Magazine article The Spectator

A Bad Judge, except of Art

Magazine article The Spectator

A Bad Judge, except of Art

Article excerpt

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM : MISTRESS OF MODERNISM by Mary V. Dearborn Virago, £20, pp. 338, ISBN 1860499732 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

According to this new biography by an earnest, academically inclined American, Peggy Guggenheim deserves to be given a respected place in the history of modern art and not dismissed as a poor little rich girl with more money than sense.

In fact, Peggy Guggenheim's reputation was well earned, not to say established early on by her own memoir, Out of This Century, published in 1949, which proudly proclaimed the haphazard nature of her activities, both artistic and sexual.

By the time she was in her early twenties Peggy, born in 1898, had abandoned New York, where she was surrounded by stuffy rich Jewish relations, for Paris and the bohemian life, where she was soon surrounded by drunken spongers. Dearborn makes much of the fact that her father, who drowned on the Titanic when Peggy was 13, was openly unfaithful and hence Peggy and her sisters led a 'strangely sexualised' childhood; this, she suggests, along with a chilly mother who handed her over to a 'primary caregiver' (or nanny), a bulbous nose and two prettier sisters, explains why Peggy was repeatedly drawn to faithless men who treated her badly. Peggy herself, who unlike this biographer had a sense of humour, once said that she had pretensions to an inferiority complex.

Her first husband, Laurence Vail, an undistinguished writer and painter by whom she had her two children, Sindbad and Pegeen, rubbed jam in her hair and stamped on her stomach, thus indicating, writes Dearborn, 'hostility to women and their biology'. The marriage, like most of Peggy's relationships, floated on a tide of drink and was marked by spectacular rows. Her great love, despite the fact that he told her that when she tried to think she looked like 'a puzzled monkey', was another conceited but unproductive writer, John Holms, with whom in the early 1930s she rented a house on the edge of Dartmoor known as Hangover Hall.

Regular guests included Djuna Barnes and Antonia White, and an obscure poet called Hoare whose behaviour was such that Peggy took to referring to casual sexual encounters as 'hoaring'. Dearborn makes the glorious error of supposing that this was none other than Sir Samuel Hoare, an MP since 1910 and at the time a member of the Conservative government as secretary of state for India. If only it were true that the future foreign secretary and champion of appeasement, a man described by his patron Lord Beaverbrook as 'descended from a long line of maiden aunts', led a double life. …

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