His Story/ Her Story: Peggy Guggenheim and her Jewish identity

Guggenheim was at odds as to her place in this society and was champing at the bit to choose her own path.

Peggy Guggenheim (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Peggy Guggenheim
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) was born into a well-to-do German family living in New York City. In an article titled “Was Peggy Guggenheim Jewish?” (Nashim 25, 2013), Jill Fields attempts to determine the identity of the woman who was born into this elite Jewish society.
Along with other German Jews of their status, Guggenheim’s family joined Temple Emanu-El, the Reform synagogue of the uptown Jews. Interestingly enough, her maternal grandfather was president of this synagogue for many years. On Friday nights, the extended family participated in dinners at the hotel, where some of them were living.
Guggenheim attended a private high school along with other wealthy Jewish girls, but her family’s fortune took a turn for the worse following the sudden loss of her father, Benjamin, who was aboard the Titanic in 1912. His daughter related that after his death, she attended services, recited kaddish and lunched on Sundays with the rabbi.
Guggenheim was at odds as to her place in this society and was champing at the bit to choose her own path; a small windfall fortuitously enabled her to assert her independence. At this point in her life, she was introduced to the world of art after she began working (without pay) at her cousin’s bookstore; there, she met photographers and an array of Bohemian figures. This would be the beginning of her new life, which she devoted to collecting and promoting art and artists.
In 1922 she married Laurence Vail, interpreting this step as an act of liberation from her Jewish bourgeoisie background. She had two children with him, but left the marriage after six years. Her next love was a writer who died unexpectedly. They also spent six years together. After a brief relationship with a British fellow, she opened a gallery in London to showcase modern art. (She also had an affair with writer Samuel Beckett, the fourth non-Jewish male in this lineup.) During World War II, she returned to France and purchased numerous works of art, which she hid and then shipped abroad (more or less smuggling them out) in order to save them from confiscation by the Nazis. She spent time and funds helping family members and supported a rescue committee. In 1941 she moved back to New York. The following year, she opened an avant-garde gallery in Manhattan, where she discovered Jackson Pollock and married artist Max Ernst; however, this marriage did not last long, either.
After the war, Guggenheim decided to return to Europe, but this time her choice was Venice rather than Paris. Feeling very much at home in this city, she quickly established herself in the art world. The American bought a palace built in the 18th century to serve simultaneously as her abode and as a museum to which the public had access at specified times of the week. She did not seem to have contact with the Jewish community in the 32 years she spent here, but she never denied her Jewishness per se.
She and her family apparently had various encounters with American anti-Semitism, such as being excluded from vacation areas in New Jersey, being discriminated against when seeking hotel accommodations in Vermont, and having to rent a home in Connecticut using a false name. In various literary works, one can identify Jewish characters based on her. Guggenheim underwent a disastrous rhinoplasty operation in 1920; descriptions of her often included allusions to a large and homely nose.
While she was sometimes depicted as stingy, many individuals did not realize that although she was a member of the Guggenheim family, she and her two sisters were nowhere near as wealthy as her father’s brothers and their progeny. In fact, she was philanthropic, helping many individuals (including anarchist political activist Emma Goldman) but was not always appreciated appropriately. Nonetheless, because of her significant cultural contribution, the city of Venice honored her in 1962 by granting her “citizenship.”
Fields points to an interesting interaction that Guggenheim had with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Although her first visit to Jerusalem in 1924 could be described as far from successful, by 1952 her attitude had changed. At the Biennale in Venice she was impressed by the modern surrealistic works on display at the Israeli pavilion. Contact was made with Eugene Kolb, the director of the museum, who suggested that she contribute to an exhibition in Tel Aviv by lending them some of the pieces in her collection.
Instead of taking him up on this offer, she decided to donate 36 works to the museum.
While she had given to many institutions, none were to receive a donation this large.
Guggenheim seems to have been ambivalent about her heritage. While choosing mostly non-Jewish partners and isolating herself from the Jewish community of Venice, she did not renounce her past or her roots, even when rebelling against aspects of her early life. She eventually found her niche outside the New York German Jewish community and created impressive collections and museums of modern art, but she was always considered to be a Jewish woman.
■ The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.