Copyright 2002 The Conde Nast Publications, Inc.
The New Yorker
May 13, 2002
SECTION: A CRITIC AT LARGE; Pg. 86
LENGTH: 6176 words
HEADLINE: THE COLLECTOR;
The conquests and canvases of Peggy Guggenheim.
BYLINE: CLAUDIA ROTH PIERPONT
Entering Picasso's studio in Paris, in 1940, Peggy Guggenheim found the Master surrounded by a group of admirers. Her artistic mission for the past several months-to buy a picture a day-was widely known; most artists and dealers, anticipating a German attack, were desperate to sell anything they could before packing or hiding their works and fleeing the city. Leger, Giacometti, Man Ray: all eagerly delivered their work to the gawky American heiress, and few objected to her haggling over price. There were not many buyers, after all. "People even brought me paintings in the morning to bed," Guggenheim reported, "before I rose." She rarely bought on impulse, though, because she knew exactly what she was after. She had a list, compiled by experts, of artists who should be included in a first-class modern collection, and it had not taken her long to acquire a painting or sculpture by almost every one. The great exception, who ignored her pointedly as she hovered in his studio, finally glanced up to inform her that she had arrived at the wrong location. "Madame," Picasso said as he dismissed her, "you will find the lingerie department on the second floor."
Madame did not experience the rebuke as an extraordinary setback. This is not surprising, as she had barely registered the war as a setback to her plans to open a splendid new gallery in Paris. On April 10, 1940, the day after Hitler's troops entered Denmark and Norway, Guggenheim rented an enormous apartment on the Place Vendome, and she went so far as to have the little plaster cherubs chopped off the walls and the place suitably repainted for the display of her treasures before, at last, she admitted defeat, just weeks before France did the same. Dangerous weeks, it might be said, for a woman with a prominent Jewish name. By her own account, however, Guggenheim seems to have been disturbed mostly by the French refusal to protect her art: Leger had advised her to ask the Louvre for storage space, but the august museum pronounced her entire collection not worth saving. "A Kandinsky, several Klees and Picabias, a Cubist Braque, a Gris, a Leger," Guggenheim fumed, along with Surrealist paintings by Miro, Max Ernst, Chirico, Tanguy, Dali, Magritte: all this had to find refuge in a friend's barn in the Vichy countryside. She, however, stayed put; she was enjoying the attentions of a new lover, who was himself prevented from leaving Paris, she said, because his wife was too ill to be moved. And so, as the bombing reached the factories on the outer boulevards, and trains filled with refugees in direst need poured into the city, she sat in cafes and drank champagne.
"I can't imagine why I didn't go to the aid of all those unfortunate people," Guggenheim wrote, in a memoir published shortly after the war. "But I just didn't." She dutifully recorded her escape from Paris to the South of France and then on to Lisbon, a trail of rumpled beds and moral quandaries, before she managed to catch a Pan Am Clipper flight to New York in July, 1941. At forty-two, Guggenheim had been living abroad for nearly twenty years, and she was bringing back with her the chaotically extended family that she had acquired: her ex-husband and their two teen-age children, her ex-husband's soon-to-be ex-wife and their children, and the painter Max Ernst, who counted as family because he was already, in Guggenheim's mind, her husband-to-be. In her memoir, she recounted the reasons that she had fallen in love with Ernst: "because he is so beautiful, because he is such a good painter and because he is so famous."
Despite the book's occasional flush of naive charm, it is hard to think of another memoir that so determinedly assassinates the character of its author. By the time Guggenheim began writing it, in 1944, her dream of a first-class modern gallery had become a reality, not on the Place Vendome but over a grocery on West Fifty-seventh Street, and she was presiding over an art world so tumultuously new that no one could have made a list of who the important figures would turn out to be. And yet almost every major artist of mid-twentieth-century America-Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell, Cornell, Nevelson, de Kooning-showed at Guggenheim's Art of This Century, as the gallery was called: it was the place where American art came into its own. With it, Guggenheim achieved a reputation for daring and for an instinctive grasp of talent that not even the publication of her self-mortifying self-appraisal, titled "Out of This Century"-one reviewer called it "Out of My Head"-was fully able to destroy. To complete the job, it seems, we have biographers.
