What attracts me about history are people and random facts. The weirder the better. So Peggy Guggenheim is a perfect subject.
Peggy bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni for $60,000, to be her home and to house her art collection. Technically, the palace is unfinished; it was supposed to be higher, but the owners had run out of money before they could finish it. Peggy liked the flat roof, where she would sunbathe nude, to mixed reactions from her neighbors.
In the 1950s, she had an addition built to hold more of her art collection. It was designed like a traditional Venetian barchessa, a type of granary. When the work was completed, she held a dinner for the workmen and had them all sign her guest book. Beneath their signatures, she scribbled, “The nicest night of my life in Venice, 1948-1958, Peggy G.” Peggy was actually known as a cheapskate when she served dinners for friends. She supposedly started every dinner party with canned tomato soup! But she also donated $15,000 every year to the Venice in Peril fund.
In 1961, Peggy had the new gate installed, again supporting artists she admired. Claire Falkenstein’s “New Gates of Paradise” incorporated chunks of glass into the metal web and was nicknamed “Claire’s knitting.” Peggy initially hated the gate but grew to like it after she heard others’ praise.
Peggy also collected work by the artist Alexander Calder, who made mobiles. Her grandkids often tried to swing from the large Calder mobile in the entrance hall. Because of her stinginess, Peggy didn’t always take the best care of her palazzo. The roof leaked, the basement was moldy, the garden unpaved and muddy when it rained. Some paintings had maggots living on their backsides. Visitors to her art collection peed in the garden. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 3:00 to 5:00, Peggy allowed visitors into her home to see her art collection. Entrance was free, but they had to pay for a catalogue if they wanted to know more about what they were looking at.
Venetians had mixed reactions to Peggy. University students at the nearby Ca’ Foscari campus tormented her by tossing dead kittens into her garden. Venetians nicknamed her “La Americana con i cani” due to her ubiquitous pack of dogs who went everywhere with her. She ate many meals at All’Angelo and was a regular at Harry’s Bar, though, and took daily four hour gondola rides, making her a visible addition to the city. Her gondola even had carved lhasa apso dogs instead of the usual lion of St. Marks carved cavalli on the side of the gondola to hold the ropes. Peggy was the last citizen in Venice to privately own a gondola. Finally in 1962, Venice made Peggy an honorary citizen “through her love of Venice.”