Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

All the Difference (1898)

Oct 20, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


          The name Guggenheim conjures the image of an iconic architectural sculpture whose walls showcase the apogee of artistic expression. The eponymous museum is the brain-child of its billionaire patron, but far more colorful was his niece.

         A many-splendored bank account allows an existence far removed from the realm of the-rest-of-us, which proved the case with Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim. Both sides of her family were preposterously wealthy; her immigrant father, Benjamin, was one of several brothers of German heritage who, along with his father, Meyer, made a fortune from metals-silver, copper, and lead-that led to their women sporting diamonds as big as the Ritz. Her mother, Florette Seligman, also a first-generation American, was an heiress of a banking family known as “the American Rothschilds” who founded New York’s Temple Emanu-El. Peggy was born in one of New York City’s grandest hotels where her parents lived before moving to their enormous mansion on the Upper East Side opposite Central Park; neighbors were the Rockefellers and President Grant’s widow. Their home decorations erred on the side of ostentation: marble staircases, tiger-skin rugs, and everything Louis XVI. The children’s dollhouses had crystal chandeliers. The Germanic Guggenheims were advocates of kultur, and their three daughters were privy to opera boxes, grand tours of Europe, and portraits from the brushes of the Old Masters. 

      However, under the story-book exterior, Peggy was miserable. Her adored father was seldom home, busy with serial seductions, and her mother was emotionally distant. The upbringing of Peggy, along with sisters Hazel and Benita, fell to a series of sadistic governesses whose dreaded outdoor excursions left her with a life-long dread of Central Park. From an early age, she was precocious; at age seven, her parents banished her from the dining table for saying, “Papa, you must have a mistress as you stay out so many nights!” It was a nod to “from out of mouths of babes.” Soon after Benjamin abandoned his family and moved to Paris and his French trysts; the following year he decided to return home for Hazel’s birthday only to perish on the Titanic. Fourteen-year-old Peggy never recovered from the tragedy. In a move that made Florette the paradigm of bad mothering, she blamed Hazel for her husband’s demise. In later life, Hazel lost her two young sons when they fell from the roof of the Surrey Hotel. Fortune, at least the nonmaterial kind, and Hazel were not on speaking terms.

     During the dismal period that followed Benjamin’s death, the Guggenheim children had their first taste of the anti-Semitism that hovered outside their upper-crust enclave. In a town on the New Jersey Shore where Guggenheim’s far wealthier cousins had vacation homes-one a replica of a Pompeian villa- a hotel turned them away because of its No Jews Allowed policy. Peggy felt satisfaction when she watched the offending structure burn down one summer. In middle age, Peggy stated, “My childhood was excessively unhappy. I have no pleasant memories of any kind.”

       What added to Peggy’s sorrows was along with the Guggenheim fortune she had inherited their pronounced potato-shaped nose, an unflattering feature her two beautiful sisters did not share. She sought a rhinoplasty-the art was still in its infancy; the doctor botched the painful procedure, and it was left even more of an eyesore.

         Rather than revel in her rarified life, Peggy felt stifled and took her initial foray into bohemia when she obtained a job at an avant-garde bookshop, the Sunwise Turn. Through her cousin Harold Loeb, she met F. Scott Fitzgerald and Alfred Stieglitz, men she found far more intriguing than the strait-laced boys of her milieu. In Stieglitz’s gallery on Fifth Avenue, Peggy encountered modern art and had her first sighting of the work of Stieglitz’s future wife, Georgia O’Keefe.

       When her mother suggested she accompany her on a trip to Paris, Peggy readily agreed, anxious to meet the avant-garde painters. In the Continent, at age twenty-three, she was a well-heeled rebel ripe for adventure and love which she found in Laurence Vail, known as “the King of Bohemia.” He paid her a visit when her mother was out and was taken aback when she acquiesced to his sexual advance. He immediately backtracked and said as her mother might come back, they should wait till they could get a hotel. She fetched her hat. Her respectable New York escorts had been too proper for premarital sex, but ever since she had seen photographs of frescoes from Pompeii, she was entranced with all matters carnal. She said of the erotic art, “They depicted people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself.” She shamelessly pursued Vail to the altar and was so uncertain if he would be a no-show, she did not buy a dress. Peggy felt as she was neither the possessor of beauty nor talent; all she could offer was money, something Vail was never loathe to accept. The girl who had lost her beloved father and was starved for affection lavished her love on her husband who reciprocated with abuse. If she displeased him, he would walk on her stomach, hold her down under running water in the bathtub, or rub jam in her hair. Vail’s novel contained an anti-Semitic portrait of his wife who he caricatured as “in sleep she moves her lips as she dreams of sums.” The tempestuous union produced a son, Sindbad, and a daughter, Pegeen.

      The marriage expired three years later at a café in Saint Tropez where Peggy met English intellectual John Holms. In the divorce, Laurence retained custody of Sindbad and Peggy of Pegeen; never the nurturing type, she once told Pegeen she would trade her for a Picasso. Peggy and John cohabited; their home, Hayford Hall, dubbed Hangover Hall by their Bloomsbury friends, became the site of furious rows fueled by alcohol, and Peggy again became a battered woman.  She wrote in her autobiography, “He made me stand for ages naked in front of the open window (in December) and threw whiskey into my eyes.” Freedom arrived when John passed away from a heart attack in 1934.