Anton Gill's "Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim" (HarperCollins; $29.95) claims that "the jury remains out" on the question of whether Guggenheim had a good eye-as opposed to merely having good advisers-but he has no difficulty in passing judgment on her as a woman. "A mixture of low self-esteem and aggression, aided by money" is how he describes her behavior in his first few pages; "essentially selfish," he continues, and states as categorical "her inability to give anything in return for what she took." According to Gill, Guggenheim was an inadequate friend, an inept wife, and-to cite his most frequent and furious charge-a catastrophic mother. Her "most successful relationships," he writes, "were with animals and works of art," but his book is more informative about Guggenheim's feelings for her Lhasa Apsos than for the talents of Jackson Pollock, to whom she gave his first four one-man shows. Gill's focus is far narrower than that of Guggenheim's previous biographer, Jacqueline Bograd Weld; ironically, his emphasis on the dark and tawdry has resulted in a portrait that is unconvincingly dull. While Gill is effective in capturing Guggenheim's essential pathos, he obscures the vivacity and brio that made her gallery such a personal phenomenon, with Guggenheim herself continually patrolling and touching and talking, or standing at the door and asking people as they left, "What did you think of the paintings?" And then, if they didn't seem to understand what they had seen, adding with a shrug, "Come back again in fifty years."
Nothing less than the war could have brought her back to America. She associated the entire country with her awful childhood; "one long protracted agony" is how she remembered it. Both of her grandfathers-"my stable-born grandfather, Mr. Seligman," and "Mr. Guggenheim the peddler"-had fled the oppression and restrictions of their lives as Jews in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, arriving in America with no money and no English and nothing but their explosively unleashed initiative to explain how Mr. Seligman came to found a vast international banking house and Mr. Guggenheim to acquire a large part of the mineral wealth of Colorado. From her birth, in 1898, Peggy Guggenheim-nee Marguerite-had a prescribed place in New York's German Jewish aristocracy; the house she grew up in, on East Seventy-second Street, had a Louis XVI parlor, a Louis XV dining table, and a dark servants' stair that gave her nightmares. It was a fairy-tale world, complete with curses. Her adored father spent most of his time away with his mistresses, her mother was addled and wholly distracted, and she was left to the care of vicious nurses who threatened to cut out her tongue, and whose forced outdoor exertions induced in her a lifelong terror of Central Park. Yet her upbringing did not strike her as unusual. "I don't think there were any good mothers in those days," she wrote.
In 1911, Peggy's father, Benjamin Guggenheim, abandoned his family entirely and moved to Paris; in April, 1912, coming back for a visit, he went down on the Titanic. Peggy was nearly fourteen, and she later claimed that she never got over the loss. Seeking emotional ballast, she clung to her beautiful older sister, Benita, who was the first and most constant love of her life, and whose attentions she vied for with her equally beautiful younger sister, Hazel. Yet even this solace was turned to pain by what appeared to be the greatest curse of all, blooming day by day right in the middle of her face: the Guggenheim nose. A potato nose, as her grandfather's was usually called; her version, if on occasion more poetically compared to a sponge or a peony, was viewed as equally outsized and grotesque. As a result, her youth was filled with agonizing attempts at "being beautified," which culminated, in 1920, with a primitive nose job that only made the offending object worse, except insofar as its swellings now allowed her to predict inclement weather.
Guggenheim cites two other sources for the sense of inferiority that plagued her early life: lack of money, and the oppression and restrictions of being a Jew in America. Seeking independence, Benjamin Guggenheim had broken not only with his wife and children but with the economic partnership of his brothers, and his death left his daughters in the position of poor relations until their mother came into her own inheritance; the family moved to smaller quarters and had to cut down on servants. It was during this dismal period that mother and daughters were "politely but firmly" turned out of a hotel in Vermont for being Jewish, in a particularly humiliating but hardly novel display of anti-Semitism. In the town on the New Jersey shore where Guggenheim's various uncles had built vacation homes that included replicas of the Petit Trianon and a Pompeian villa, the nearest hotel would not admit Jews; she reports watching happily as the place burned down one summer. But she reserves her greatest disgust for the family villas themselves, for the Victorian pomp and suffocating closeness of the new ghetto that effectively walled her in.
