Off the Shelves

Champagne Days
By Michael Calderone

Mary V. Dearborn, Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim
(Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

The Guggenheim Museum, the revered cultural institution overlooking Central Park, was Solomon Guggenheim’s project, not Peggy’s. At the time that her uncle opened what was originally called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939—a high-minded project “complete with ubiquitous piped-in Bach”—Peggy was still immersed in the bohemian life she had embraced since the early 1920s. In London, Peggy opened a gallery and started exhibiting seminal works by surrealists and abstractionists who now grace the pages of every art history textbook. Although she never relinquished her inheritance, for more than 20 years she shied away from her affluent, established family, supporting impoverished artists, left-wing radicals, and decadent intellectuals until World War II brought Peggy, and her coterie, back to New York.

In Mistress of Modernism, biographer Mary V. Dearborn crafts a narrative of a quintessentially modern woman who held progressive views on art, literature, and sexuality. Her wealth allowed her to financially support artists and writers, yet some criticized her motivations as being less than altruistic. All the boldface names of 20th-century art appear in this richly detailed account—as lovers, friends, critics, or the recipients of Peggy’s patronage. Having already penned the lives of various expats and bons vivants, including Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Louise Bryant, Dearborn is well versed in peripatetic, and oftentimes reckless, adventures. Not surprisingly, this biography is dripping with late-night drinking binges in Parisian cafes, secret hotel-room trysts, and personal anecdotes of now-revered cultural icons.

Peggy’s generous patronage allowed for many to concentrate on creative pursuits (or drinking) rather than a slavish day job. Some foolishly spent their stipends, while others created masterpieces. For this happy result, Peggy cannot be thanked enough. She supported Margaret Anderson’s The Little Review, which first serialized James Joyce’s Ulysses, and gave regular sums to Djuna Barnes, Laurence Vail, and Emma Goldman. Most importantly, she personally supported the safe passage of many prominent European artists and intellectuals to America, while also giving ample financial support to an organization that helped Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and Max Ernst escape the Nazis.

Her substantial impact on the arts continued after returning to the States. During the early 1940s it was her New York gallery, Art of This Century—a venture that consistently lost money—that helped launch the career of Jackson Pollock. In addition to providing white wall space to emerging artists, it became a center for intellectual gatherings that included artists now residing far from war-torn Europe. While the impact of recent émigrés on the scene was enormous, as Dearborn writes, “this was a turning point in cultural history as the so-called New York School became ascendant.”

Despite her innumerable donations, Peggy was maligned by many, including some beneficiaries of her wealth. Understandably, she can be viewed derisively as the prototypical poor little rich girl who leaves home in search of an authentic experience, diving headfirst into the decadent avant-garde. Her sexual escapades, from love affairs with Samuel Beckett to one-night threesomes, are well known. She wrote to a friend, “Everyone needs sex & a man. It keeps one alive & loving & feminine.” Many stories originated in her own autobiography from 1946, which caused a sensation in the New York art world with accounts of many “thinly disguised characters.” While salacious sexual bios are accepted from prominent women in the arts today—such as Toni Bentley’s The Surrender—to do so in postwar America was a very radical gesture.

Of course, being well-off allowed her to amass a huge art collection, travel extensively, and pay for the lavish hotel rooms, but it is evident that she possessed a sincere motivation to propel those talented individuals around her, while studying art criticism on her own. Beginning her art education, Peggy, writes Dearborn, “plowed through all of [art historian Bernard] Berenson’s four volumes on Italian painting and went looking at art with a new vocabulary.” Peggy also relied on personal instructors such as Marcel Duchamp to school her in gazing upon (and purchasing) modern works for her collection.

Upon Peggy’s death, the remarkable Peggy Guggenheim Collection was endowed to the worldwide Guggenheim franchise and now exists as the centerpiece of the family’s museum in Venice, the city where she relocated after closing her gallery in the late 1940s. Although she maintained relationships with many artists through her later years, Peggy was no longer as involved as she was during the “champagne days” when Art of This Century made its mark. Throughout all the landmark exhibitions, sordid romances, dizzying accounts of trips throughout Europe, and a lifelong dubiousness about her elevated social position among struggling artists, Peggy Guggenheim gave generously throughout her life, and the art world should be grateful.

