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Habitual readers of biographies must find themselves asking an enduring question: Do famous people really all know each other? In Mary Dearborn’s new life of Peggy Guggenheim, Mistress of Modernism, the celebrity demographic is especially well-represented. The iconoclastic American heiress and art patron befriended such diverse somebodies as Emma Goldman, Djuna Barnes, and Yoko Ono. The list of her lovers reads like a partial Who’s Who of early-20th-century art. (Equally, it could be said that a Who’s Who of early-20th-century art reads like a partial list of her lovers.) Dearborn reports that Guggenheim’s ambition was “to know artists, to live among them, to work with them, to be part of their activities.” Knowing famous people was what she did.

Dearborn’s conscientious research traces Guggenheim’s path from a cosseted New York childhood to a life of bohemian adventure. One mission of the book is to resurrect the collector as a figure worthy of respect. “The popular myth,” Dearborn laments, “fixes her as a ridiculous aging woman given to wearing silly oversized sunglasses, a sexually voracious predator withholding of money and love.” Mistress of Modernism offers a more nuanced portrait, of a vital and driven personality—sexually voracious, yes, and maternally inept, but her relationships with loved ones and money were more complex than the myth suggests. (Dearborn doesn’t fully address the oversized-sunglasses charge.)

Besides, Guggenheim’s contributions were impressive. Starting in the late 1930s, she amassed an important art collection—including works by Picasso, Brancusi, Pollock, and Magritte—whose sensibility both embodied and influenced the zeitgeist. (It is still on display in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, the mansion-cum-museum in Venice where Guggenheim spent the last years of her life.) Dearborn also asserts that Art of This Century, the gallery Guggenheim founded after World War II, played a pivotal role in shifting the center of the modern art world from Paris to New York.

Dearborn, who has also written lives of Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, approaches her subject with a fine balance of sympathy and objectivity, and an unobtrusive authorial presence befitting the genre. That this modest style entails somewhat dry prose is not a flaw; the material does not require additional lubrication. Guggenheim’s life was glamorous from her birth, in 1898, into a rich and well-connected Jewish family. When she was 13, her father even died glamorously, forgoing a lifeboat on the Titanic (and leaving his family comparatively, though far from genuinely, impoverished). She was expected to marry a nice, rich Jewish boy and become a proper matron. Fulfilling other people’s expectations was not, however, Guggenheim’s style.

In her early 20s, she married a French-American “hard-drinking literary and artistic dabbler,” Laurence Vail. The couple led a life of bohemian luxury, hopping around Europe, spawning two children, Sindbad and Pegeen, along the way. The couple schmoozed in Parisian cafes, skied on Swiss slopes, and frolicked in Southern France: “They would swim in the ocean upon waking and once again as evening neared. They took all their meals out of doors…They customarily drank so much wine at lunch that siestas were in order.” This idyll was rather tainted, however, by Vail’s penchant for walking on his wife’s stomach, burning her sweaters, and throwing bottles in cafes. She swallowed this treatment for six years, until she eventually left him, with the encouragement of her friend Emma Goldman. She had met Goldman in the mid-’20s, when both were summering in the South of France, and the feminist anarchist’s influence was bracing. Guggenheim wrote to her, “[H]ow you gave me back my lost self-respect!!”

Dearborn describes her subject as shy, masochistic, and plagued by “an underlying insecurity about how others regarded her.” Her money was a significant factor; she feared being used for it. Complicating matters was her status as a “poor relation.” Her inheritance amounted to far less than people assumed, and this caused awkwardness in her relationships. Often criticized as stingy, she was known to squabble over restaurant bills, and would serve nothing but potato chips and bad whiskey at the New York parties she threw after repatriating during World War II. But, Dearborn contends, these “petty cheapnesses must be set against Peggy’s larger generosity,” manifest in lifelong stipends to support friends such as Barnes, whose experimental novel Nightwood Guggenheim subsidized.

The heiress’s “famously ugly” nose did nothing to enhance her self-esteem. Dearborn cites Max Ernst’s son Jimmy’s first impression: “Her face was strangely childlike, but it expressed something I imagined the ugly duckling must have felt the first time it saw its reflection in the water. All of the features of that face seemed to be intent on wanting to draw attention away from a naturally bulbous nose….There was something about her that wanted me to reach out to her, even before she spoke.” And if she was an ugly duckling, she never blossomed into a swan. An attempt to artificially induce this metamorphosis ended in failure—a botched nose job in her early 20s only worsened the offending schnoz.