Guggenheim made a bid for freedom as soon as her father's estate was settled, in 1919 (to greater advantage than anyone had expected), and she inherited four hundred and fifty thousand dollars-a pittance by Guggenheim standards, but enough to allow her to vault the ghetto walls when at last she spied a place to land on the other side. Harold Loeb, Peggy's cousin and the family's artistic rebel, asked her to help keep accounts in a small bookstore that he subsidized, and the experience was a revelation: the discovery of a brave new world full of people whom she later recalled as "so real, so alive, so human" precisely because "their values were different from mine." When Loeb moved to Paris the next year to work on a novel, she followed. "I soon knew where every painting in Europe could be found," she wrote, "and I managed to get there, even if I had to spend hours going to a little country town to see only one." She particularly adored Venetian painting, and when an acquaintance told her that the works of Bernard Berenson would be too difficult for her, she read every volume that she could get her hands on.
This ravenous intellectual and aesthetic hunger seemed to disappear immediately upon her marriage, at twenty-three, to a dazzling bon vivant and painter named Laurence Vail, an American raised in France, whom she gleefully titled "the King of Bohemia." Artistic, popular, ostentatiously free, and anything but Jewish, the golden-haired Vail was to Guggenheim an enthralling figure, and she guilelessly reports how she pushed him all the way to the altar. (She was so sure he wouldn't show up for the wedding that she didn't buy a dress.) In the same lightly rueful tone, she goes on to detail how during the years of their marriage he would knock her down in the street or "walk" on her stomach or, when he was truly furious, rub jam into her hair. The violence has an absurd, cartoonish quality that keeps the pain from seeming real, unlike the pain of the King of Bohemia's frequent reminders that his wife possessed neither the beauty of a consort nor the artistic talents of a rightful citizen, and that, as Guggenheim sums up his argument, "all I had to offer was my money," upon which he graciously consented to live.
Bohemia is a cruel country. Unprotected by the bourgeois rules of polite behavior that she had so gladly left behind, Guggenheim appears to have borne the insults and humiliations of her new society with a kind of perverse pride, even when they were no different from those she had always known. She mildly notes that when, at a party in Paris, Man Ray's mistress, Kiki, called him a "dirty Jew" it was her mother, visiting after the birth of the Vails' first child, who was "outraged" and "told Kiki what she thought of her." Guggenheim herself offered no response. Bohemia does not seem to have been tarnished for her even after Harold Loeb was brutally caricatured by his friend Ernest Hemingway in "The Sun Also Rises," in 1926, as the pitifully overeager and despicably Jewish character Robert Cohn, whose most memorable trait is his ability to withstand any amount of verbal abuse without complaint. But then, in the same year, Laurence Vail completed a novel of his own-"Murder! Murder!"-which, as Gill points out, contains a stunningly anti-Semitic portrait of the author's barely disguised wife, who moves her lips in her sleep "as she dreams of sums." Guggenheim reported that she "took offense" at the original manuscript, which Vail rewrote; but this only suggests how much worse the book must once have been.
Populated largely by adults who were fleeing the responsibilities of adulthood, bohemia supplied new justifications for the same old failures of parenthood that Guggenheim had endured herself: the Vails' son and daughter, Sindbad and Pegeen, seem to have suffered from a more or less benign neglect even before their mother ran off with another man. In the late twenties, the perils of motherhood for all the Guggenheim sisters became chillingly clear. Benita, after several attempts to have a baby, died in childbirth in 1927, and Guggenheim writes that it was her death-"I felt virtually as though I had been cut in two"-coupled with her husband's heartless attitude to the loss, that brought her marriage to an end. About her own children, she suddenly felt that she "had no right to have any," a comment that may shed light on the single incident that even she found too disturbing to recount in her book: the death of her sister Hazel's two small sons, who plunged from their mother's grasp and off a rooftop in New York the following year. The fact that Hazel was not charged with murder was widely assumed to be a result of the family's legal interference. Yet Guggenheim writes of 1928 simply as the year in which she fell madly in love with a brilliant alcoholic writer whose affectionate nickname for her was Dog Nose. The privilege of going off with this man meant that she had to give up one of her children, as she saw it, in order to be fair to her husband, and she chose to keep the girl, a sad-eyed three-year-old flaxen-haired waif. Guggenheim later wrote that the intensity of her longing for her son, who was five, nearly destroyed the new relationship, but by then there was no way back.
Guggenheim spent the next decade of her life administering first to the needs of the alcoholic writer, and then to the unfaithful Communist who eventually took his place (for his sake, she joined the Party). She was nearing forty and sick with a sense of personal failure when a friend suggested that she open an art gallery as a diversion from suffering over men. She acted quickly: aided by half a million dollars that she inherited on her mother's death, in 1937, and closely guided by Marcel Duchamp, she opened Guggenheim Jeune in London in early 1938. And her thwarted needs and passions suddenly found an open course. "I fell so in love with it," Guggenheim wrote of a small rounded brass sculpture by Jean Arp. "The instant I felt it I wanted to own it."
