An artless life that made art available for all

Peggy Guggenheim knew more about paintings than love

At first glance, biographies about flamboyant figures seem ripe for enjoyment, both for their writers and for a public eager to experience vicariously the highjinks of spirits unburdened by the chains of conventions. But a life of glamorous escapades frequently reduces, under the microscope of close reading, into a mere patchwork of anecdotal living.

Such is the case with Anton Gill's admirable "Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim." Clearly written, scrupulous in its assessment of virtue and vice, thorough in its coverage of a long life ranging over various continents and concupiscence, the book falls flat for those of us expecting a more profound read. One can imagine the excitement with which the author undertook such a study of this great 20th-century art collector. From the outside, Guggenheim's eight decades promise delight. But if the three juicy versions of her own memoir that Guggenheim wrote become boring after her glancing treatment of everything from Max Ernst's imprisonments during World War II to her mistake in giving away at least 14 Jackson Pollocks as inconsequential gifts, how is a biographer supposed to energize the life?

Peggy (Marguerite) Guggenheim, born in New York City in l898, lived a life powered by trust funds and beholden to the financial acumen of relatives who had left Switzerland and Germany 50 years earlier encumbered by little more than their acute intelligence and belief in hard work. Gill is at his best in judiciously explicating the routine anti-Semitic context that Guggenheim's family escaped by emigrating from Europe to the United States in the mid-19th century.

Guggenheim was fatherless by age 14, when Benjamin Guggenheim sank with the Titanic. Although in later years she would allude to the tragedy as the shaping event of her life, Ben, who maintained his own residence in Paris, where he spent most of his time with his mistress, had been missing in action for many years before the iceberg finalized the separation between him and his wife.

Exactly what significance this paternal loss exerted over Peggy's long life is unclear. Gill's gentle speculations, admirable for their restraint on what cannot, truly, be defined by anyone, nonetheless become frustrating in their careful avoidance of reductive hypotheses. After all, a major theme coursing through the biography is Guggenheim's extraordinary number of lovers, the final count being a source of amazement to other worldly men and women of her time. And the peculiar self-image that allowed Guggenheim, year after year, practically to force herself upon men who did not find her attractive, lends credence to her own Freudian explanation of her behavior.

She felt herself odd from the beginning. On the one hand, Florette and Benjamin Guggenheim's middle daughter was blessed with a tall, slender, much admired figure, and a face that, if one ignored her nose, was nominally pretty. Unfortunately, this "eggplant" or "potato" protuberance became an impressive enough sight to become the most referenced proboscis outside Cyrano de Bergerac's.

As if to defy the odds that such a defect might handicap her would-be seductions, Guggenheim set out to bed as many men (and the infrequent woman) as she could. Seldom, it seemed, was she the first choice for anyone else's libidinous impulses. But her financial influence, her mastery of erotic and slightly sadistic word games, and the relentless drive she exhibited ensured that she would seldom be without takers.

Guggenheim set her sights on the fashionable artistic and intellectual set in Paris following the Great War. Such people, she decided, would confer upon her a kind of castoff significance as she basked in their lights. Visits to America became infrequent and, even then, basically enforced by dramatic circumstances such as World War II.

She worshiped talent, and as part of her shrine to those who seemed destined to achieve recognition, she supported them financially and often seemed to court their physical abuse. The most egregious offender was her first husband, Laurence Vail, who mistreated her both in public and private – and whom Peggy knowingly egged on. Yet even after she divorced him, long before having concluded that his laziness would deny him the rewards warranted by his abilities, she continued to pay him a monthly stipend.

Part generosity, part control, such "allowances" tethered dozens of people to Guggenheim throughout her life, including characters as diverse as Djuna Barnes, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, and Samuel Beckett.

Dependent upon "experts" for the vetting of her artistic taste, Guggenheim went on to purchase, for what now appear stunningly low prices, countless fine paintings and sculptures dating primarily from post World War I through the end of the 1940s. Though endowed with a handsome income by her father's estate, Peggy was not destined to be one of the truly "rich" Guggenheims, because Ben had invested poorly. She was, however, so determined to spend her fortune on art that she put herself on a strict budget that sanctioned her purchase, for instance, of only one dress a year.

Not everyone appreciated her sacrifice: Her father's brother, Solomon, complained about what he deemed her frivolous patronage. In spite of such family objections, throughout two major but relatively short periods of collecting, from 1938-1940 in England and from 1941-1946 in the United States, Guggenheim managed to assemble a major representation of what would become the canonical art of the mid-Modern period.

Even as her activities on behalf of the modern art world accelerated (and Gill provides an excellent template of this important achievement), Guggenheim spent at least as much energy chasing men. In fact, her version of sexual fulfillment became boringly repetitive, akin to the stereotypical male adolescent conquest.

As for real maternity, Guggenheim shamefully neglected her children, either by default – leaving them with friends, extended family, or nannies – or through incorporating them into an invariably confusing, bizarre ménage where their need for parental intimacy was relegated to visiting with their mother in the presence of others. And when we hear that Vail, the father of Guggenheim's two children, developed a "habit" of taking baths with his various prepubescent daughters, the bitterness and the sense of loss that later enveloped Pegeen and her brother Sindbad seems sadly predictable.

Perhaps it is too harsh to consign Peggy Guggenheim to that special arena of scorn for those who fail to live the examined life. But it's hard not to lament that she stopped short of tapping into her demons. What private belief system propped up her persistent habit of living the rigors of intellectual thought and of aesthetic judgments only through mediators (almost always male)? What made her so resistant to the pull of everyday intimacies?

Her lack of self-knowledge dooms her personal story to be compelling only as it intersects with the history of modern art. No mean achievement, but not the stuff of vivid biography.

The world owes Peggy Guggenheim a real debt for aiding European modernism as it sought a stronghold outside the Continent (she bought up works that the Nazis' "Degenerate Art" show would probably have burned), as well as for promoting painters such as Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. But any biographer, including Gill, is bound to find himself wishing that Guggenheim's wrenching vulnerability had surfaced more frequently, often enough to remind us of the real person suffering under the extravagant show she sustained until her inevitably lonely end.

Among the last words Peggy Guggenheim spoke before she died on Dec. 23, 1979, was the immediate, three syllable request directed to her long-suffering son, Sindbad, summoned from Paris. As he walked through the hospital door in Padua to attend his mother on her deathbed, Peggy for once dispensed with her typical bag of tricks and said, simply, "Please kiss me."

• Laura Claridge is the author of "Norman Rockwell: A Life" (Random House).

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