I turn 59 this week and knowing I am about to enter the last year of my 50’s has me thinking a great deal about age, particularly as it relates to independent women and romance. Did you know Peggy Guggenheim had a crush on Beat Poet Gregory Corso when she was my age—feelings he did not return given he was 31 years her junior? He called it a flirtation, as he was more interested in Peggy’s 34-year-old daughter Pegeen.
A Meditation on Age and Romance
Guggenheim’s biographer Mary Dearborn, who wrote Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, described it as a courtship, a fact that made me wonder how anyone can present the “truth” of a person’s life, particularly one as unpredictable as Guggenheim’s was for her time. I’ve combed through enough papers at the Beinecke Library to know truth can be found there but I also know that often times the point of view is slanted by what letters/journals were kept and which ones weren’t.
I found the book in Venice, Guggenheim’s chosen home town, in the museum bookstore at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni—the home she bought and filled with modern art, now the Guggenheim Collection. I toured the serene string of rooms at the hem of the Grand Canal with pal JoAnn Locktov and I feel fortunate to have been in Venice with someone who is so passionate about the city. Have you seen her beautiful books on Venice? They are remarkable reflections of JoAnn’s fondness for the canal-riddled backdrop that serves as a mise-en-scène for all the Venetian drama that plays out there daily.
I was engrossed in the book for much of the trip, finally finishing it as evening was softening the light reflecting from every watery surface during my last day there. Listening to the bells of the Basilica pummel the air with resplendent sound as I walked around town, I wondered if she heard forlornness in their pealing as she sashayed through the intentionally spare rooms of her palazzo, her handmade sandals slapping the marble and the fabric of her caftans flowing behind her.
Lonely in Venice
I closed the book as the last vestiges of sound died away and felt glad in the end that Dearborn had not presented Guggenheim as one-dimensional because I needed the contrast. There was a time I thought the woman ridiculous. The Corso anecdotes righted the score, as did knowing Guggenheim’s one word to describe her early years in Venice was “lonely.” I needed the juxtaposition for her to be real, and I intuited that the amount of rejection she experienced must have been an emotional leveler against her narcissism, though I wonder if she could have articulated it even to herself.
Corso certainly noticed her despair as he left her for the last time. He wrote in his letters: “I kissed her good-bye and while I watched her walk away I saw that she put her hand to her head as though she were in pain. I suddenly realized the plight of the woman by that gesture. She is a liver of life, and life is fading away. That’s all there is to it.”
Ostracizing the Beat Poets
Once Guggenheim learned the truth about Corso’s attraction to her daughter, he was no longer welcomed into her home. She would ostracize many more men for lesser disappointments, practically the entire roster of Beat poets who visited Venice was banned from her home, the most disappointed among them Allen Ginsberg. His rejection came about as a result of a poetry reading in Alan Ansen’s apartment. Some accounts claim Peter Orlovsky, who was reading his work, playfully tossed a sweaty towel toward Ginsberg, his boyfriend at the time, but it missed him and landed on Guggenheim’s head. Other reports say he tossed it intentionally at Peggy. Regardless of which scenario is true, the incident caused her to storm out in a huff.
She excluded the two “ne’er-do-wells” from her parties forever after, a disappointment that caused Ginsberg to write this note to her: “I’ve never been in a great formal historic salon before and naturally have been eager to go there, be accepted, see the pictures at leisure, sip big cocktails, gaze over [the] grand canal, be a poet in Venice surrounded by famous ladies, echoes of Partisan Review & the 20s & Surrealists, butlers and gondolas…I’d like to come. I don’t want to leave Venice without big high class social encounters.”
If I’d known the story before visiting, I would have taken my copy of Howl and read it in Guggenheim’s garden. It would have been an edgy aural accompaniment to the Jenny Holzer declarations carved into so many of the marble surfaces there. Along with Corso, William Burroughs actually made it through the gate, but only once and he was not invited back because he made an off-color remark about a certain part of Guggenheim’s anatomy.
The Romance of the Salon
I knew before reading the book that she was a true eccentric but I hadn’t realized just how Bohemian she had been—sunbathing on the roof of the palazzo in the nude, naming her dogs after her children and hanging Calder mobiles where everyone expected Venetian glass chandeliers. The number of poets and writers who passed through Venice and longed for an invitation to her venerated salon is enough to convince me she is a suitable role model for the legacy I’d like to leave.
Thanks to trailblazers like her, who refused to bow to prescribed roles that didn’t fit their explosive modern times, things have changed for women like me during the 56 years since she bid Corso an emotional farewell. His poem “Marriage,” published the next year—which he reads in the video above—might have clued her in to the fact that he was not the marrying kind. The poem ends, “Ah, yet well I know that were a woman possible as I am possible / then marriage would be possible— / Like SHE in her lonely alien gaud waiting her Egyptian lover / so I wait—bereft of 2,000 years and the bath of life.”
If you think you sense the ache of a broken heart in his words, you would be right; and you can see why in the documentary “Corso: The Last Beat,” the trailer for which I’ve embedded above. Having a mother who abandons you must be one of the most scarring things that can happen. I wonder if it was his pain that drew Guggenheim to him, a kindred spirit with which she had an emotional shorthand.
I could latch onto the fact that Guggenheim and I seem to share the consequence of romantic challenges but I am leaving romance alone to concentrate on the aspects of her life I wish to glean positive lessons from as I chart the course for my third phase. She didn’t buy her palazzo in Venice until she was 50 so there is still time for me to figure out whether there is a special palazzo, flat, cottage or condo in the cards for me, even though I often feel it’s quite late.
And she traveled until very late in life, opening her mind to new experiences along the way. I am now undertaking some of the most inspiring travel of my life, taking trips on par with this jaunt to Venice and turning them into incredible literary adventures. Let’s just say during this last year of my 50’s, I’ll be taking cues from other strong women of a certain age, particularly my literary heroines. If you have examples you admire, let me know, would you?
Footnotes: In case you skipped over the William Burroughs link, it leads to an excellent interview Conrad Knickerbocker conducted for The Paris Review. And in the lecture in this audio clip, Allen Ginsberg reads Gregory Corso’s poems, including “Venice, 1958,” which he wrote about his experiences there.
The Diary of an Improvateur and Venice and a Meditation on Age © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by