Arp's "Head and Shell" was the first work to enter her collection, but the balance between what might be termed Guggenheim's dual expressive outlets was notably unstable: for the next year and a half, she became known for exhibiting the most avant-garde artists, but even better known for having affairs with as many of them as she could. Only now did her legendary sexual career begin-legendary because she herself proudly made it so, detailing conquests that ranged from the Surrealist master Yves Tanguy to the young Samuel Beckett, who whenever she asked what he planned to do about their relationship invariably replied, "Nothing." By the time she closed the gallery, after two seasons, in June, 1939, she had lost a good deal of money and gained a Don Giovanni-like list of names. But it was a pair of men who would never make it onto her list-the critic Clement Greenberg, who claimed to be the only heterosexual man in their circle excluded from its pages; and Jackson Pollock, who reputedly said that you'd have to put a towel over Peggy's head to fuck her-who changed the meaning of her life.
In the early forties, New York was just awakening to the political turn that art had taken abroad. The city was filled with refugee artists-Tanguy, Mondrian, Dali, Leger, Breton-and although Hitler's ban on artistic forms that departed from nature had lent a near-heroic stature to their efforts in Europe, in New York modern art had become mired in the category of fashion. Salvador Dali had supplied his Surrealistic services for the windows of Bonwit Teller, and Guggenheim announced that the Museum of Modern Art had the look of a millionaires' yacht club and the atmosphere of a girls' college. Although hardly a practitioner of political thought, Guggenheim was not above using politics to serve her purpose. "With regard to Surrealism," she replied to a negative review of her gallery by no less a figure than Klaus Mann, "he seems to be in perfect accord with Hitler."
The general response to Guggenheim's Art of This Century, however, was a kind of boggled delight. The gallery, which opened in October, 1942-and also served as a museum for her collection-was designed by the emigre architect Frederick Kiesler as a series of dreamlike theatrical spaces. Surrealist paintings were shown in a black cave of a room, projecting at angles on what appeared to be sawed-off baseball bats-a "faintly menacing" effect, the Times pronounced; abstract and Cubist works hovered on weblike cables above a floor painted brilliant turquoise (Guggenheim's favorite color). At the opening, Guggenheim wore one earring by Tanguy and one by Calder, to display her professional impartiality between the Surrealist and abstract modes. Personally, this was something of a misrepresentation. From the time she succeeded in bullying the broke and miserable Max Ernst into marriage, in December, 1941-"I don't know if he was miserable because he was going to marry me or some other reason"-she did everything that she could to support his brand of delicately mannered Surrealism; Ernst's unhappy former dealer, Julien Levy, implied that she'd thought up the gallery and the marriage as a package deal. But Ernst left her after hardly more than a year for the beautiful young painter Dorothea Tanning. His speedy departure, a terrible blow to Guggenheim's overtaxed heart and ego, happened to coincide with an argument she had over money with his fellow-Surrealist Andre Breton. It was as a result of these highly untheoretical developments that one sophisticated European style fell out of favor in New York's most adventurous art establishment, and American painting had room to come into its own.
Jackson Pollock's name was misspelled the first time he showed one of his works at Guggenheim's gallery, in early 1943; by the time of the Spring Salon she had got it right. The critical response was favorable, and, in an unusual arrangement, Guggenheim offered to pay Pollock a hundred and fifty dollars a month to quit the custodial job he held at her Uncle Solomon's museum and do nothing but paint, in preparation for a one-man show that fall; in exchange, his paintings were hers to sell, if she could. Clement Greenberg, who had recently shifted his intellectual focus from Marx to Mondrian, was away in the Army for most of the year, and played no direct part in these early events. Shortly before he was inducted, Greenberg had written approvingly of Guggenheim's collection and of the new energies of abstract painting, but he had made, as yet, no absolute case for the sort of art that she showed. It was Greenberg's experience in the Army that ultimately altered his perceptions of the significance of abstraction, and altered the history of American art.
