Peggy Guggenheim: Portrait of a Jewish American Princess

Peggy Guggenheim: Portrait of a Jewish American Princess

Smithsonian Channel’s ‘Million Dollar American Princesses,’ airing Sunday, profiles heiress and her efforts to save art from the Nazis

Peggy Guggenheim (Courtesy: Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict)
Peggy Guggenheim (Courtesy: Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict)

Long before the Jewish American Princess – known by the derogatory acronym JAP — there were just American princesses, daughters of 19th-century industrialists or aristocratic wives who in addition to being rich had style and sense of purpose. At least that’s the message the Smithsonian Channel’s “Million Dollar American Princesses,” or MAPs, is going for in its highly acclaimed documentary series.

Among those highlighted in the show’s second season is visionary art collector and museum founder Peggy Guggenheim, whose landmark achievements symbolize a new interpretation of the term American princess — Jewish or otherwise.

Peggy was born into a wealthy New York City family – her father Benjamin was a businessman who died aboard the Titanic and her uncle Solomon was a philanthropist, whose name adorns the iconic Guggenheim art museum on the Upper East Side. Like her famous uncle, she would go on to devote her vast inheritance to collecting art.

“Peggy Guggenheim’s collection is a time-capsule of the essence of modernism,” Renny Pritikin, chief curator of the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, told the Times of Israel. “Many people talk a lot about their involvement with the art world, but very view make it central to their lives. Guggenheim was such a person.”

A new documentary film on Peggy Guggenheim, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, was released in 2015. (Courtesy)
A new documentary film on Peggy Guggenheim, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, was released in 2015. (Courtesy)

Several of the women profiled in the Smithsonian series gain titles through marriage. Perhaps the most recognizable is actress Grace Kelly, who transforms into Princess Grace of Monaco in the first segment, “Queens of the Screen,” which also explores the lives of actresses Gloria Swanson and Rita Hayworth.

Other women are designated “Queens of Culture,” the term ascribed to Guggenheim in the second installment.

The third and fourth episodes reveal the bittersweet stories of the “Beautiful and the Doomed,” such as the tragic Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, the widowed daughter of Robert F. Kennedy who died in a plane crash with her second husband, and the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who married seven times but never found happiness.

The last episode, “Leading Ladies,” includes Pauline Potter, a fashion stylist who married the Jewish Baron Philippe de Rothschild, then scion of the famous Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

‘These princesses wield power not just because of their dollars but through their beauty, style and wit’

“The 20th century sees a new kind of American princess take Europe by storm,” narrator Elizabeth McGovern announces on screen. “Many marry into the great aristocratic families of the Old World. These princesses wield power not just because of their dollars but through their beauty, style and wit. They shatter forever old conventions about sex, politics and wealth. They are the new million dollar American princesses.”

McGovern explains on camera that the series examines the lives of the influential American heiresses who inspired her fictional character on the popular PBS period piece, “Downton Abbey.” In the drama, she portrays a member of the Anglo-American aristocracy.

On January 3, the same evening “MAPs” airs, “Downton Abbey” enters its sixth and final season. This program, too, contains several Jewish references.

Guggenheim’s own efforts to rescue and support modern art recently became the subject of a new documentary. “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” began screening in theaters last month, and includes clips from an unfinished experimental film made by Russian Jewish émigré artist Maya Deren with Marcel Duchamp in 1943. It showed, of course, at the Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery in New York City.

The Smithsonian program describes the events leading up to and following the legendary gallery. In the late 1930s, Guggenheim worked rapidly in Europe to save both modern art and artists threatened by Hitler, who labeled them and their work “degenerate” and announced plans to ultimately destroy it.

As the Nazis gained power on the continent, Guggenheim established a gallery called Guggenheim Jeune in 1938 London. Within a year, however, the enterprise took a loss. Instead of shutting down, Guggenheim, undeterred, expanded her vision. She decided to create an art museum, much like that of her famous uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim, who launched his own namesake institution in New York.

Guggenheim left London for Paris, where she had planned to dedicate about $40,000 toward securing loans of artwork. War soon broke out, however, so she began buying pieces, with the goal of one a day. About 48 hours before the Nazis occupation of Paris, Guggenheim escaped for the south of France.

‘She was one of the great patrons of the 20th century’

By the summer of 1941, Guggenheim was in danger again. Her famous Jewish name was drawing attention but once more, she escaped calamity. She had already secured about 50 pieces, planning to secret away works by Fernand Léger, Georges Braque and the famous “Bird in Space” sculpture by Romanian artist Constantin Brâncuși.

First, she smuggled out her collection disguised as home furnishings, shipping it by boat to the US. Then, she and her second husband, artist Max Ernst (as a young woman, she was married to Dadaist Laurence Vail), spirited away to Lisbon, and later, New York. There, she established the combination museum and commercial endeavor she entitled, “The Art of This Century Gallery.” Over time, Guggenheim made Jackson Pollack a star. She also hosted one of the first exhibits of women artists, including Frieda Kahlo.

Entrance to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy. (Courtesy)
Entrance to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy. (Courtesy)

Guggenheim, who ultimately divorced Ernst, reportedly adopted a bohemian lifestyle with numerous lovers, including author Samuel Beckett. In 1948, she purchased Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace on the Grand Canal of Venice, Italy, where she lived for three decades. There, in 1951, she began displaying her art publicly. Today, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection draws about 400,000 annual visitors.

“Through her impact,” McGovern narrates, “she becomes a queen of culture.”

There is little question Guggenheim left an indelible mark. “She was one of the great patrons of the 20th century, making life and career easier for many of the most important artists of the time,” adds Pritikin. “She didn’t make or theorize the art, but she did enable much of it.”

“Million Dollar American Princesses” airs January 3, with episodes featuring a number of female personalities through January 24, including Peggy Guggenheim.

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