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Mary V. Dearborn
Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim
Houghton Mifflin
Romping through History
by Michèle C. Cone

Mary V. Dearborn, Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, 400 pp., Houghton Mifflin Co., $28.

The celebrated art collector and bohemian bon vivant Peggy Guggenheim has often been bad-mouthed. People who were beholden to her, including the wives of the artists whose art she collected, have said that she was not terribly smart, that she drank too much, that she was a slut and an unpleasant person to be around. This negative portrait is astutely revised by Mary Dearborn, who is known for her biographies of avowed male sensualists, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller among them.

Dearborn builds her story from uncontested facts: Guggenheim was a little rich girl who never got over the loss of an adored roguish father (he died a hero on the Titanic, while the woman-not-his-wife with whom he was traveling survived to tell); and later, she became an attractive young woman who showed enough independence of mind to move out of her social milieu, away from America, and away from the constrained sexual mores of her peers.

Having become a young heiress, Guggenhheim spent money on left-wing causes, supported impoverished poets and bought art from living artists. Twice she opened a gallery, once in London and once in New York; she yearned to open a museum and finally succeeded in Venice. Meanwhile her art donations had launched a number of small museums on the path of collecting contemporary art.

Much of Dearborn's biography concerns a little known interval in Peggy G.'s life, her years as an expat in interwar Paris, when Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett lived nearby. The book also unveils her years in London in the late ‘30s, when the British were discovering modern art and particularly Surrealism. And it provides uncanny details on her brief time in Vichy France, 1940-41.

In Paris, where Guggenheim lived most of her golden 20s and 30s, her days were filled with excitement as well as confusion. Anais Nin's famous Diary describes what the likes of Peggy Guggenheim were then going through psychologically. Nin tells of seeking the leading psychoanalysts of Paris to overcome her intellectual insecurity, as well as come to grips with her own and her lovers' unconventional sexual yearnings -- incest, Sapphism, sado/masochism. Young Peggy's insecurity about her intellect, plus the eclectic company she kept, lead one to think that Guggenheim and Nin had much in common, though there is no trace of their meeting.

Dearborn meticulously describes the members of Peggy's entourage. Thanks in part to her first husband, the handsome and well connected Laurence Vail, Peggy came to know an interesting cross section of artistic and literary Paris in the ‘20s, though they were hardly a wholesome lot, according to her biographer. One of her first friends was the beautiful bisexual journalist and poet Djuna Barnes (who had been Vail's mistress, and for whom Guggenheim provided financially for many years). Another new friend -- she met this one during the time both had houses on the French Riviera -- was the anarchist Emma Goldman (whom Peggy helped financially to get through writing her memoirs). Among her male friends figured Marcel Duchamp and, surprisingly, Samuel Beckett.

Dearborn shares our curiosity about what could possibly bind the super-smart novelist-playwright to the insecure, not particularly intellectual Peggy Guggenheim, and offers the following insight: "They shared a predisposition for the absurd and a distrust of authority and conventions. Both valued the spontaneous and both had impressive intellectual energy. They were both funny, in unexpected and understated ways. They liked and disliked the same things" (p. 140).

On the other hand, Peggy -- after taking Beckett to bed -- quickly understood that he "couldnt give her what she wanted 'because he is a pederast at heart" (as she confided to a woman friend). Dearborn then observes that "Peggy's awareness of the sexual proclivities of others was fairly keen," although, admittedly, there is no proof that Peggy was right as regards Beckett.

The heiress' most tumultuous years after her divorce from Vail (he drank too much, beat her up and, though hardly a paradigm of faithfulness, was extraordinarily jealous) were spent in England. A number of men entered and exited her life, usually intellectual types, such as John Holms, with whom she took a large house in the wild and inhospitable region of Dartmoor, 200 miles from London. She lived there for a couple of years, doing not very much besides entertaining visiting firemen, and traveling to the continent with Holms when boredom threatened.

After Holms' unexpected death following a minor operation, Peggy became involved with Douglas Garman, a Cambridge man with Communist leanings, but that affair did not last. Restless, and bored, the disgruntled hostess took the advice of one of Garman's sympathetic sisters, and decided to undertake something she could accomplish on her own.