BIOGRAPHY

A Life Less Solitary
by Alan Lockwood

Jean Nathan, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll (Henry Holt, 2004)

Children’s author Dare Wright died in obscurity in 2001, after three years spent incapacitated in a Roosevelt Island hospital bed; her New York Times obituary was handled by a journalist who’d met her when she was already on life support. Yet the books Wright wrote and photographed had been kids’ favorites since the Eisenhower era, and several remain in print today. For her debut, The Lonely Doll, published by Doubleday in 1957, Wright styled and snapped the adventures and mishaps of a girl doll, Edith, and her pair of teddy-bear pals, Little Bear and Mr. Bear. With prepublication excerpts in Good Housekeeping, The Lonely Doll rode up sales charts dominated by The Cat in the Hat, launching Wright on a career that would earn her a contract with Random House (then the biggest publisher of children’s books) and produce some one dozen Edith titles, along with a kids’ travel book and a pedagogical series, the Look At books.

So much for the public record, and for the vaunted veneer of success. For during her childhood, Dare Wright’s family had imploded with startling force, even by the hard standards of today, when frank kids’ writer Judy Blume is awarded the National Book Award. The collapse was so utter—fomented by her mother’s ambition (Edith Stevenson Wright became a successful portrait painter in Cleveland, doing canvases of Coolidge and Churchill) and Ivan Wright’s alcohol-tempered efforts to make it as a theater writer—that Wright never saw her father after the divorce and wouldn’t see her only sibling for 24 years. Her cogs of fantasy adaptation were churning early—by 1920, to be precise.

No relatives survived Wright, and her private story was perilously close to dying with her but for the tenacious work of Jean Nathan, the same journalist asked by Wright’s last friends to write her obit. Nathan’s lean new biography, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, reads both as an overview of dysfunctionality working the 20th-century society scene and as a case study of creativity’s revealing/concealing frisson.

Born in Toronto, her family foundering, Wright was shunted among relatives and friends as far afield as Youngstown, Ohio (her mother Edie’s hometown), and then drifted with her mom until Edie’s painting skills and social wiles landed them in Cleveland. The editor of Town Topics (“considered the bible of Cleveland’s social and cultural life,” Nathan writes) eased Edie in with patrons. Ace at managing client relations, Edie found “their sympathies were ensured when she revealed that her husband had died young.” As for her daughter, though, “Dare’s self-sufficiency was assumed. No provisions were made for her to meet and play with other children.”

What Wright had—along with a burgeoning imagination, the compunction to please her busy mom, and the skill to appear “aloof, self-contained”—was the doll that Edie bought her before she went to boarding school. Twenty-two inches tall, Italian-made, “the most expensive one in the store,” they named it Edith. And it would be to this doll that Wright, when in her forties, would turn to for her books.

First came a move to New York, the half-hearted pursuit of a stage career that led to modeling success, a camera she put to ready use on holiday and in private dress-up sessions, and a reunion with her older brother Blaine (Ivan Wright had died of an unspecified illness days after his Broadway debut met with scathing reviews). Engagement to her brother’s Royal Air Force instructor (of the Sandeman port and sherry family) fell through, but when Sandeman died in a crash above a training field, Wright conflated the accident into his wartime death over the English Channel. Work progressed for Wright: Her modeling jobs for Esquire, in Maidenform ads, and a Cosmo cover in a veil turned to work as a Good Housekeeping photographer. The Park Avenue cocktail circuit kept her busy as well; she became the attempted fall gal in divorce machinations by the wife of Baker Castor Oil boss Fenimore Cooper Marsh (gynecological evidence that she was a virgin was kept off court records by a settlement). One suitor, writes Nathan, said that “when they kissed, her body would go rigid and she would pull away. ‘You wondered what had happened to her,’ he recalled.”

