Peggy Guggenheim

Peggy Guggenheim

Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim, the the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim, a rich but unsuccessful business man, was born on 26th August, 1898. Her father died when the Titanic sunk in 1912.

Affter finishing her education she found work in a bookshop. During this period she became very interested in the avant-garde art world. At the age of 21, Peggy Guggenheim inherited 2.5 million dollars from her father's estate.

In 1920 Guggenheim moved to Paris where she met Laurence Vail. She later recalled in her autobiography Out of this Century (1979): "He was about twenty-eight at this time, and to me he appeared like someone out of another world. He was the first man I knew who never wore a hat. His beautiful, streaky golden hair streamed all over as the wind caught it. I was shocked by his freedom but fascinated at the same time... He was like a wild creature. He never seemed to care what people thought." Vail was known as the "king of bohemians" and associated with writers and artists including Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.

In 1922 Peggy married Laurence Vail. After the birth of their first son, Sinbad, Laurence and his wife travelled to Italy and Egypt. In 1926 they went to Switzerland, where his second child, Pegeen, was born. The family settled in Pramousquier in the south of France.

While visiting Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, in 1928 Peggy met John Holms. She recalled in her autobiography, Out of this Century (1979): "all I remember now is that he took me to a tower and kissed me... that certainly made an impression on me, and I can attribute everything that followed to that simple little kiss." Guggenheim invited the Holmses to visit her home in Pramousquier. "They came overnight and we went in bathing at midnight, quite naked. John and I found ourselves alone on the beach and we made love."

Peggy Guggenheim left Laurence Vail and went to live with John Holms. She wrote in her autobiography: "It seems to me that John Holms and I did nothing but travel for two years. We must have gone to at least twenty countries and covered ten million miles of ground."

Edwin Muir, who was a close friend, argued: "John Holms was the most remarkable man I ever met. His mind had a majestic clarity and order... Though his sole ambition was to be a writer, the mere act of writing was another enormous obstacle to him: it was as if the technique of action were beyond his grasp, a simple, banal, but incomprehensible mystery. He knew his weakness, and it filled him with the fear that, in spite of the gifts which he knew he had, he would never be able to express them; the knowledge and the fear finally reached a stationary condition and reduced him to impotence."

Peggy Guggenheim agreed that John Holms had the potential to be a great writer: "Since no one else shared his extraordinary mental capacity, he was exceedingly bored when talking to most people. As a result, he was very lonely. He knew what gifts he had and felt wicked for not using them. Not being able to write, he was unhappy, which caused him to drink more and more. All the time that I was with him I was shocked by his paralysis of will power. It seemed to grow steadily, and in the end he could hardly force himself to do the simplest things." Peggy had to admit: "John had written only one poem in all the years he was with me. I had done nothing but complain about his indolent life."

In March 1933 John and Peggy met Douglas Garman, who was a director of Lawrence and Wishart, in the Chandos pub in Trafalgar Square, about publishing Ryder, a novel written by his friend, Djuna Barnes. In her autobiography, Out of this Century (1979), Guggenheim commented: "Douglas Garman never published Ryder. I believe he did not like it, but he asked us if he could come to stay with us in Paris at Easter time. When he came, I fell in love with him." However, she continued to live with Holms.

Douglas Garman
Douglas Garman

That summer John Holms fractured his wrist, riding on Dartmoor with Peggy. Despite being reset, the bones had never realigned correctly, and he had been advised to have a simple operation. Holms was a heavy drinker and on the morning of the operation on 19th January, 1934, he had a terrible hangover. Holms died under the anaesthetic. After his death Peggy and Douglas Garman set up home at Yew Tree Cottage in South Harting.

In her autobiography, Out of the Century (1979) Guggenheim argued: "Garman was a straightforward, honest person with a wonderful sense of humor, and a fine mimic. He was simple, and disapproved of all snobbishness and chi-chi. He was a puritan and a frustrated poet. He was a revolutionary at heart, but all his habits and tastes belonged to the class in which he was born. He spoke beautiful English as well as excellent Russian, French and Italian. He was well educated. His tempo was quite different from mine. I moved about ten times faster than he did, and almost went mad waiting for him to finish sentences. He was five years younger than I which made me self-conscious. He found me very sloppy and would have liked me to dress much better than I did. He did not like me to have any gray hair."

