09 October 2015

Peggy Guggenheim: the true story

Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) was an American collector, patron, dealer and later the founder of her own museum. She successfully stayed at the centre of the modern art world in New York, Paris, London and Venice for 50 years. Yet Francine Prose, in her 2015 book Peggy Guggenheim, The Shock of the Modern, wrote that Peggy was equally famous for her unconventional personal life.

Now I am asking the students to examine Peggy Guggenheim more personally, examining her patronage and avant-garde art exhibitions of course but also looking at her families of origin, her own marriages, her revolutionary sex life, the celebrity friendships, finances, mental health issues, gender issues and anti-Semitism. Peggy may have been a strong, uncomprom­ising woman who exercised influence in a male-dominated world but there were surprising (to me) prices that had to be paid.

In the later C19th, the American Gugg­enheim family bought smelters and refineries, formed an exploration company to purchase metals and diamond mines in the USA, Africa and Latin America. Now wealthy Benjamin Guggen­heim married Florette Seligman in 1894; their first daughter Benita arrived in 1895, Marguerite/Peggy in 1898 and Hazel in 1903.

Now here is something I had never heard before. Peggy’s Seligman grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles were phobic about germs. One uncle killed himself in his 50s (suicide?) and two cousins were definitely suicides. At twenty, Peggy suffered a nervous collapse because of her compulsive behaviours. And when in 1928 Hazel’s sons died in a fall from a high building in Manhattan, questions about the family’s mental health were raised again.

Francine Prose was certain that by her family’s own standards, Peggy wasn’t very rich. Her beloved father Benjamin had decamped to France and she missed him dreadfully. Then he went down with the Titanic in 1912. Benjamin’s death made it clear that he had lost millions on his Parisian business, a company that wanted to install elevators in the Eiffel Tower. So the Guggenheim uncles convened to decide how to maintain the widow Florette and the young three girls decently. Florette moved her daughters to more modest quarters.

By the time Peggy came of age in 1919 she began to think of herself as The Problematic Gug­g­enheim. Having received her first big inheritance from her late father, Peggy immediately fled the haute bourgeoisie of her privileged childhood in the USA for the European bohemian world. Later Peggy received another large sum of money when her mother died in 1937, but she remained utterly insecure about money for decades.

Peggy Guggenheim opened Art of This Century Gallery
in New York in 1942

Peggy first mentioned her inferiority complex in conn­ection with the world of social and sexual opportunity from which she felt she was excluded because she was ugly. If she could not be beautiful, she compensated by being seductive and liberated. In any case, plastic surgery in 1920 failed her.

Because her sisters were great beauties and because Peggy felt she was ugly, her frenetic sex life was attributed to insecurity about her nose. (Her photos suggest she was a perfectly fine looking young woman). And there were other issues. Firstly Peggy claimed never to have recovered from the loss of her father. For the rest of her life, she wrote, she would look for a man to replace him. Secondly Peggy also believed her intellectual inadequacy was corrosive, confirmed and exaggerated by husband Laurence Vail.

There was no stronger advocate for groundbreaking arts. As early as 1925 Peggy financed the opening of a shop in Paris to showcase the lampshades designed by her friend the poet Mina Loy; the shop also hosted an exhibition of Laurence’s paintings. Though the boutique failed, it represented Peggy’s first attempt to exhibit and sell art.

Peggy publicised and tirelessly champ­ioned­ a list of painters and sculptors whose names soon towered in the history of modernism. After Paris, she moved to London and in 1938 opened the critically acclaimed gallery Guggenheim Jeune.

Peggy’s eye for art seemed very forward-looking, particularly when compared to the established museums. When the removal of her artwork from her Paris home became urgent with the imminent German invasion of France, the Louvre refused to hide her holdings of works by Leger, Kandinsky, Klee, Picabia, Dali, Miro, Brancusi and Duchamp. These artists’ painting were judged to be too modern to “hide amongst the Louvre’s own collection”. And the director of the Tate ruled that Peggy’s Arps and Brancusis did not qualify as sculpture for customs purposes. Duchamp solved one problem - he suggested packing his boxes among Peggy's personal possessions that were being shipped to New York.

Peggy became both the financial backer on whom the others depended, [as well as the target for endless complaints of her miserliness]. Among the recipients of her bounty were not only artists, but also striking British miners. A young Harvard-educated American journ­al­ist, Varian Fry, had witnessed Nazi atrocities and joined the Emerg­ency Rescue Committee in Marseille. Peggy’s greatest life-saving gift was her huge donation to Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee in 1940. The committee helped thous­ands escape Vichy France, especially artists and writers.

During the German occupation, Peggy donated enough money to get André Breton and his family out of France, and she married and supported Max Ernst long after they arrived in the USA. These were gifts, not loans. An even greater proportion of her inheritance was spent supporting painters and sculptors by buying their work.