Everything, it seems, and nothing. Nathan details summer holidays with Edie: St. John in the Caribbean, where they met novelist Claire Booth Luce and her husband, Time chairman Henry Luce, and Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, sharing a bed and sunbathing nude among isolated dunes, with Wright’s ever-present camera producing many of The Secret Life’s striking photos. In her West 58th Street apartment, she photographed FAO Schwarz bears her brother gave her, posing them in her doll Edith’s company. Her lawyer showed some to a friend at Doubleday, resulting in the gingham-covered Lonely Doll, for which “sales were brisk in this peak period of the baby boom.”

FICTION

The Haunted
by Alex Cook

William Lychack, The Wasp Eater, (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Writing is often the realm of the haunted: a word, a memory, a possibility, or all of the above can become ensconced inside a writer’s mind as easily as a tune on the clock radio. William Lychack is such a writer. Both he and the protagonist of his debut novel,  The Wasp Eater,  are haunted by the possibilities of fathers that, for one reason or another, abandoned their sons. Lychack, whose father left when he was one and died when he was nine, has said that the novel is an attempt to explore the life that he and his father never got to have.  The Wasp Eater  is a lovely and sad portrait of “what if,” of the life that might have been.

The story opens when, after one seemingly ordinary evening, ten-year-old Daniel Cussler’s mother, Anna, begins stringing his father Bob’s shirts on tree branches in the pouring rain. The world is then rearranged “[as] though he was watching [it] in the mirror of a spoon now—everything recognizable but upside down and warped.” Daniel soon becomes involved in a tug-of-war between his parents. His father steals him for meandering afternoon drives around their Connecticut mill town, and his mother sits anxiously by the phone waiting for her son’s return. She is as emboldened by her decision to throw out her philandering husband as she is cowed by the power that a father can have over his son.

Daniel, caught between separated parents and fiercely divided loyalties, yearns for everything to just go back to the way it was. The prose aches with emotion as much as its characters do, and the sentences are full of poignant imagery, not the least of which is the title image. Daniel comes home one afternoon to find his parents’ cars parked once again in the driveway, side by side. Confused, he hides in the back seat of his mother’s Chevelle, eventually swallowing a dead wasp he finds in the hope that he will be able to trade “weak for strong.” He has “this first hope of his, that the wasp would stay down and swallowed away forever. And yet there was always this other hope, the one in which he spit it up again and held it in the cup of his palm, the wasp in his hand again, all glossy and wet and newborn as ever.” This evocative rendering of the ambivalence caused by competing hope and fear recurs when Daniel makes a trip into New York City to reclaim a ring of his mother’s from a pawnshop. He believes the ring will be the talisman by which he may assist his father in fixing the broken pieces of his family, and the lengths he goes to in order to obtain the ring are surprising and moving in their references back to that central image.

Perhaps the most important thing about this debut novel is the extent to which Lychack resists modern-day conventions of the novel. This is not a work overstuffed with the author’s pretensions and larger-than-life moments whose meaning attempts to grab the reader by the throat. It is a novel in which the relatively calm scene of a boy sitting in an attic and watching the night outside is as full as any scene filled with dialogue. The major success of  The Wasp Eater  is in recognizing that it is often the tiny moments spent by the windows of our inner lives that have the most significance.

Lychack spent over ten years perfecting the 164-page novel, and it shows. The only puzzling aspect of the text is the repeated referral to Daniel and Bob as “the boy” and “the man.” Such a device seems to serve no specific purpose, and it undermines the rest of the text by removing the reader from the scene at hand. It is only noticeable, however, because the rest of the novel is filled with such crisp prose, a small complaint that easily disappears into the crowd of the novel’s other achievements. This novel has already received its share of deserved acclaim in the literary world. Lychack is undoubtedly a writer to pay attention to; hopefully, he will be able to bring up another of the old haunts from his mind’s closet sooner rather than later.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

No Sex in This City
by Corrie Pikul

Jennifer Lehr, Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex (Regan Books, 2004)

In a season whose crotchless fishnets are bursting at the seams with steamy memoirs like Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star and Toni Bentley’s The Surrender, it takes real literary balls (or at least, an uncontrollable streak of exhibitionism) to write a personal story about the banality of sex. Yet that’s exactly what artist Jennifer Lehr has done with her recently published journal-cum-coffee-table book, Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex.