          With two unhappy relationships behind her, Peggy decided to tread the road of noncommittal sex, and her carnal appetite was voracious-driven by emotional need and lust. Legend holds Guggenheim had gone through a thousand lovers as illustrated by the anecdote when asked how many husbands she had, she responded, “Do you mean mine or other people’s?” Her most thorough education in modern art came from Samuel Beckett who she had met at a dinner party hosted by James Joyce; when he arrived at her apartment, he lay on a sofa and asked her to join him. They spent a night and a day in bed, interrupted only by her demand he go out for a bottle of champagne. During their relationship, Beckett enjoyed driving in her state-of-the-art sports cars, and through his contacts, she became the boho queen of the European art world. Whenever she pestered him about what he planned to do with their relationship, his invariable answer: “Nothing.”

      Peggy latched onto the idea of showcasing her private collection in an art gallery, and even as the Continent trembled on the brink of a world war, she plunged ahead with her cultural crusade. She made a resolution to “buy a picture a day” and amassed canvasses by Dali, Braque, Picasso-in sharp contrast to her Uncle Solomon who strictly adhered to the Old Masters. However, in her case, she encountered sexism. One afternoon she walked into Picasso’s Paris studio seeking to purchase a painting. He dismissed her with the comment, “Madame, the lingerie department is on the second floor.”

       Guggenheim only admitted defeat weeks before France did the same when the Nazis goose-stepped into Paris. She finally realized that with her prominent-and Jewish name-she was a prime target. Nothing less than the Occupation could have brought her back to the States which she associated with her unhappy childhood that she recalled as “one long, protracted agony.” She asked the Louvre administrators to safeguard her paintings who refused by stating her modern art not worth the space. In desperation, she stored the works, all destined to carry multimillion price tags, in a friend’s barn in the Vichy countryside.  After living abroad for twenty-two years, she returned to the States along with her extended family of her ex-husband and his soon to be ex-wife, her two teenaged children, and the painter Max Ernst, a man she considered a relative as she already envisioned him as her third husband. When she had seduced the great surrealist painter, one of her former conquests remarked, “Max Ernst is now said to be Peggy Guggenheim’s consort no 3,812.” After she wed the broke artist, she commented, “I did not know if he was miserable because he was going to marry me or for some other reason.”

          Guggenheim established a New York Gallery, Art of This Century, in 1942, a time when no one was standing in line to buy avant-garde paintings. This fact did not faze the flamboyant devotee of the new; at the opening, she wore one earring by Calder and one by Tanguy to demonstrate her equal regard for abstraction and Surrealism. Her establishment played a key role in Manhattan’s displacement of Paris as the capital of modern art. On display were the canvasses of her latest discovery, Jackson Pollack, a carpenter in her Uncle’s museum. He was one of the rare artists who slipped through the patroness’ net; he said that you would have to put a towel over her head to have sex with Peggy. With her beloved Lhasa Apso dogs trailing behind her, Peggy was a daily fixture at Art of This Century; at night, she threw wild parties attended by artists and guests such as Gypsy Rose Lee. Her marriage did not provide the satisfaction she derived from her gallery; unlike her art, she could not hold on to her men, and Ernst left her for the beautiful artist Dorothea Tanning.

              After the war, Peggy determined to leave the country again and set her sights on Venice. She purchased the eighteenth-century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal and lived in grand style amidst her modern masterpieces, servants, and eleven Lhasa apsos. She reigned in noble splendor and slept on an Alexander Calder sterling silver bed. Three afternoons a week the public roamed through her home to view her magnificent collection; there were even paintings in the bathroom, juxtaposed with wet stockings. She escaped the crowds by sunbathing nude on its roof. Guggenheim still courted the famous and hosted soirees with guests such as Yoko Ono, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote.  Peggy, who took to sporting bat-winged sunglasses, continued her lifelong pursuit of paintings and penises; her wealth proved as intoxicating as a new-car scent for the possessors of testosterone. She resorted to gigolo-gondoliers and race car drivers for consorts. 

       In 1967, Pegeen, an alcoholic, depressed painter, committed suicide in her Paris home leaving behind four young sons. Her mother, informed of her death by telegram while vacationing in Mexico, never recovered. She said, “We were like two sisters, friends, having lovers. Her death has left me quite bankrupt.” In tribute, a room of the palazzo became a shrine of her daughter’s paintings of blank-faced dolls.

      Guggenheim, the modern Medici of modern art, spent her final years devoid of company except for her fourteen dogs that inspired her nickname La Dogaressa. Her main activity was sailing the Grand Canal in her gondola, the last in the city to be privately owned. Instead of the traditional cavalla (sea-horsed shaped hardware), the ropes of her craft were tied to Lhasa apso statuettes. She said, “I adore floating to such an extent I can’t think of anything as nice since I gave up on sex, or, rather, it gave me up.”

       Peggy passed away from a stroke in 1979; she had directed her ashes to be interred in a corner of the Palazzo garden near the resting place of her beloved dogs. The Guggenheim fortune did not bring joy, but it did allow her to take Frost’s road less traveled, a path that made all the difference.