This "something" was to be Guggenheim Jeune, an art gallery on Cork Street in London that opened with a show of Jean Cocteau drawings in 1937 and lasted two seasons, till 1939. This chapter of Peggy's life deserves more attention than Dearborn provides. One gleans here and there the names of the artists Guggenheim Jeune exhibited. Kandinsky was one of the artists, Cedric Morris was another; Geer van Velde, a friend of Samuel Beckett, showed there, as did young Lucien Freud.

During trips to Paris she organized a group show with Arp, Brancusi, Pevsner, Moore and Calder. One of her big successes was a show of Surrealist paintings by Yves Tanguy, and she briefly became his mistress. Her affair with Beckett dates from that time. She also had a fling with Marcel Duchamp, who helped her choose artists. In London, the new art dealer's path crossed with the likes of Herbert Read, Roland Penrose, and other luminaries of the art world. "It was a heady time indeed," notes her biographer.

While she was in France buying art for what she hoped would be a museum of her collection, the Phony War phase of World War II began (the period of little actual fighting, from the declaration of war in September 1939 to the Nazi invasion of the Benelux countries in May 1940). Guggenheim stayed in France, paid off her employees and closed the London gallery. Still, the experience of running an art space had not only delighted Peggy but, according to her biographer, had given her a more solid identity, and a new attitude in sexual matters. She now could make love for sex's sake, without becoming obsessed with the men she slept with.

"She loved the seemingly instant intimacy that resulted from a sexual encounter," Dearborn writes. "Because she entered into these arrangements expecting nothing, she could walk away unfazed and unhurt. . . . Her amours engaged her emotionally, but she was able to compartmentalize them in a way that most male would-be Don Juans only aspire to, partly because her gallery and professional activity made her feel more grounded." This freedom apparently led to a couple of abortions.

Truly a "mistress of modernism," Guggenheim enjoyed her new life in France, surrounded by artists. Although a Jew, she mostly ignored the signs of forthcoming disaster. In the spring of 1940, German troops crossed the border and headed for Paris. Dearborn chronicles Peggy's flight by car, ahead of the Germans, with Nelly van Doesburg and one of her children in tow (she had a son and a daughter with Vail), and her arrival in Mégève, the resort where her former husband, Vail, was ensconced with his own new family.

Mistress of Modernism evokes Guggenheim's strenuous efforts not to loose the art collection she had brought from London and enlarged while living in France. It was now threatened by the Nazis' excommunication of degenerate art. The French government refused to put it in storage, but the curator of the Grenoble museum near the Mégève resort permitted her to store it there so that she could make an inventory. She then slept with the boss of a local shipping company so he would help her get the works to New York. He fulfilled his end of the bargain and, before she herself had left France, her collection was on the high seas to New York, where it would arrive unharmed and ready to be shown at her new Art of This Century gallery.

The book also chronicles more familiar territory, such as Peggys visits to Air Bel near Marseilles, where some Surrealists were temporarily housed awaiting passage for America, her purchases of still more art there and, of course, her meeting with Max Ernst. It tells of her success in taking not only herself out of France but an entire crew of lovers and relations, including Ernst, her ex-husband, his wife, Kay Boyle, the new wife's lover and two sets of children. And it describes their flight to New York on a clipper equipped with beds for every passenger except one, and of the way she took her daughter Pegeen into her own bunk so that Ernst could sleep comfortably during the flight. Yes, Guggenheim had a masochistic strain, but this anecdote exemplifies its positive aspect.

What finally emerges from Dearborn's smoothly written and perceptive biography of Peggy Guggenheim is the realization that all the places that she found herself living in -- France in the ‘20s and early to mid-‘30s, London at the end of the ‘30s, France again in 1940-41, New York in the ‘40s and ‘50s -- were swept up by history-in-the-making while Peggy was there. In the end, one may not care for Guggenheim's personality, but envy has to be part of it. Few rich heiresses of her generation exhibited as much acumen in their art collecting, did as much with their money, or showed such daring in their love lives. Had she been Graham Greene, her romps would have been cause for bemusement rather than belittlement.

Indeed, Dearborn has portrayed not the dog-hugging old lady that some of us recall, but a young and interesting Peggy, as she appears on the book's cover in the famous photograph of her by Man Ray from 1925. Here, her face, framed by a turban, softened by dangling earrings, has an affecting pensiveness. In her sleek cloth-of-gold evening dress by Paul Poiret, a long cigarette holder pressed between her fingers, she is the archetypal flapper. But this product of the mores of a society in transition had a singular generosity and an uncanny eye for good art, and her biographer generously pays tribute to those qualities.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).