This essay exploring the world of Peggy Guggenheim in Venice is included in my new book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Peggy Guggenheim Goes Off-Beat
When Gregory Corso kissed Peggy Guggenheim goodbye for the last time, he said she put her hand to her head as though she were in pain. “I suddenly realized the plight of the woman by that gesture,” he wrote in a letter to Allen Ginsberg. “She is a liver of life, and life is fading away. That’s all there is to it.” She was only 59 years old—a far cry from fading away since she would live to be 81. But we can’t fault the Beat poet for seeing her as such since he was only 28. Guggenheim was mistaken that he was interested in her romantically; he was after her daughter Pegeen, who was then 34. Once Guggenheim learned the truth, Corso became persona non grata in her life.
She would ostracize many more men for lesser disappointments: practically the entire roster of Beats 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 that Peter Orlovsky, who was reading his work, playfully tossed a sweaty towel toward Ginsberg, his boyfriend at the time, and when it missed him, it landed on Guggenheim’s head. Other reports say he tossed it at her intentionally. Regardless of which scenario is true, the incident caused Guggenheim to storm out in a huff.
She excluded Ginsberg and Orlovsky 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 and the 20s and Surrealists, butlers and gondolas…I’d like to come. I don’t want to leave Venice without big high-class social encounters.”
Ginsberg never did make it through the gate to Guggenheim’s palazzo, and William Burroughs would only visit once. He was not invited back because he made an off-color remark about a certain part of her anatomy. About her prickliness, Burroughs wrote to Ansen: “It does seem to me she is being a bit unreasonable to move in admittedly bohemian circles and simultaneously demand conventional behavior.” These encounters with the Beats were fleshed out in the pages of Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim by Mary Dearborn, which I was reading during a trip to Venice. Being in the town where these dramas played out made the stories all the more powerful.
I would café hop in between visits to the Punta della Dogana, Saint Mark’s Square and the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni so I could learn more about Guggenheim’s time in Venice through the author’s research. Exploring the historical interspersed with the modern as I made my way around town presented a dichotomy that was so reflective of her story. I followed along as she bought the Palazzo, now the Guggenheim Collection museum; filled it with modern art; and began to hold her salon. I was close to finishing the book on my last day in town. Just as evening softened the light reflecting from every watery surface, I listened to the bells of the Basilica pummeling the air with resplendent sound from a café on the Grand Canal.
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 floors and the fabric of her caftans flowing behind her. I read the final paragraph as the last vestiges of sound died away, feeling 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 infamous art dealer ridiculous. The anecdotes involving the Beats 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 she doesn’t seem to have been conscious enough to have understood this. It’s fascinating to me that Guggenheim never mentioned any of the Beats in her memoir Confessions of an Art Addict, which she published in 1960. She only mentioned Ansen in Out of This Century, the updated version of the book that she published in the late 70s. She referenced two plays he wrote and produced in her garden, calling him simply an American poet. She didn’t deign to acknowledge the most famous among this cadre of characters: toward these creatives, she simply remained off-Beat.
Peggy Guggenheim Goes Off-Beat © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.