Guggenheim persuaded Douglas Garman to give up his job in order to concentrate on his writing career. During this period Garman became increasingly interested in politics. For many years he had been a member of the Labour Party. However, in 1934, he decided to join the Communist Party of Great Britain. His two closest friends, Ernest Wishart and Edgell Rickword, also joined. Instead of staying at home with Peggy Guggenheim, he became a travelling lecturer. He also helped establish the Marxist journal, Left Review.

In 1935 Ernest Wishart merged his company with another publishing house to form Lawrence and Wishart. The new company moved to offices in Red Lion Square and became the press of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Despite the objections of Guggenheim, Garman joined the new venture. The company concentrated on publishing books on economics, working-class history and the classics of Marxism. Wishart also published New Writing, a twice-yearly anthology, that included the work of W.H.Auden, Ralph Fox, Christopher Isherwood and Cecil Day Lewis.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Garman wanted to join the International Brigade. However, as Peggy Guggenheim explained in her autobiography, Out of the Century (1979): "Garman went around the country in a second-hand car he had bought for the purpose, giving lectures and trying to recruit new members. I saw him less and less as he was so busy. I was more and more alone, and became more and more unhappy. It was during the period of the Spanish War and he was very excited about it. I was afraid he was going to join the International Brigade, but his health would not permit."

In 1936 it was agreed that Jeanne Hewitt Garman would have responsibility for her daughter Deborah during term-times but she would stay with Douglas and Peggy during holidays. This worked well as Peggy had a daughter, Pegeen, of the same age: "Garman and Debbie moved into Yew Tree Cottage, and I found myself once again the mother of two children. I loved Debbie. She was just the opposite of any child I had ever known. She was so mature, calm, sensible, self contained and well behaved, and so little trouble. She was intellectual like her father and loved to read and to be read to. She had a wonderful influence over Pegeen, and Pegeen over her. She became less priggish in our home. They got on marvelously and were soon like sisters."

Deborah Garman with Pegeen Vail and Samuel Beckett at Yew Tree Cottage
Deborah Garman with Pegeen Vail and Samuel Beckett at Yew Tree Cottage

Jeanne Hewitt Garman began an affair with a young actor and asked Douglas Garman for a divorce. According to Peggy Guggenheim: "Garman said I would have to be co-respondent. I protested violently because Mrs. Garman had left Garman long before I met him, and I considered this most unfair. But Garman said I was living with him, and there was no other way to do it, since he would not divorce his wife. The whole thing was very silly. We had to be found in a room together, Garman in a dressing gown and I in bed. A detective came down from London early in the morning, so that the children would not know about it. After that he wanted to come again, but Garman said he would not go through it a second time, it must suffice."

Guggenheim wrote to her friend, Emily Coleman: "If I followed my instinct I would leave him. Though I do love him I don't think we should be together. But I haven't the courage to go." Coleman then wrote to their mutual friend, Djuna Barnes: "She is madly in love with him (Garman). She wants him far more than he does her; this is the first time that's happened to Peggy."

Roy Campbell and Mary Campbell went to stay with Ernest Wishart and Lorna Wishart for Christmas. The Wisharts organised a dinner party that including Peggy, Douglas Garman and Edgell Rickword. A discussion on the Spanish Civil War caused a major rift in the family. Rickword later commented: "He (Campbell) was very good fun, by no means a fool. But where he got this crappy, hysterical sort of fascism from, I don't know." Campbell responded by describing Wishart's home as "Bolshevik Binsted".

Guggenheim even joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in an attempt to please Garman. She recalled in her autobiography: "Garman wanted me to join the Communist party but he said that they would not accept me unless I did a job for them. I wrote a letter to Harry Pollitt, the head of the Party, and said that I wanted to join, but that I could not take a job as I lived in the country, took care of two little girls and had no free time. Of course I was accepted. Which was what I wanted to prove."