Still, her nose, however “potatoish,” doesn’t seem to have posed many romantic obstacles. Her more eminent lovers included Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst, whom she married in 1941. As she discovered “that sexual freedom did not have to mean attachment to any one man,” her flings and one-night stands grew more frequent. Guggenheim’s escapades could be read, in the classic interpretation of female promiscuity, as another sign of her insecurity. But evidence indicates that her affairs placated the demands of her hormones more than her ego. At 40, after parting with another abusive man, the British communist Douglas Garman, she prepared to open her first gallery, Guggenheim Jeune in London. At this time she was, in her own words, “working hard for my gallery and fucking.” In a letter to her friend Emily Coleman, she once explained, “Everyone needs sex & a man. It keeps one alive & loving & feminine. If you can’t manage to make a life permanently with inferior people, & thank God I can’t, you must still now & then indulge in a physical life & its consequences.” She was never stingy with her abundant erotic energy, and her choice looks more like a sign of confidence than the lack of it.

If there is a thematic narrative arc to this biography, it follows the rise of Guggenheim’s self-regard. Her art collection, begun shortly before she launched Guggenheim Jeune, “gave her confidence, a gift to one whose life thus far had been riddled with personal insecurity,” Dearborn writes. In a letter a few years earlier, Guggenheim wrote, “I have at last found an inner self to fall back on. I no longer mind being alone. In fact I love it…” At a certain point, she began to appear confident to the point of brazenness. She wrote a frank and scandalous autobiography, Out of This Century, published in 1946, which made her first name as famous as her last. At times, she was given to brash confrontation. “Why are you getting married?” she demanded of Lee Krasner, who had asked her to be a witness at her wedding to Jackson Pollock. “Aren’t you married enough already?” This domineering tendency poisoned her relationship with her daughter, whose short life was wracked by alcoholism and depression. Guggenheim’s shyness and masochism, much mentioned by not just Dearborn, but Guggenheim’s friends and the collector herself, seem to have eventually absconded.

Self-assurance proved indispensable to her professional success. A tough and shrewd businesswoman, she cultivated unproven artists, notably Pollock. (“Nobody was going to take a chance on that,” Jimmy Ernst observed.) In 1942, she established Art of This Century, a gallery for cutting-edge art and a gathering place for artists, especially the influx of Europeans after World War II. Her approach to showing art was innovative: “a democratic impulse that broke down the barriers between high art and popular culture and insisted that art be viewed in a human framework, not aestheticized as in a museum.” This attitude resulted in a “fun house” atmosphere in Art of This Century, which featured sound effects and unframed art, and reached beyond an elite audience. Its laid-back environment encouraged casual visitors, in deliberate contrast to Uncle Solomon’s stuffy museum uptown.

Under the guidance of Duchamp, a lifelong friend she had met while establishing Guggenheim Jeune, Guggenheim had developed a distinctly modern taste. She “cared less for what was visually appealing, appreciating instead the artists’ motives and their vision.” By recognizing, subsidizing, and publicizing this developing movement, she helped drive the rise of modern art. Her business sense, coupled with her own flamboyant celebrity, enabled her to turn her endeavors into sensations, popularizing modern art in the United States to an unprecedented degree. She introduced European avant-garde artists such as Klee, Kandinsky, and Chagall to an American audience while promoting the nascent American movements of abstract expressionism and the so-called New York school. Pollock was her proudest discovery , but she also gave solo shows to Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still, and other important, if lesser-known, American artists.

Yet she by no means had a well-developed critical faculty; more likely, according to Dearborn, she responded to art in the same visceral way she responded to men. Arguably, she even conflated the two: “It is interesting to contemplate just what separated the painters like Rothko whom Peggy disliked and those like Pollock whom she extolled,” Dearborn notes. One possibility, she says, is “that she did not like these artists as people…Artists were what compelled her in the art scene…” This encapsulates why Dearborn’s punny title is so apt: Guggenheim was, in a sense, a female master of modern art. But she was at least as much a lover of artists as of art.

Unlike many biographical subjects, Guggenheim was not primarily a creative person. As Dearborn stresses, her aim was to “be around” creative people, to support them and often to sleep with them. Dearborn will convince readers to take Guggenheim seriously as an independent woman and an appreciator of art. But if there is something unsatisfying about her book, it stems from its subject’s limited depth. Guggenheim was a bellwether of her time, and she was admirable for her audacity and vitality as well as her taste. But ultimately, she was also a less exalted emblem of modern America: a talented consumer.CP