Prose reported how Peggy boasted of having had 400+ lovers and two husbands. Think of Samuel Beckett, Giorgio Joyce, Yves Tanguy, Constantin Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp. Her first marriage, to the bohemian artist and writer Laurence Vail, produced two children and a history of spousal abuse that set the nasty pattern for the future; her second, to Max Ernst, was less obviously brutal but still demeaning. And there were episodes of violence with her lovers John Holms and Douglas Garman. How could an otherwise strong woman tolerate spousal abuse??

Francine Prose's book, 
Peggy Guggenheim: the Shock of the Modern
Yale UP, 2015

During the war Peggy travelled back to New York where she opened Art of This Century, an experimental combination of museum and gallery, in Oct 1942. Peggy launched Jackson Pollock, her greatest discovery, with an exhibit in 1943. Her contract with Pollock guaranteed an income in advance of sales, allowing the artist to devote himself to art. Within a few years Pollock’s prices began to take off.

In 1947, Peggy closed Art of This Century and moved to Venice, where she was invited to install her collection at the 1948 Biennale. Abstract Expressionists had arrived! That year she acquired a Venetian C18th palazzo that served for the rest of her life as both residence and museum. The Great and the Good, as well as the general public, were admitted three days a week.


Ann ODyne said...

Great post Hels. What a life she had. There has recently been a play about her staged in London + NYC. Naming her children Sinbad and Pegeen was pretty funny too. History repeated itself and Pegeen who was quite a good painter came to a sad end.

Student of History said...

In lectures, I think we saw a more confident, more powerful woman. At least in her art world.

Hels said...


Re the play, do you mean Woman Before A Glass? This play explored Peggy's life in her Venetian home during the 1960s. The writer, Lanie Robertson, did the research well; the story was fully aware of the sadder and darker components of the central character's life.

Pegeen Vail was another depressive who tragically OD'd in in Paris in 1967, when she was only 42. Was her chronic depression some sort of genetic family legacy, following her own mother, aunts and uncles and grandmother? Or had Pegeen learned the behaviour from her own very disruptive childhood and adolescence?

Hels said...


*nod* I must admit that I wondered if the Prose book "Peggy Guggenheim, The Shock of the Modern" exaggerated Peggy's endless bed hopping, her painful focus on ugliness, spousal violence and fear of financial chaos.

Now I think it might all be true but do we need to know all the sordid details? Look at what Isherwood said about the play. "It concentrates, as these borderline morbid celebrity showcases often do, on the declining arc of its subject's worldly career, and gives us the usual generous doses of dysfunction and despair beneath the glittering résumé". Perhaps we give the same focus to dysfunction in Michael Jackson, Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollock etc.

Deb said...

When the Titanic went down in 1912, it was understood straight away that the widows and young children would suffer. But I don't think people realised how long the impact would continue. For decades after 1912, the Guggenheim girls were still feeling the loss of their most important influence. The loss impacted on their schooling, marriage decisions, choice of housing, career decisions and financial management.

Hels said...


Agreed. I am grateful to the film Titanic because it ensured that 85 years after the ship went down, entirely new generations got to know and remember the tragedy. But the film made us think about glistening ballrooms, the landed gentry, valuable jewellery.. and passionate love affairs between First Class and Steerage.

The loss (of 1,517 people) for the widows and orphans must have been horrible, and long lasting. Imagine the able seaman and stokers in their early 20s who almost all came from Southampton. How did their parents ever recover?

Hels said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hels said...


Look what the New York Times (26th Feb 1930) published about the children. "A tragic accident here on 19th Oct 1928 resulted in the death of the two small sons of Mr and Mrs Waldman. Terence was then four and one-half years old, and Benjamin fourteen months. Mrs Waldman had gone with the two children to visit a friend in a penthouse apartment in the Hotel Surrey, 20 East Seventy-sixth Street. She had been seated on the parapet of the roof garden of the apartment with the younger child in her lap and the older playing about her feet and clambering about her. Both suddenly fell over the side and were killed. The deaths were the subject of exhaustive police investigation, with the result that they were pronounced accidental.

Mrs Waldman was so shaken by the tragedy that she spent some time in a sanitarium".

The tragedies went on, long after the Titanic went down in 1912 :(

Joseph said...

What happened to the lovely Mr Vail?

columnist said...

Thanks Hels. All quite fascinating in a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing, I'm afraid to admit. Of course, I knew the name and have even passed the Guggenheim in Venice. Much ignorance on my part to be rectified, especially as I am a fan of Leger.

Hels said...


I knew the writer Laurence Vail and Peggy Guggenheim were very unhappy together, but I didn't know of the physical abuse before reading Prose. After the two children were born, Vail fell passionately in love with another writer, Kay Boyle, his second wife after the divorce in 1928. Laurence and Kay had 3 children together.