Djuna Barnes, Ernest Wishart, Edgell Rickword, Bertrand Russell and William Gerhardi, all visited Peggy Guggenheim at Yew Tree Cottage. However, Guggenheim, who had previously had a very busy social life complained about her "extremely lonely life, getting more and more depressed". She also argued that Garman was now only interested in members of the CPGB: "The only people he now wanted to invite to Yew Tree Cottage were Communists, and it didn't matter what other qualifications they had: if they were Communists they were welcome. I found myself entertaining the strangest guests. Any person from the working class became a sort of god to Garman."

Peggy''s relationship with Douglas Garman continued to deteriorate. She wrote to Emily Coleman: "Garman and I seem to drift further and further apart spiritually and mentally though the physical is overwhelming still." Peggy Guggenheim admitted: "After I had been with Garman about a year and a half I began to get the idea of running away from him. I tried it on various occasions, but he always got me back. I didn't want to live with him and I didn't want to live without him. He still loved me very much, though I did everything to destroy it. I don't see how he could have endured me so long."

Garman became especially interested in Jessie "Paddy" Ayriss, the wife of George Hardy, a leading figure in the CPGB. Guggenheim noted: "She was very attractive. She looked rather American, with a tip-tilted nose and a smart figure... Garman was very upset about his new love affair because Paddy had a husband... Garman did not want to interfere and break up their marriage, and anyway Paddy wasn't quite ready to leave her husband, who was much older than she was, and whom she rarely saw." In the end Douglas moved to Hampstead with Paddy and they were married.

In her autobiography, Out of the Century (1979), Guggenheim wrote "when the fact dawned on me that my life with Garman was over I was rather at a loss for an occupation, since I had never been anything but a wife for the last fifteen years". Her friend, Peggy Waldman, suggested she established an art gallery in London. In January 1938, Peggy opened the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery at 30 Cork Street, with an exhibition of work by Jean Cocteau. It was followed by exhibitions on Wassily Kandinsky, Yves Tanguy, Wolfgang Paalen, Antoine Pevsner, Henry Moore, Henri Laurens, Alexander Calder, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, George Braque and Kurt Schwitters.

Peggy often visited Paris where Marcel Duchamp introduced her to all the leading modern artists. As she admitted: "At the time I couldn't distinguish one thing in art from another. Marcel tried to educate me. I don't what I would have done without him. To begin with, he taught me the difference between Abstract and Surrealist art. Then he introduced me to all the artists."

Herbert Read was another important figure in her education. "I approached Herbert Read, who was trying very hard to promote modern art in England. I liked him immensely and felt we could work well together. I made him give up his position as editor of the stuffy Burlington Magazine, and in exchange gave him a five year contract as director of the new museum which we were to open in the fall." Read also provided her with a list of artists that she should investigate. Over the next few years she purchased a large number of important paintings. This included Max Ernst (40), Pablo Picasso (10), Joan Miró (8), René Magritte (4), Man Ray (3) Salvador Dalí (3), Paul Klee (1), Wolfgang Paalen (1) and Marc Chagall (1).

During the Second World War she left Europe for the United States. In 1941 she opened The Art of This Century Gallery. The following year she married Max Ernst. However, the marriage ended in 1946 and by 1947 she decided to make her home in Venice. She loaned out her collection to museums all over the world, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Peggy Guggenheim died in Padua, Italy after a stroke, on 23rd December, 1979.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Peggy Guggenheim, Out of the Century (1979)

When I first met John Holms I was impressed by his elastic quality. Physically, he seemed barely to be knit together. You felt as if he might fall apart anywhere. When you danced with him it was even more apparent, because he could move every muscle of his body without its being noticeable and without the usual jerks one suffers in such cases. He was very tall, over six feet in height. He hail a magnificent physique, enormous broad shoulders and small hips and a fine chest. He wore a small red beard and looked very much like Jesus Christ. His hair was wavy, thick and auburn red. His skin was white, but from the southern sun it had turned pink. His eyes were deep brown and he wore glasses; he had a classical straight nose. His mouth was small and sensuous and seemed to be pursed up under his moustache...

