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Peggy Guggenheim Is Dead at 81; Known for Modern Art Collection

New York Times

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By The Associated Press
VENICE, Dec. 23 - Peggy Guggenheim, the expatriate American millionaire who amassed one of the world's foremost collections of modern art, died in a hospital outside Venice today, hospital officials said. She was 81 years old.

Mrs. Guggenheim, who had been ill for some time and recently had suffered a stroke, was hospitalized Nov. 15 in Camposampiero, on the mainland near this city, which had been her home since shortly after World War II.

Mrs. Guggenheim kept most of her impressive art collection in her 18th-century palazzo on Venice's Grand Canal. It embraced al1 the major movements of 20th-century art, and included works by Picasso, Chagall, Dali, Pollock, Braque, De Chirico and Max Ernst, one of her husbands.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete last night.
Patron of Artists
She made a name for herself, though it was already a name famous for wealth. She made a museum for herself, and with the largess that suited her station she opened it to the public.

Peggy Guggenheim picked herself up from the trials of luxury, a New York bourgeois childhood that she found stifling, and threw herself into wild Bohemian life abroad, going through husbands and lovers as though lots more were in the wings.

It is hard to say that she was controversial, since she hardly made a secret of her license. It is difficult to say that she was a great connoisseur of art, since she acted on good advice in buying, but her collection ended up being valued at about $30 million.

Peggy Guggenheim came to occupy a special niche in American art and its development. She was the chief patron of the New York school of artists in its infancy, and when she returned to the city of her birth at the start of World War II after a many [sic] years in Europe, she founded a gallery named Art of This Century.

It was in that gallery that she showed the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, to name only a few, for the first time. After the war, she closed the gallery and returned to Europe, having left the New York school that much richer by her presence.

"I come from two of the best Jewish families," she wrote in 1923. One of her grandfathers, she said, was born "over a stable in Bavaria, and my other grandfather was a peddler."

Her Grandfathers' Fortunes

She picked up the story in 1946 in her autobiographical "Out of This Century," which recently was republished in one volume with a 1960 memoir, "Confessions of an Art Addict." "If my grandfathers started life modestly," she wrote, "they ended it sumptuously."

The stable-born grandfather, James Seligman, came to the United States in steerage, became a roof shingler, made uniforms for the Union Army, turned banker, and helped found New York's Temple Emanu-El. The peddler, Meyer Guggenheim, acquired copper mines and even greater wealth.

Peggy Guggenheim--who never used her given name of Marguerite---was born on Aug. 26, 1898, in the family home on East 69th Street in New York City. The family moved soon after to East 72nd Street, opposite Central Park, with Stillmans, Rockefellers and President Grant's widow for neighbors.

"My childhood was excessively unhappy," she wrote later. "I have no pleasant memories of any kind."

Every summer her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, took her to Europe before he died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

Father Squandered His Money

Peggy was then living in an enormous apartment in the St. Regis. Her father had squandered his money, but the Guggenheim uncles took care of the bills. Her mother discovered the truth, started dipping into her personal fortune and moved to a cheaper apartment with fewer servants.

Four years later her grandfather Seligman died, and Peggy's mother inherited a small fortune. Peggy's uncles subsequently saw to it that Peggy and her two sisters each inherited $450,000.

After high school she was influenced by Lucile Kohn, one of her teachers, into adopting a radical stance---which remained with her.

In an attempt to learn something useful, Peggy tried to master typing and stenography but soon gave up. She made her debut in 1916, and moved to Park Avenue. When she shopped for furniture on Yom Kippur---the holiest day in the Jewish calendar---her mother refused to pay for the furniture.

Broke Her Engagement

To assist in the war effort, Miss Guggenheim got a job in 1918 helping new officers buy uniforms. In 1919 she came into her fortune and independence and broke off with her aviator fiancé, who was waiting to make his fortune in the loose-leaf paper business.

She tried working as a receptionist for a dentist and as a bookshop assistant for a cousin, sweeping out the shop while she wore pearls and an expensive coat.

Then she found a new love: Europe. She wanted to see everything, and she had a minimum of feeling about anything except her cloaks and suitors. She read Bernard Berenson on art. In 1922 she married Laurence Vail, disguised as Florenz Dale ("lightly veiled," wrote a reviewer) in her 1946 book.

Mrs. Guggenheim, as she later came to call herself, described him as "King of Bohemia," and the newlyweds fought repeatedly. "When our fights worked up to a grand finale he would rub jam in my hair," she confessed later. "But what I hated most was being knocked down in the streets." She added, "Once he held me down under water in the bathtub until I felt I was going to drown."

Into this marriage were born Michael Cedric Sindbad and Dierdre (Pegeen). They were dragged along as the parents moved from one temporary home to another.

