"When I was fucking Samuel Beckett in the '30s. . . he told me. . . I should buy modern art. . . because it's living."
-- from Woman before a Glass
Padding around the stage in a stained Fortuny gown, waving a cigarette in one hand and a bra in the other, Mercedes Ruehl appears to be channeling Phyllis Diller rather than an aging Peggy Guggenheim in the pastiche of a one-woman play entitled Woman before a Glass, which is written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Casey Childs. The play is currently enjoying its premiere at the Promenade Theater in New York.
Seated on a clunky metal set that is meant to evoke the sterling silver bed designed by Alexander Calder for Guggenheim's Venice villa, Ruehl plays the 1960s Peggy as a beatnik aristocrat with oversized sunglasses and an ever-present martini, who invites the audience to have a drink ("mi palazzo e su palazzo") and listen to her complaints about the help and her worries about the future of her "children" -- that is, her famed art collection, not her actual kids.
Most art dealers have had to endure this kind of conversation at one time or another -- and therein lies the problem. Woman before a Glass, sadly, has tantalizingly few moments that reveal the fascinating complexity of Guggenheim's character. Instead, we get a tabloid nymphomaniac who, with her good taste and a big bankroll, famously stated that she would "buy a picture a day" to support beleaguered artists in Europe in the 1930s.
Guggenheim's own contribution to her mythology didn't help much. Her salacious autobiography, published in 1979 and entitled Out of This Century, still has shock value today. Gore Vidal claimed it was as good as Gertrude Stein, and much funnier. This book is ostensibly the source for the play.
Sandro Rumney, who is Peggy's grandson, says that contrary to the play's image, he doesnt remember his grandmother ever being that vulgar or brazen. "She was witty and clever and very sophisticated -- after all, she learned about art from some of the greatest minds of the 20th century." Although the play emphasizes Guggenheims sense of identification with her Jewish heritage, Rumney says that just the opposite was true. Guggenheim "turned away from the constraints of her upper-class Jewish background and everything she knew to look for something different." He believes she was looking, in part, for the love of her father, who died with the sinking of the Titanic, a search that propelled her into numerous love affairs with artists and that eventually led her to amass her art collection.
The play is organized into four parts (it is subtitled "a triptych in four parts," which makes limited sense). Part 1 shows Guggenheim preparing for a visit from the Italian prime minister, who is vying to keep her famed collection of works by Brancusi, Arp, Braque, Pollock, Rothko and Max Ernst in Italy. In one touching scene, she describes her love for her deceased father.
Part 2 shows Guggenheim chatting with her daughter Pegeen (who is, of course, offstage in this one-person production) about her upcoming solo show. It is clear that Peggy is worried about her daughters mental and emotional state, but this theme is not really developed.
In Part 3, Guggenheim is negotiating with the Tate Collection in London on one phone line, and on the other hearing tragic news about the latest suicide attempt of her daughter. The fourth and final act places Guggenheim floating in her gondola, watching a Venetian sunset and ruminating about her past and the moon, which is "reflected in her own eyes" -- perhaps a reference to the way that Guggenheim created her own persona and her future legacy.
Rumney says that he hopes that some day a more complete and compelling portrait of his grandmother will make it to the stage or screen. In the meantime, he recommends a wonderful new biography by Mary Dearborn, titled Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim (Houghton Mifflin).
DEBORAH RIPLEY is a New York art dealer who writes on art.