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Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim

This book spans the life and career of Peggy Guggenheim—art collector, gallery owner, mistress to many (Beckett, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst (whom she married), Duchamp, and countless others, and impresario of the twentieth-century art world. It follows her from her gilt-edged childhood in German-Jewish “Our Crowd” New York; years of hedonist expatriate life and a turbulent marriage in Paris, the South of France, and England and her salons in those places; her opening of an art gallery in London that showcased Modernists and Surrealists; Art of this Century, the extraordinary gallery she operated in wartime New York City; her years as “the last Dogaressa” in her palazzo in Venice, surrounded by her beautiful artworks and a collection of oddly named Lhasa Apsos, her collection a magnet for any Venice visitor. These milieux alone provide a rich tapestry of twentieth-century cultural history.

Peggy the woman is a riveting figure. She took lovers at the drop of a hat, but happiness in love eluded her—except perhaps until her 50s and 60s, when she had a long affair with a Venetian twenty years her junior. Commonly thought of as a miser, she was indeed very conscious of where every penny went but was also a lifelong supporter of the writer Djuna Barnes, her ex-husband Laurence Vail (she once bailed him out of an $18,000 breach of promise suit), and countless artists and friends, including Emma Goldman, whom she supported (and rented a St. Tropez cottage for) to allow Emma time to write her autobiography. Yet she was extremely conflicted about money—one of many factors that seriously marred her relationship with her children, neither of whom turned out well at all. Her beloved daughter Pegeen, with whom Peggy had a very intense, rocky relationship, died from an overdose of drugs at the age of 42.

Most important, this book sees Peggy shaken free from her legend, which has tended to minimize her considerable accomplishments and efface her importance in twentieth-century art history. With Art of this Century, she brought together the European surrealist emigré artists with the emerging American artists who would become the Abstract Expressionists in a heady mix, giving first shows to Clifford Styll, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, several others, and—perhaps her greatest achievement—Jackson Pollock, on whom she gambled and won. With her gallery, the center of the art world moved from Paris, where it had been entrenched for over a hundred years, to New York City. It was my goal to rescue Peggy Guggenheim from her legend and reclaim her as a twentieth-century heroine who indelibly changed the face of art history.

Reviews for Mistress of Modernism:

"Richly detailed . . . lovingly researched . . . Peggy Guggenheim could not have wished for a more generous biographer than Dearborn."

--Kirkus Reviews

"Scintillating . . . Peggy Guggenheim's museum stands as a monument to her power of patronage. Dearborn's biography is an equally worthy monument to the woman behind it."
--[London] Daily Express

"...smoothly written and perceptive..."

"Immaculately researched . . . an enjoyable social portrait of a lost time."
[London] Sunday Tribune