Left Out of the Memoirs

Mrs. Guggenheim met scores of famous people: James Joyce en famille, Marcel Duchamp and André Masson at leisure, Ezra Pound on the tennis court ("Ezra was a good player, but he crowed like a rooster whenever he made a good stroke," she wrote), and Isadora Duncan in flower (Isadora called her Guggie Peggleheim). Emma Goldman, the anarchist, lived in a house Peggy gave her, then quarreled and left Peggy out of her memoirs.

When the Vall marriage broke up, Mrs. Guggenheim had already conquered John Holms, a married Englishman. "He knew I was half trivial and half extremely passionate," she maintained,"and he hoped to be able to eliminate my trivial side." While he served as her intellectual mentor, she fought for custody of Sindbad and Deirdre (she got Deirdre), divorced Mr. Vail in 1930, and moved to Paris.

It was not the end of Bohemia. Mrs. Guggenheim met Douglas Garman and lived with him until be turned communist and left, damning her as a "Trotskyite."

At loose ends, she decided to open a gallery, and began displaying modern art at Guggenheim Jeune in London. She also began a 13-month affair with a man, called "Oblomov" in her 1946 book. The 1979 version named names, although by then it was hardly a secret that "Oblomov" was Samuel Beckett.

Decided to Open Museum

Then she fell in love with Yves Tanguy, the artist. She also gave up her gallery, which was losing money, and decided to open a museum. Herbert Read, the critic, agreed to become director, but World War II interfered with her plans.

Mrs. Guggenheim adopted the motto "buy a picture a day," and started to amass a great collection of contemporary art, using Mr. Read's shopping list as a guide. She insisted that she never spent more than $10,000 for a painting, and she obtained many works directly from the artists for less than $1,000.

She became friendly with Brancusi, met Giacometti, and fell in love with Max Ernst, a German refugee and surrealist artist. When the Louvre refused to help her safeguard her collection from the Germans ("They decided that my collection wasn't worth the trouble of saving," she wrote in 1974), Mrs. Guggenheim had the lot shipped to America as household goods.

As the Nazis advanced, she and her friends retreated. In 1941 she and her ex-husband and Ernst flew to America, where she finally married Ernst, proclaiming: "I did not like the idea of living in sin with an enemy alien."

'Union Doomed to Failure'

It was hardly a happy liaison. "Peace was the one thing that Max needed in order to paint, and love was the one thing I needed in order to live," she wrote. "As neither of us gave the other what he most desired, our union was doomed to failure."

Ernst left her for one of 31 women artists featured in a show at Art of This Century, the gallery Mrs. Guggenheim had opened in 1942 on West 57th Street in New York. "I realized that I should have had only 30 women in the show," she said after the divorce in 1946.

Other artists stayed long enough to win independent fame: Jackson Pollock (whom Mrs. Guggenheim supported for two years in exchange for his art), Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Clyfford Still, David Hare, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofman.

But then Mrs. Guggenheim grew weary of the New York gallery, and decided to try Venice. "I had always loved it more than any place on earth," she said.

In 1948 Venice gave her an entire pavilion at the Biennale. "I felt like a whole country," she exulted. Bernard Berenson came visiting, and she told him how much his books had meant to her. "Then why do you go for this?" he asked, sniffing at her moderm art.

The next year she found Venier del Leoni, an unfinished, one-story, white, stone palazzo on the Grand Canal. Tbe 18th-century palazzo became her home, and she installed an art museum in the garden and cellar, with servants quarters and laundry converted into galleries.

There she reigned in noble splendor, sleeping on a sterling silver bed designed by Alexander Calder. Venetians called her "the last duchess," sought her favors, knew her scorn.

Her collection---said at her death to be worth $30 million or more---was prey to envious foreign appetites. Finally she agreed to leave it and her home to the New York museum named after her
uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim--"my uncle's garage, that Frank Lloyd Wright thing on Fifth Avenue," as she referred to it in an interview two months ago. There was an important condition to the bequest: The museum had to leave the collection in the palazzo. "It was rather a joke," she said, "since I wasn't on very good terms with my uncle."

The collection, with more than 260 pieces, was one of the tourist attractions of Venice, and Mrs. Guggenheim was another. She fled when the museum visitors arrived, three afternoons a week. "I try to avoid fools," she said.

In her last years she was in poor health and seemed uninterested in nearly everything. She made no significant art purchase after 1973, rarely traveled, and passed each day in a lazy way, devoting each evening to a ride in her private gondola.

She may not have been so churlish about tourist visitors to her palazzo as she tried to suggest. "It is one of the most popular attractions in Venice," she wrote several weeks ago to a friend in New York, Robin Green. "So at least I have achieved my great ambition."

Related Biographies

Benjamin Guggenheim


Mark Baber, USA


Encyclopedia Titanica (2004) Peggy Guggenheim Is Dead at 81; Known for Modern Art Collection (New York Times, Monday 24th December 1979, ref: #3704, published 10 September 2004, generated 24th October 2021 05:16:57 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/peggy-guggenheim-dead-81-modern-art-collection.html