and he goes a some distance toward answering it. Along the way, we become privy to one of the more confused and self-consciously scandalous careers in modern art.
Peggy was born Margeurite Guggenheim in New York in 1898, the middle of three daughters of Benjamin and Florette Guggenheim. When Peggy was 14, her father went down on the Titanic, to be remembered by history as the embodiment of noblesse oblige in refusing a place in one of the lifeboats with the words, "Tell my wife I've done my best in doing my duty. No woman shall go to the bottom because I was a coward."
It turned out after her father's death that, although far from poor, the family had less money than they had supposed and far less than the other branches of the family, notably uncle Solomon R, later the founder of the eponymous museum. According to Mr. Gill, this poor-relation stigma, as well those of being Jewish and not particularly attractive, bred in Peggy a lifelong rebelliousness and insecurity, each one feeding the other in equal measure.
The word "dysfunctional" hardly seems adequate to the task of describing her personal life. She romped around Europe in the years between the wars acquiring and discarding residences, friends, lovers and husbands. As a way to escape both her unhappiness and the bourgeois constraints of her birthright, she seems to have modeled herself (at least in part) on the German expatriate Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who inhabited artistic circles in New York and was fond of such epatant gestures as arriving at the French consulate wearing an icing-sugar birthday cake on her head complete with 50 candles and match boxes for earrings.
A notorious sexual adventuress, she seems to have slept with anything that had a pulse, the more famous Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp the better. (Mr. Gill writes that she "used sexual intercourse as a means of associating herself with people whose imaginative resourcefulness she admired but could never hope to emulate.") She appears to have been all but incapable of forming a lasting relationship with any man unless he was a loser, a boor or both. Her first husband, Laurence Vail (by whom she had two children) must go down as one of the most repulsive people who ever lived.
A blocked artist and novelist, he would take out his frustrations in towering tantrums that would lead him to smash furniture and beat his wife that is, when he wasn't smearing jam in her hair. That they were married nearly a decade is testament less to Peggy's devotion than to her masochism. The rest were little better. One exception was the Surrealist painter Max Ernst, whom she married in 1941, as much to keep him from being deported as out of love. The problem was, he didn't love her in return.
The first half of her life, and therefore the book, is a rather drab chronicle of these misadventures, relieved, happily, by the author's many penetrating insights of the sort quoted above. All this, though, forms a kind of necessary prelude to the year 1937 and what follows. That was the moment that Peggy found her true avocation patron of and dealer in modern art, a turning point Mr. Gill attributes to a letter written to Peggy by her old friend Peggy Waldman urging her to open an art gallery.
There followed the biographical landmarks for which she was to become famous as opposed to notorious: her London art gallery of modern art, Guggenheim Jeune, from 1938 till the onset of World War II; her plans for a serious museum of modern art in London, to have been directed by Herbert Read; return to New York and the opening of "Out of this Century" with its interior designed by Frederick Kiesler with embellishments by Duchamp; her sponsorship of Jackson Pollock's 23-foot long mural in her apartment, which proved to be a critical milestone on his way to his "allover" drip style (as well as the occasion of his celebrated act of relieving himself in her fireplace) and finally the move to Venice in 1947 and the establishment of her collection as a permanent museum.
In truth, her "sudden" interest in art was not exactly the result of a coup de foudre, and this is where Mr. Gill solves the Peggy Guggenheim conundrum and so makes what might otherwise have been yet another sensational, through-the-keyhole piece of gossip a serious biographical study.
From the very beginning of her girlhood, in between her numerous sybaritic episodes, Peggy had had a keen interest in the arts and humanities.
She read seriously and voraciously, Mr. Gill telling us that she had "a lifelong love affair with books." Among her favorite authors were Henry James, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. She was "a natural" autodidact, studying Renaissance painting with such assiduousness that when she met the renowned connoisseur Bernhard Berenson in the 1940s she was able to tell him she'd read everything he'd ever written on the subject.
Hardly standard fare for a giddy socialite. Moreover, she had always gravitated toward people in the arts, yearning compelled to be part of a milieu she otherwise could only view with longing from afar. Mr. Gill goes far toward explaining Peggy Guggenheim when he describes her as a "Cinderella" figure, waiting for her moment to shine.
At the same time, he paints an intriguing picture of someone who was much savvier than the caricature of the prodigal American heiress would suggest. Enough of the Guggenheim genes passed into her to make her a shrewd businesswoman who was fond of accounting, never paid more than she had to for a work of art (she infuriated Constantin Brancusi by refusing his overpriced offer for one of his sculptures) and was even wily enough to play the dollar-franc currency fluctuations on more than one occasion to snare a work that might otherwise have eluded her.
In the end, indeed, she had the last laugh. Today people flock to the collection of the insecure, rebellious young woman, validating her judgments half a century after the fact, thereby paying her the homage and attention she always craved in life.
And she made good on the family name, too. As Mr. Gill writes, "If she didn't set out to make money, in the end what she invested in pictures repaid itself a thousandfold. In leaving Peggy without the fortune her cousins enjoyed, [her father] Ben, ironically, did her a favor."

Eric Gibson is editor of the Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal.

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