Who won World War II? As we prepare to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Complex on Jan. 27, I would like to make the case that one of the big winners of World War II was Peggy Guggenheim.
In her superlative new documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland introduces her subject with quotes from talking heads who are often quite snide, and yet 95 minutes later, her heroine has triumphed. Despite all who would doubt or demean her, in spite of all who would endanger her wealth, her well-being and even her life, Peggy Guggenheim proved herself to be invincible.
We hear the name “Guggenheim” today, and we picture a world of people born with silver spoons. But Vreeland shows with a brief overview of PG’s family tree that the wealth of the Guggenheims (on her father’s side) like the wealth of the Seligmans (on her mother’s side) was entirely new money, all of which was made in America.
PG’s Seligman great-grandfather -- Joseph Seligman -- was born in Baiersdorf, Germany in 1819. At age 17, Joseph Seligman boarded a steamer at Bremen and sailed to America, where he worked as peddler in rural Pennsylvania. But by the time he died at age 60 in 1880, Joseph Seligman had amassed a fortune and founded a dynasty.
Meyer Guggenheim, PG’s paternal grandfather, was also born in the Old Country. He left Switzerland in 1847 at age 19, and started his new life in America in the import business. Then he saved his money, went west, and invested in Colorado mines. When Meyer Guggenheim died in 1905, he was the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in late 19th century America.
Barbara and Meyer Guggenheim raised ten children (seven sons and three daughters). Babet and Joseph Seligman raised nine children (five sons and four daughters). But PG’s parents were both a bit rebellious, and when Florette Seligman married Benjamin Guggenheim in 1894, they began to distance themselves from their birth families. They set themselves up in grand style in Manhattan, yet by the time Florette gave birth to their third daughter in 1903, they had also grown distant from one another. Then Benjamin went off the Paris, where instead of achieving independence he ended up squandering much of his inheritance in ill-advised investments.
Truth being stranger than fiction, Benjamin Guggenheim literally sank with the Titanic on April 15, 1912, leaving Florette alone with her daughters in somewhat precarious financial circumstances. Benjamin’s brothers -- all of whom were extremely wealthy -- tried to keep them in the style to which they were accustomed, but as soon as Florette found out, she began downsizing. Perhaps some of the Seligmans also tried to help her, but if so, there is no record of it. So while PG carried a name that seemed to imply great good fortune, she actually had a childhood filled with tragedy and she grew up knowing she would always be thought of as an object of pity.
To everyone’s surprise, PG embraced her fate and turned it into a badge of honor. Rather than live as a “poor relation,” PG cast herself as a “black sheep,” and moved to Paris in 1920 at age 22. For the next 20 years, PG lived at the edge of Europe’s avant-garde. Name almost any famous person who passed through Paris in those years -- artists and writers, intellectuals and gadflies -- and it’s likely he or she supped at PG’s table. She loved their creative energy; they loved her money. It may not have been much money from her relatives’ perspective, but from a bohemian’s point of view, PG had it all.
And so, as the Nazis began their “rape of Europe” in 1939, PG was perfectly positioned to achieve her destiny as the savior of Modern Art. By the time of her death in 1979, PG had amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of 20th century paintings, sculptures, and other works of “fine art.” Along with her purchases, she also provided direct financial support to those once-famous who had fallen on hard times (e.g., Emma Goldman) and those who might never have become famous without her (e.g., Jackson Pollock).
And in the end, she also healed strained family relations by donating her collection --The Peggy Guggenheim Collection -- to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. For its part, the Foundation affirmed in a recent press release that it “has worked to make the name of Peggy Guggenheim and the renown of her achievements more celebrated than ever before and will continue to ensure that Peggy Guggenheim’s collection is honored and preserved.”
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is one of my favorite documentary films of 2015. Once I was introduced to her by filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland, I couldn’t get enough. I ended up reading both versions of her autobiography (the randy original from 1946 and the cleaned-up version released in 1960), the new biography Peggy Guggenheim – The Shock of the Modern by Francine Prose (published last year in Yale University Press’s prestigious “Jewish Lives” series), “The Cicerone” (a short story published in a Mary McCarthy collection called Cast a Cold Eye in which a fictionalized Peggy appears), and A Not So Still Life (the memoir published by her step-son Jimmy Ernst in 1984 in which a very real Peggy appears).
Then I re-watched Pollock (the film released by Ed Harris in 2000 in which he plays Jackson Pollock, Amy Madigan plays Peggy Guggenheim, and Marcia Gay Harden plays Pollock’s very Jewish wife Lee Krasner). Then I re-watched Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict a second time, and knowing so much more about her, I loved Vreeland’s film even more.
In her own way, PG -- the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of German-speaking Jewish immigrants from Europe -- lived in defiance of Hitler and his murderous assault on everything precious to Western Civilization. He lost. She won. And through her, countless cultural treasures have been preserved for future generations. May her memory be for a blessing.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict opens Friday, Jan. 8 at the Music Box Theatre on Southport Ave. For showtimes, call (773) 871-6604. To purchase tickets, visit: http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/
For more photos and links, visit Jan's blog.
Top Photo: Peggy Guggenheim looking through sculpture, Courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice. (NOTE: Per filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland, this sculpture is not part of PG’s collection.)
Bottom Photo: Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim (1898-1979) and her first husband Lawrence Vail (1891-1968) with their children Pegeen Vail Hélion Rumney (1925-1967) and Michael C. Vail aka Sindbad (1923-1986).
Photos courtesy of filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland.