In pursuit of beautiful moments. Peggy Guggenheim was profligate with sex, economical with love, and completely unpredictable about money. Lynn Barber on a grand and chaotic public life

Peggy Guggenheim: the life of an art addict

Anton Gill <em>HarperCollins, 506pp, £25 </em>


Is this volume really necessary? Five hundred pages for a woman whose only achievement was collecting art? Moreover, a woman who published three very frank and readable versions of her own life story. I mean, how interesting can an art collector be? Well, "very" is the answer from this generous, discursive biography.

If you believe, as I do, that the three most interesting drives are sex, love and money, then Peggy Guggenheim is an absolutely fascinating case study. She was profligate with sex, economical with love, and completely schizophrenic about money. She was generous in many ways: she gave $l0,000 to miners in Britain during the l926 general strike, and paid a lifelong stipend to several needy artists and writers, including Djuna Barnes. But she was also insanely penny-pinching, counting the slices of ham in her fridge in case the servants stole any, and dining on tinned tomato soup and tinned sardines every night because she'd bought a job lot from a bankrupt grocer. My father-in-law, Maurice Cardiff, remembers her ruining a holiday in Mexico because she believed the hotel had overcharged her by five cents. She allowed herself only $l25 a year to spend on clothes, yet she poured money into art - and with no hope of it being an investment, because she never sold it.

The Solomon Guggenheim who founded the Guggenheim Museum in New York was her uncle, but not her mentor. They barely met. Her father, Benjamin, had opted out of the family firm to start his own International Steam Pump Company (which made the lifts for the Eiffel Tower), but the business never flourished, and he was probably heading for bankruptcy when, in 1912, he set off from Europe to rejoin his family in the United States. Unfortunately, he made the crossing on the Titanic. The rich Guggenheim brothers clubbed together to support his widow and children, but Peggy, who was 14 when her father died, always felt like a poor relation. She had a miserable childhood: she longed to go to school, but was not allowed until she was 15, and she was stifled by all her Guggenheim relatives. It was only when she went to Europe at the age of 22 that she felt free, and thereafter she returned to the States only when forced to, during the war. After she became financially independent, at 21, she had a nose job, but unfortunately the surgeon gave up halfway through and left her with her "Guggenheim potato", which she claimed swelled in wet weather. She was not hideously ugly; she had a good figure. But she never entertained any illusions of beauty.

Jackson Pollock famously said that, to fuck her, you'd have to put a towel over her head. And she did want fucking. She wrote in her autobiography that, by the age of 23, she was obsessed with losing her virginity. "All my boyfriends were disposed to marry me, but they were so respectable they would not rape me. I had a collection of photographs of frescos I had seen at Pompeii. They depicted people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself."

So when a French artist called Laurence Vail made a mild pass at her, she immediately dragged him into bed and demanded the full Pompeian performance. This was the beginning of her exhaustive and exhausting sexual career - she might even have been that fabled beast, the nymphomaniac. She said it wasn't true that she had more than a thousand lovers, but they must have numbered well into the hundreds. Mary McCarthy wrote perceptively that she popped into bed with people the way you would pop into a cathedral when abroad - she regarded sexual intercourse as "a quick transaction with the beautiful".

She married Vail in 1922, settled in Paris, and had two children, Sindbad and Pegeen. But in 1928, she ran off with a Scottish would-be writer called John Holms, who had what she called an "elastic quality": he "could scuttle along on all fours without bending his knees". He was an alcoholic, a pedant and a sadist who would make her stand naked in front of an open window while he threw whisky at her. He died in 1934 while undergoing a minor operation to reset a broken wrist - the anaesthetist had failed to appreciate the amount of alcohol in his system.

In 1937, Peggy's mother died and left her about $500,000. Peggy suddenly seemed to find her metier: within a year, she had opened an art gallery in London, Guggenheim Jeune, in Cork Street. With help from Marcel Duchamp, she launched an impressive programme of exhibitions - Cocteau, Kandinsky, Tanguy, Calder. Few pieces sold, so she bought many of them herself. Then she realised that war was coming, and dashed to Paris for a quick buying spree - profiteering from the situation that many artists were desperate to leave. She remained in France until the very last minute, when she scooped up Max Ernst along with his paintings and took him to the States. She was determined to marry him, much against his will, and eventually did, but he soon left her for Dorothea Tanning.

In New York, she launched a new gallery, Art of the Century, which showed her own collection as well as temporary exhibitions of de Chirico, Giacometti, women artists (a first at that time), Rothko and - most important - Jackson Pollock. Pollock is the answer to those people who say Guggenheim had no "eye". Perhaps she didn't, but she was astute enough to listen, and when she heard Mondrian and other artists raving about "Jack the Dripper", she signed him up. But she was always clear that she would return to Europe as soon as the war was over and, in 1947, she closed the gallery. The critic Clement Greenberg wrote: "Her departure is in my opinion a serious loss to living American art . . . She gave first showings to more serious new artists than anyone else in the country."

Commercially, it was a mistake to move, because American art was just taking off. Her collection virtually stops at 1950. But she was always happier living in Europe. She bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice in 1948, and opened her collection to the public. Attended by her 11 dogs, two gondoliers and a Scottish butler, she lived in great style in the early years, and had a long, scandalous affair with a garage mechanic half her age. But he died in a car crash, and then her daughter, Pegeen, died from an overdose. Peggy retreated into a sad and lonely old age. By the time she died in 1979, the palazzo was almost a ruin, with huge leaking holes in the roof.

She once said that she would swap all her collection for Giorgione's The Storm in the Academia next door, and indeed her collection always looks terribly gimcrack in the context of Venice. On the other hand, it has no competition, whereas it might be eclipsed in New York or Paris. She flirted with the idea of leaving it to the Tate Gallery (there was no question of leaving it to her grandchildren) but, in the end, left it to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, on condition that it remained in situ. The foundation has cleaned and restored the contents of her collection, but it still seems an oddity in Venice. But then, she was an oddity, all her life, and well worth her 500 pages.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and rise of President Blair