If Guggenheim had glided through wartime Europe with barely a nod to the political realities of being a Jew, Greenberg was overwhelmed by these realities in a mere eight months of service mostly spent in Oklahoma. Visiting a German P.O.W. camp there, he reported that the ranks of confident young men going about their self-appointed exercises in preparation for Hitler's victory shook him terribly; he later described 1943 as the year that he began, as a Jew, to feel physical fear. Back in New York that autumn, he started writing about both art and literature from an increasingly personal and often explicitly Jewish point of view. A long article on Sholom Aleichem as "the Jewish Dickens" quickly veers from literature to the essential virtues of the Jews, including their "examining and comparing intellect"-a quality that, by early 1944, Greenberg was insisting on as "a Jewish bias toward the abstract."
Greenberg did not apply his notion of this essentially Jewish bias to the art of painting; but then Hitler had done that already. Instead, over the next few years he turned the Nazi equation of abstraction with Jewish decadence on its head, arguing that a new sort of art was emerging in New York City that was fully representative of the principles that had to win the war: positive in spirit, heroic in scale, free, imaginative, and unquestionably American. Guggenheim, who had not wanted to come home at all, was now very nearly cast as a patriot, and her personal escape into art began to take on the force of a campaign for the Stars and Stripes.
Greenberg expressed some reservations in his review of Jackson Pollock's first one-man show, at Guggenheim's gallery, in November, 1943, but he also compared the Wyoming-born thirty-one-year-old painter to Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe. Greenberg later recalled that it was a twenty-foot-long mural that Guggenheim had commissioned from Pollock for the foyer of her East Side town house that really hit him hard. Guggenheim described it as "a continuous band of abstract figures in a rhythmic dance," and recounted how it had been painted in a single night of poured-out inspiration, after Pollock had sat numbly in front of the enormous canvas for weeks. When it was finally completed, the miraculous creation turned out to be too long for the foyer wall, and while Pollock went upstairs to get lost in Guggenheim's liquor supply, the ever-helpful Duchamp calmly proposed cutting eight inches off one end: with this kind of painting, he remarked, it really made no difference.
Which of these myths of modern art appears the more significant-the frenzy of inspiration or the practical adjustment of the dully repetitive result-depends on one's attitude to Pollock's work or, perhaps, to modern art itself. Although she was initially unimpressed, Guggenheim seems to have developed her own purely instinctive response to what she called Pollock's "wild and frightening" painting. She sponsored no other artist so resolutely, no matter who tried to cajole her into it. Although her financial arrangement with Pollock garnered her a large number of his works, as cynics inevitably point out, she never sold one for more than a thousand dollars. The behavior that she put up with also might be seen as a sign of her commitment. (The story of the victorious mural installation ends, rather famously, with Pollock wandering into a party at Guggenheim's apartment later that night and peeing into the fireplace.) "I dedicated myself to Pollock," she declared, and she came to think of him as her "spiritual offspring."
By the end of the war years, the gallery owner and the critic were virtually the twin engines of the new American painting: she exhibited it, he explained what it meant and why it mattered. During this fraught period, Greenberg made the case that abstract art in New York had become a moral phenomenon, and that it fulfilled on painted canvas many of his early political ideals: the urban concord of Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" streetscapes, the defeat of nihilism in Pollock's passionate intensity, a general ascetic standard that stood opposed to the "restless rich" and their complacent way of life. Off the canvas, however, ascetic ideals were not much in evidence. Every night while she lived in New York, Guggenheim liked to claim, she went to bed drunk. After the gallery closed, there were continual parties, where she served cheap Scotch and potato chips to guests who ranged from Joseph Cornell to Gypsy Rose Lee, and where one night Max Ernst angrily overturned an ashtray on Greenberg's head, crowning him King of the Critics, upon which Greenberg promptly socked him in the jaw. Considering the gap between what Greenberg preached and the general uproar that Guggenheim inevitably set in motion, it is difficult to understand how he believed that a memoir by her would aid his cause.
It was Greenberg who encouraged her to get down to work, beginning in the summer of 1944; although Gill claims that he also read each chapter of her book as it emerged, this does not seem likely. Greenberg's review, which appeared under the pseudonym K. Hardesh-Hardesh is Hebrew for Greenberg-in Commentary, in 1946, is a furious judgment hurled down from the heights of Sinai. "As a Jew," Greenberg wrote, "I am disturbed in a particular way by this account of the life of another Jew." Although Guggenheim displayed fine critical alertness with regard to the bourgeois world that she had rejected, he wrote, she was incapable of criticizing the bohemian world that she had so gratefully claimed in exchange. Greenberg's few words of praise for Guggenheim were made in a comparison with Gertrude Stein, a woman of similar background who had entered bohemia through literature, while Guggenheim "flew in on money and a kind of vitality that amounts almost to genius."
