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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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
Photos courtesy of filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland.