Peggy Guggenheim: the mistress of Modernism

Iona McLaren in The Telegraph:

Peggy-3-large'I come from two of the best Jewish families,” wrote Peggy Guggenheim when she was 25. “One of my grandfathers was born in a stable like Jesus Christ or, rather, over a stable in Bavaria, and my other grandfather was a peddler.” She broke this promising work off after only a few sentences, but her character in caricature is already there: Peggy Guggenheim was very Jewish, very rich and very amusing, but not quite convinced of her own worth. Her second try at a memoir was more fruitful. In 1946, the 48-year-old proprietress of New York’s most daring gallery brought forth a book: Out of This Century. It was a scandalous account of near-numberless romances, two Bohemian marriages and her equally passionate – but more successful – acquisition of abstract and surrealist art in London and wartime Paris, before escaping the Nazis in 1941 with her collection of “degenerate art” intact. The book was ill received, the critics discomfited by her flat revelations of marital abuse and abortions. Time called it “as witless as a harmonica rendition of the 'Liebestod’ ”; Chicago Tribune suggested that her “nymphomaniacal revelations” should be retitled “Out of My Head”.

They were missing the point: for all its flaws, Peggy Guggenheim’s midlife memoir is hysterically funny. Gore Vidal called her unaffected and efficient style “almost as good as Gertrude Stein… and a lot funnier”. But sympathetic readers like Vidal were, and had always been, few. The insecurity that gave her, Francine Prose argues in this generous biography, is a clue to the nervous promiscuity that she sustained into her grand old age in the Venetian Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, now the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

More here.