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Wealth sanitizes trashy behavior
on November 26, 2004
I had eagerly awaited this book because I had been disappointed in Guggenheim's own CONFESSIONS OF AN ART ADDICT. I wanted a book that didn't skip over some obvious issues, like the reasons for the multiple marriages and a daughter's suicide. I was not disappointed in Mary V. Dearborn's MISTRESS OF MODERNISM. Dearborn delivers a warts-and-all biography that is nonetheless sympathetic, and extremely readable. I read this book quickly even though I put it down often to think about the implications of what I had just read.
Can one have too much money? As I read this book I wondered if Peggy might have been happier if she had had to work for a living. As Dearborn points out, Peggy was a "poor" Guggenheim whose fortune was only a fraction of her Uncle Sol's. The bohemian crowd that Peggy wanted to be a part of assumed that Peggy's fortune was far larger than it actually was. As a result, she had the reputation of being a cheapskate even though she supported a handful of people she was not even related to until they died. (This list would include Djuna Barnes, ex-husbands and ex-husbands' previous wives and widows, etc.) She also subsidized a lot of other people at various times on a temporary basis. The people in this milieu seem to have had extremely poor parenting skills. Peggy and her sisters spent their childhood virtually segregated from adults. Could that be why she and her surviving sister were such poor mothers? Peggy's son grew up to be an ambitionless playboy and her daughter Pegeen committed suicide. Peggy's sister murdered her own two small sons by pitching them off a balcony. She got away with it. Peggy, her sister and her daughter were promiscuous and seemingly had voracious sexual appetites. What set them apart from their peers was that Peggy and Pegeen were open about their affairs. Peggy practically advertised hers with the publication of her autobiography OUT OF THIS CENTURY and scandalized New York society. (This book explains that CONFESSIONS OF AN ART ADDICT is an extremely expurgated and revised version of OUT OF THIS CENTURY that Peggy put together years later. It deals only with Guggenheim's career as a collector. I would now love to get my hands on the original OUT OF THIS CENTURY!) Yet, through it all Peggy seems to have had very little self esteem. The men she was involved with were often physically abusive. There was a streak of masochism in her. (Was this a generational attitude? Peggy's friend Emily (whom she supported) admitted in her diary that she herself enjoyed being beaten.) I came away with the impression that Peggy was basically a bland person who just wanted to be loved. She never knew whether she was really loved or whether people just loved her money.
This book is very well written and presents brief, vivid minibiographies of virtually the entire dramatis personae. It has made me curious to see the work of the artists that Peggy promoted. This book tells an important part of the story of American art in the 20th Century. Those with an interest in this subject will want to read this book as soon as possible. I would especially recommend MISTRESS OF MODERNISM to anyone who has visited Peggy's museum in Venice or who is planning to visit there.