He rarely saw his family, who were living in retirement at Cheltenham. He found all contact with them difficult because he belonged to a different world. He knew much too much about theirs, and they knew much too little about his. His father had wanted him to enter the diplomatic service, but when the war broke out he was a student at Sandhurst Military College and joined up at the age of seventeen. At that time, he was as strong as a bull and had killed four Germans by hammering them on the head when he had surprised them breakfasting under a tree. For this, to his great shame, he was given the Military Cross. After six months of war on the Somme in the light infantry, he had been taken prisoner in a night patrol, and had spent the rest of the war (two years) in a German prison camp. In prison he met Hugh Kingsmill, who became a lifelong friend. His other great friend was Edwin Muir.

In the prison, because he was an officer, he had been pretty well treated and was unfortunately allowed to have all the liquor he wanted to buy. This undoubtedly had done him much harm, for his capacity for drink was greater than anyone's I have ever known. He drank about five drinks to other people's one and yet he never seemed to be affected by it until about three in the morning when he looked peculiar, with his eyes half shutting. However, he never behaved badly in any way. Drink made him talk, and he talked like Socrates. All his varied education and knowledge of people and life, which should have been expressed in writing, came out in conversation. lie held people spellbound for hours. He seemed to have everything at his fingertips, as though he had been in contact with everything, had seen everything and thought about everything. He was like a very old soul that nothing could surprise. This gave him a detached quality and I was greatly astonished much later when I discovered what passion lurked under this indifferent exterior. I always thought of him as a ghost. He was definitely a frustrated writer, although at one period in his life he had had a great success in London writing criticism, and he still received letters begging him to write articles. He could not get himself to write at all any more. And though he needed money very badly because he received only a meager allowance from his father, he preferred to live in the greatest simplicity at St. Tropez rather than go back to England.

(2) Mary Dearborn, Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress of Modernism (2004)

Douglas Garman was not a bad choice, if security and devotion were what she sought. Born in 1903 to a wealthy doctor and his wife (she was said to be half-Gypsy), he grew up in an Elizabethan manor house called Oakeswell Hall in Wednesbury, near Birmingham in Staffordshire. Garman had a brother, Mavin, a farmer in Hampshire, and seven remarkable sisters, several of whom would figure in Peggy's life in the future. The beautiful Garman girls carried on a dizzying, decades-spanning roundelay of marriages and affairs with prominent men that would have left Alma Mahler envious. They included Mary, who married the fascist South African poet Roy Campbell and had an affair with Vita Sackville-West; Sylvia, who was said to have had an affair with the elusive T. E. Lawrence; Kathleen, the muse and mistress of Sir Jacob Epstein, the sculptor, who became his wife only after bearing him three children; Rosalind, who prosaically married a garage owner and had two children; Helen, who married a half-Norwegian fisherman in France and had a daughter, Kathy, who married the much-loved poet and memoirist Laurie Lee (whose Cider with Rosie was published in 1959); Ruth, who lived in Herefordshire and had several children by different men; and Lorna, perhaps the most beautiful of all, who married Ernest Wishart, the publisher who employed Douglas Garman, and bore him a child at seventeen, later had an illegitimate daughter with Laurie Lee (afterward her niece Kathy's husband), and later still had an affair with the painter Lucian Freud (who, in turn, later married and had a child with Kitty Epstein, another of Lorna's nieces, the daughter of Kathleen). Peggy was to consider all these Garmans as a kind of honorary family.

Douglas Garman had gone to Cambridge but then veered from a conventional course, announcing to his grandfather, also a doctor, that he wanted to be a writer. The grandfather, livid, brushed his wishes aside and told him there were four professions open to a gentleman: the church, the army, law, and medicine. When Garman ignored this advice, his grandfather cut him out of his will.