He didn't carry the comparison any farther, although it is evident that Stein's 1933 memoir, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," was the model for Guggenheim's own Surrealistically naive tone. And then there were the paintings, the painters, the parties: all the most celebrated elements of Stein's world were reestablished in Guggenheim's, yet Picasso chose to paint Stein's portrait and he threw Guggenheim out of his studio. It was through sheer strength of character that Stein became the Queen of Bohemia-or, as she would have preferred it, the King-while Guggenheim was, in Greenberg's terms, its victim, a position he found troublingly emblematic. "In the list of the martyrs of bohemia, Jewish names stand out," he observed, citing Modigliani and Soutine. He might well have added Guggenheim's cousin Harold Loeb, whose savaging in "The Sun Also Rises" provides the likeliest answer to the mystery of why Stein broke with Hemingway after the book appeared. It is difficult to imagine Guggenheim taking such a stand; indeed, if she was offended by Greenberg's denunciation she never let on. But that, of course, was precisely Greenberg's point.
Guggenheim's own view of the possibility of belonging to any sort of world had grown exceedingly bleak. As soon as the war was over, she began looking for a place to live in Venice, having decided that "I would be happy alone there." During her remaining time in New York, she gave a one-woman show to her daughter, Pegeen, now a sad-eyed twenty-year-old waif who painted canvases of wistful little families of blank-faced dolls. And the great collector acquired, at last, a major Picasso, "Girls with a Toy Boat," which she found "madly amusing." Her main worry in closing up shop was what would become of Pollock-she had raised his monthly payments to two hundred and fifty dollars-and it was with difficulty that she finally secured another gallery's agreement to show his new work if she subsidized him for one more year. The last exhibition at Art of This Century took place in May, 1947. Commemorating its scant five years of existence, Greenberg wrote that Guggenheim's position in history was assured and that her departure was a serious loss to living American art.
"I am where I belong, if anyone belongs anywhere nowadays," Guggenheim wrote to Greenberg from Venice later that year. She had bought an unfinished eighteenth-century palazzo, in which she planned to live quietly with her paintings and her dogs. All ideas of retreat vanished, however, when she was offered an entire pavilion for the display of her collection at the Biennale of 1948, the first international art exhibit there since before the war. This was a major event, and Guggenheim's pavilion was the focus of attention: "the explosion of modern art after the Nazis had tried to kill it," as her Italian secretary later said. Guggenheim was thrilled when Bernard Berenson visited, even if he responded to her avid declaration that he had been the first person to teach her about painting with "My dear, what a tragedy that I wasn't the last." Although she was laying plans to turn her palazzo into a museum, it did not seem likely that many visitors to Venice would come to look at what she had to show.
The real explosion happened the following year. In August, 1949, Life ran a story with a banner headline reading, "Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?" Citing the testimony of a single, unnamed but "formidably high-brow New York critic," Life ventured to answer with a resounding yes. Moreover, the article featured a large photograph of Pollock dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, a cigarette dangling from his lips, displaying all the allure of the James Dean-style heroes of the approaching fifties. America fell in love with Pollock's image, if not with his art. He was famous, and yet his work remained nearly impossible to sell until 1956, when he died the quintessential fifties-hero death-in a car crash, drunk, at the age of forty-four-and prices started going through the roof. By that time, however, Guggenheim had long since become incensed over the absence of her name in the stories of his astonishing rise; she complained that Pollock didn't even answer her letters. When Greenberg called from New York with news of his death, she is said to have replied, "I don't give a damn."
She didn't seem to give much of a damn about anything in these years, except, perhaps, sex. At the age of fifty-one, she took up naked sunbathing on the roof of her palazzo-directly across the water from the windows of police headquarters-and developed an attitude to sampling the local men which her friend Mary McCarthy compared to her attitude toward the local olives and crusty bread. She herself was delighted with this image, and when one of her guests inquired, "Mrs. Guggenheim"-as she was known in later years-"how many husbands have you had?" she shot back, with perfect Mae West timing, "D'you mean my own, or other people's?" Gill is quick to point to the indisputable loneliness and the inability to maintain a relationship that lie behind the pose, but is less ready to allow for the cockeyed bravery that McCarthy put in terms of Guggenheim's "huge, gay, forgiving heart," and which seems to be summed up in Guggenheim's reply to Max Ernst's inquiry about whether he might visit her with his wife. "Come to Venice," her telegram to him read. "All is oblivion."
