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Emma Goldman | Article

Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim (1898-1979)

Courtesy: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

The idea that an incorrigible, godless, lawbreaking anarchist could have a set of high society friends (some related to the wealthiest industrialists in America) seems improbable. But Emma Goldman had many such friends. Some were writers and artists, contributors to Mother Earth; others appreciated Goldman's efforts on behalf of free speech; still others liked Goldman for herself -- for her sense of humor, her conversation, her love of coffee, scotch, and cigarettes.

The Heiress
Peggy Guggenheim, arts patron and heir to an industrial fortune made in copper mining and engineering, met Goldman and Alexander Berkman in the French Riviera, through a mutual friend, following the anarchist pair's deportation from America. "Their appeal to Peggy was immediate," wrote Guggenheim biographer Anton Gill. But Guggenheim's husband at the time, Laurence Vail, didn't share his wife's enthusiasm.

Support for Memoirs
Over the years other friends, among them the writers Howard Young and Theodore Dreiser, had urged Goldman to write her autobiography. In 1928, Goldman received word from Peggy Guggenheim that Young had started fundraising to enable her to commence writing. Guggenheim announced that she would jump-start the fund with a five hundred dollar contribution.

Prominent Fundraisers
A number of other prominent figures also lent their names to the fund-raising effort. Historian Alice Wexler named "H.L. Mencken, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the publisher Horace Liveright, the Wisconsin Socialist congressman Victor Berger, Theodore Debs (brother of Eugene), and ACLU founder Roger Baldwin" among Goldman's supporters. Within a few months, with Millay as chairman, the group raised some twenty-five hundred dollars. Goldman commenced the chronicle of her life at once.

Bad Marriage
Goldman's acquaintance with Guggenheim came at the twilight of the heiress's marriage to Vail, at a point when Vail's legendary drinking and petty violence were often expressed in broad daylight — as when Vail attempted to tear off Guggenheim's clothes at a St. Tropez bistro. (Guggenheim was rescued by an appalled Alexander Berkman.) Vail set Guggenheim's possessions on fire, threw her down a flight of stairs, and committed other intolerable assaults. More than once, Goldman took Guggenheim aside asked her how she could withstand such abuse.

The Power of Money
One consolation to Guggenheim was her wealth — and people's respect for it. "Peggy was well aware of the power her money gave her, and she used it throughout her life, often cruelly, to bolster her low self-esteem and to help her stand up to the sexism many of her men displayed," according to Gill. She also used it to help others. Guggenheim's second contribution to Emma Goldman was a cottage in St. Tropez for which she paid $5,000. Berkman named it "Bon Esprit." There, Goldman would live and work.

Bon Esprit
"An enchanted place it was," wrote Goldman in the autobiography her friend also helped fund, "a little villa of three rooms from which caught a view of the snow-covered Maritime Alps, with a garden of magnificent roses, pink and red geraniums, fruit-trees, and a large vineyard... Here I regained something of my old zest for life, and faith in my ability to overcome the hardships the future might hold. I divided my time between my writing desk and my ménage. I even found time to learn to swim. Many friends from America and other parts of the world found their way to my new home."

Tourist Attraction for the Idle Rich
"Goldman was a prototypical exile," commented Andrei Codrescu. "[It] was a very furtive life... constantly dependent on the goodwill of someone to pay for a translation or someone to get some gig going somewhere. It must have been a weary life until Peggy Guggenheim gave her the cottage in France and she was able to have some peace to write. And I think that people like Guggenheim and Laurence Vail in the 1920s playground of the Riviera used her as a kind of tourist attraction. She was the 'famous anarchist Emma Goldman.' So let's drop by, about four in the morning with some champagne and oysters and see what's happening."

Fond Regret
Goldman and Guggenheim's friendship dimmed over the years. Guggenheim divorced Laurence Vail in 1929, and drifted away from Goldman, perhaps because their friendship reminded her of the unhappy years with Vail. For Goldman, the separation left a bittersweet taste. In one of the last letters she wrote to Guggenheim. she expressed her regret:

"Dear Peggy, An English woman who has a bar here took me yesterday for a ride to Lavendou. Of course we passed your old place. I can't tell you the memories and emotions that came to life again when I saw the house. All the gay times under your hospitable roof, your visits to me in St. Tropez, our drives back and forth from Pramousquier... never had it occurred to me then that we would drift so far apart, that you would change towards me to the extent of complete indifference. I suppose life consists of a process of elimination. I know I will never be able to eliminate you. You had meant too much to me, you always will whether you know it or not. I realized this yesterday more than I had thought since our unfortunate break. Your break, really."

The letter ended with fond wishes to Guggenheim's children, Pegeen and Sindbad. "My love to you, Peggy dear," Goldman wrote, her fond farewell to an uncommon friend.

Art World Achievements
Guggenheim went on to become one of the world's best-known and charismatic arts patrons. She befriended artists as varied as Max Ernst (whom she later married), Frederick Kiesler, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, and Jackson Pollack. Her greatest achievements included setting up one the first galleries of modern art in London, and working on behalf of the American abstract expressionist movement.

Guggenheim's Legacy
Guggenheim spent the years after World War II living in an unfinished Renaissance palazzo in Venice. She opened her collections to the public there in 1949, and ultimately donated the building and all her art to the family foundation set up by her uncle Solomon. Guggenheim died of complications from heart disease in 1979, and is buried in a corner of her garden in Venice. Today, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni is one of the most unique modern art museums in the world.

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