By  on October 21, 2010

“Like the self-propelled legend she is, Peggy Guggenheim appears for a morning photo call in an ancient Fortuny evening dress. She snatches one of the hundred pairs of antique earrings nailed to her bedroom wall, quickly brushes the short gray hair and removes her thick eyeglasses. ‘I won’t have people know I wear these things,’ the wizened 81-year-old art collector whispers.”

WWD had the pleasure of interviewing the art legend at her Venice home in 1979. The profile, which ran on Sept. 25, included a striking portrait of Guggenheim, in those crinkly Fortuny pleats, set against an even more striking background of her own choosing: the front gates of her Grand Canal palazzo, between the six lion heads that dotted the neighboring wall and the famous Marino Marini sculpture of an aroused boy sitting atop a horse. “It could be a comic scene from a bad 1960s Italian movie,” the reporter continued, “but an oblivious Guggenheim simply stares into the camera, occasionally swaying her body to make sure the light hits just right.” She explains to the writer that Marini’s provocative appendage was previously detachable “so [she] could remove it when the nuns went to the church next door.” It was later stolen and replaced by a permanent version. “Now the nuns don’t walk by anymore,” she added.

Inside the residence, WWD discovered “all the best in modern painting and sculpture.” There were pieces by Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Henry Moore; her bed frame was by Alexander Calder. Guggenheim revealed that her initial art interest was sparked, in the late Thirties, when she found herself sans romance and needed to do something productive. A friend suggested she open a publishing house or an art gallery. “I thought a publishing firm would cost me too much,” she recalled. “So I said, ‘What the hell, I’ll open a gallery.’ I never dreamed it would consume my whole life and cost me a fortune. I learned very quickly that it would be a difficult career. To negotiate with Cocteau I had to go to his hotel in the Rue Cambon each day and try to talk while he lay in bed smoking opium. The odor was pleasant, but I continually thought this was a very odd way to do things.” Guggenheim eventually became known as a great patron of modern art — albeit one who accumulated her collection at “rock-bottom prices.” She told WWD that “with a few exceptions, I never paid more than $1,000 for anything.”

Commenting on the current art scene, the New York native admitted a certain distaste. “I don’t like art today. I think it has gone to hell because it’s become a big business,” she said. “People blame me for what is being painted today, but I am not responsible. In the early 1940s, there was a true pioneering spirit in America. A new art form — Abstract Expressionism — had to be born. I do not regret it. It produced Pollock or, more accurately, Pollock produced it. The rest has become imitative and vulgar with only one aim — to make a great deal of money.”

And what about the numerous affairs she reportedly engaged in, with Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, who later became husband number two? “I love falling in love,” she answered with a smile. “I was, without doubt, completely irresponsible. I lived for the minute and for the partner I was with. Often I dressed like a slut and many people obviously thought I was one. But I had standards, even if they weren’t the same as everyone else’s.”

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