Peggy also fell passionately in love with a writer, John Holms, who died as a very young man in 1934.

Passion isn't enough apparently. In 1943, Kay Boyle divorced Laurence Vail and married Baron Joseph von Franckenstein with whom she had two more children.

Hels said...


True for all of us! You could not have visited Guggenheim Jeune Gallery in London because it opened in 1938, just as WW2 was looming. It is worth acknowledging the importance of Marcel Duchamp in this venture.

And you could not have visited The Art of This Century Gallery in New York because it too closed too quickly. Opened by Peggy Guggenheim in 1942, the gallery was famous for the works of European artists, including Kandinsky, Arp, Miró and Braque, and Americans like Pollock.

So Venice it is :)

BBC History Magazine said...

Leonora Carrington cavorted around with lots of unsuitable men, married a foreigner (not the thing to do back then) and had a nervous breakdown after Peggy Guggenheim, the art collector, stole her husband Max Ernst. It is said that her family sent her nanny on a submarine to wartime Lisbon to save Carrington after her breakdown.

My history hero
by Jenny Eclair
BBC History Magazine July-August 2015 p98

Hels said...


I had forgotten about the connection with Leonora Carrington. So thank you.

But this time I don't think Peggy "stole" Max Ernst away. Just as he had left behind his wife Luise Straus for Leonora Carrington, so he left his lover Leonora Carrington behind for the next woman in his life. I am sorry she suffered a major mental breakdown, but Ernst wasn't the loyal type.

And other thing. If it wasn't for the brilliant work of Peggy Guggenheim and Varian Fry in getting Ernst to the USA, Ernst would have been trapped in Nazi Europe.

Ann ODyne said...

'stole', seduced, lured, enticed. Follow-the-money Ernst 'would have been trapped', as Mrs Ernst was, so never mind Homewrecker Carrington as at least she wasn't consigned to Auschwitz like poor Luise. The Ernst son Jimmy escaped to New York also, and did well.
How fascinating that the otherwise funny Ms Eclair holds Loopy Leonora in heroic esteem.
Thanks yet again Hels, for expanding [as you always do] my cultural frame of reference.

Hels said...


the whole idea of having a nervous breakdown and being committed into a locked ward because a] her really old boyfriend found another woman or b] her really old boyfriend left Europe... was all a bit melodramatic. So she escaped from the asylum, quickly married a Mexican poet and fled Europe forever. Even more melodramatic!

Since Peggy Guggenheim married Ernst in 1941 only to give him American citizenship (I am assuming), did she know or care about Ernst's previous partners?

Hels said...

Hello Helen,

I just ran across your blog mentioning the Francine Prose Peggy G biography, and the email comment on it from the Waldman relation caught my attention.

I also have a personal connection to this story, as my father was related to Hazel (Guggenheim, Kempner, Waldman, etc), whose children fell to their deaths. I am researching her in the hopes of gathering enough material (in addition to my father's archives), to eventually be able to write something about her. Not only about this story, but it does play a part in who she was.

I have not as of yet uncovered any documentation from the Milton Waldman side about the deaths of his children. I am hoping to track down correspondence to or from his second wife, Marguerite (Peggy) Waldman (David, Loeb, Deutschbein), or from or to M Waldman himself, that might help me paint a picture of what he/they experienced during all of this. And I am scouring research libraries for mentions of relevant archives.

So I read with much interest the email that you posted, and am writing to ask if you would be so kind (and willing) to forward my email on to the Waldman relation you mention? I had already written a note myself through ancestry.com to the profile manager of the Waldman tree, who also appeared to be a relative. But until now have gotten no response.

I am interested in anything that anyone would be willing to share with me - stories, memories, letters, personal experiences, about this tragedy that befell the family and its consequences, that would help me paint a fuller picture of this part of Hazel's story. I know that she herself was stigmatized the rest of her life by it, and am uncovering now in my research just to what degree.

I appreciate your time - and thank you for your posts!


Hels said...


If the blogging world is going to be useful and not just an opportunity for bloggers' self aggrandisement, links have to be made and archives opened up. I sent your email straight away to the Waldman relative, a reader of this blog.

Hope it goes well,

J said...

I found your recent article on Peggy Guggenheim especially interesting, as I have a personal connection to this subject matter. Hazel Guggenheim was married to my relative, Milton Waldman, and it was their children who met such a tragic death.

By coincidence, I just finished reading a 1925 book by Milton, called Americana, that you would have found interesting, about the earliest printed sources of American history, from the first published tracts after Columbus' discovery down to the American Revolution. Later he moved to England and wrote a number of books about British royalty.

I never knew about so much mental instability in the Guggenheim family--I will have to track down that book.


October 11, 2015

Hels said...


I enjoyed a review of Francine Prose's book: Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern. Look up Kathryn Hughes, theguardian, Saturday 24 October 2015.