But even Guggenheim's most trusted methods of achieving oblivion failed her when, in March, 1967, she received the news that her daughter had committed suicide, in her home in Paris, at the age of forty-one. Pegeen, who had four young sons and was in the midst of a stormy second marriage, had consumed a fatal mixture of pills and alcohol. Her husband claimed that he had rescued her from seventeen earlier attempts, but Guggenheim steadfastly refused to believe that the death was not an accident, because "I know she would have never deserted her children." She was still arguing against the charge of suicide in an updated version of her memoir published in 1979, the year of her death. Although she could rage in her own defense, Guggenheim clearly came to feel that the blame belonged to her alone, as did many people around her. "Sindbad and Laurence once said to me 'You killed Pegeen,' " she admitted in her final years, "and sometimes I think I did."
This brutal assessment is generally supported by Gill's biography, often in interviews with family members for whom her guilt has become established lore-one of Pegeen's sons calls Guggenheim "the major architect of her daughter's pain," although he was only eight when his mother died-but also by the kind of judgments that make one question both the limits of the biographer's knowledge and the extent of his animus. (Guggenheim's "maternal instincts were only ever aroused in the context of a sexual relationship," Gill informs us. Only ever?) Guggenheim's shortcomings as a mother are all too clear, and can perhaps be best understood in terms of her inability to stop being a child herself, but it does seem worth more emphasis than Gill allows that two of Laurence Vail's three daughters by his second wife also attempted suicide, and that, according to interviews with them in Weld's 1986 biography, their father maintained some sort of sexual involvement with both. This isn't to say that Vail ever had an incestuous relationship with Pegeen, but the field of damage in this family was very wide, and the boundaries of childhood were consistently blurred. "We were like two sisters, friends, having lovers," Guggenheim said of her relationship with Pegeen, in her own last years. And she added, "Her death has left me quite bankrupt."
When she was asked in those late years to name her greatest achievement, Guggenheim answered that the first was Pollock and the second was her collection. But the painting that meant the most to her was Picasso's "Girls with a Toy Boat," in which two rather sweet if monstrously misshapen little girls, playing at the ocean's edge, are depicted with protuberant breasts and pregnant bellies. When Guggenheim opened her museum, she placed this painting in the entrance hall, above Giacometti's tabletop bronze "Woman with Her Throat Cut." It was several years, she pointed out, before she realized that the painting was not funny but disturbing and profound, and that its "poor little girls" were not really enjoying themselves; rather, they were preoccupied with "their destiny as women." She did not specify what she thought this destiny was, but, to judge from her reaction to this image of two childlike sisters or friends, already swollen with their own children, she had lived something like it herself-except that for her the cycle of birth had long been intimately linked with death. In the bedroom of her palazzo, Guggenheim always kept a portrait of herself and Benita as little girls. And even today the visitor to the Guggenheim Museum in Venice will come across a permanent exhibit of the works of Pegeen Vail, a room filled with naive paintings of detached doll-like figures which serves as a sort of shrine.
Guggenheim was calmer and quieter in her last years in Venice; she liked to say that floating in a gondola was the nicest thing in her life since she gave up sex. The impulse was never quite vanquished, though. "If she takes your hand, I suggest you let her," Mrs. Alfred Barr advised Saul Steinberg about proper behavior during a gondola ride; it would cost him so little, she said, and would give her so much pleasure. Guggenheim maintained the last privately owned gondola in Venice, and also-in the city that gave the world the word "ghetto"-one of the last privately owned palazzi along the Grand Canal. Instead of the traditional family colors and coat of arms, she displayed her favorite turquoise striped with white, and heraldic images of her Lhasa apsos, which emerged from local workshops looking like particularly shaggy little lions. She became an honorary Venetian citizen, and year by year she learned virtually all the city's churches and its frescoes, its hundred and fifty canals, and the names of most of its four hundred bridges. Every day, she would glide along in the late-afternoon sun, sometimes accompanied by a famous visitor, but more often alone, as she had predicted when she planned to make Venice her final home. "You fall in love with the city itself," she reported with the sense of an important goal finally achieved. "There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else." (c)
LOAD-DATE: May 13, 2002