Ill-Equipped, a beautiful hardbound album of extremely personal stories and candid photos, takes us through Lehr’s sexual history, beginning with her life as a “desperate-to-fit-in teenager who wanted nothing more than to have sex already” and ending with her mostly happy marriage to comedian John Lehr. Along the way, Lehr shares stories of awkward groping sessions with a number of suspiciously similar-looking fat friends; frustrated flings with the bathtub, shower nozzle, and mattress; and dispiriting hookups with unavailable men, all in an none-too-subtle effort to show us that the patterns she established in her youth (her “tracks,” as she calls them) directly affected her relationship with her husband, causing numerous problems between them.

The biggest, most important problem? Their sex life sucked.

As Lehr writes at the end of the first chapter, “Our honeymoon period had come to an end. At first it wasn’t clear. And then it was very clear. And then it was so fucking clear that John and I found ourselves driving to Beverly Hills to couples therapy.” While they may seem like the most well-matched pair in the world, Jennifer and John’s sex life decreased alarmingly after only a few months of dating.

Jennifer and John weren’t abstinent on purpose. For a while, in the beginning of their relationship, they weren’t even abstinent by accident. “We quickly became the typical I-must-talk-to-you-every-night-and-drive-over-to-your-house-at-10pm-because-I-absolutely-cannot-go-to-sleep-if-I’m-not-in-the-same-bed-as-you couple falling in love,” she writes.

The sex in this period was great, even hot: they had phone sex, he went down on her on the side of the road (we see a photo of him in the car, pre-makeout), and once he even “double came.” And then it all came to a screeching halt. Jennifer spends most of the book explaining why. Notable factors include his past as a raging alcoholic, his stress, his job, her intimacy issues, her relationship with her parents, her deep-seated confusion about sex, her need for attention, their financial incompatibility, and differing argument styles. As Lehr discovers (and as anyone in a couple already knows), it’s “complicated.”

Jennifer and John spend significant amounts of time with therapists—hers, his, and theirs. Lehr weaves her weekly therapy sessions through the story of her life. Often, Jennifer and John leave their therapists’ office feeling utterly hopeless and dejected. However, they keep plugging along; both have become convinced that the best way to understand yourself is through a partnership with another person. “Had we not been in couples therapy, we would have broken up long ago,” Jennifer writes.

While Lehr’s view into herself, her partners, and her psychology is long and deep, her conception of the world around her is shockingly narrow and shallow. She is incredibly blasé about sharing private, intimate information (and photos!) about her family, friends, and ex-lovers, and she talks about relationships taking “hard work” as if it’s a novel concept. While she acknowledges her privileged Los Angeles upbringing, she doesn’t seem to appreciate it. (If only we all had the time and money to spend hours each week kvetching to our therapists!) Lehr has said that a big part of her motivation to write the book was altruistic and hopes that others (especially young women) will learn from lessons of her (sex) life. However, that does not come through in this myopic, diary-like tale.

It’s safe to assume that most people would rather read about a couple having sex than to sit in on the Lehrs’ endless therapy sessions, listening to them fight about why they don’t have it. But, breaking from the sex memoir tradition, Lehr writes her book with an eye towards entertainment of a more G-rated sort. Her goal is not to titillate, so she works harder to excite us about the joys of introspection and psychoanalysis than she does the joys of sex. And, through humor, honesty, and old-fashioned great storytelling, she succeeds.

Jennifer Lehr exposes her life and loves in her memoir so that other people won’t feel ashamed or embarrassed about their own sexless, frustrating relationships. But she’s so self-involved and self-absorbed, it’s hard to think of anyone else besides Jennifer while reading her memoir. Fortunately, her story is a good one. Ill-Equipped is an uproarious and un-put-downable love story that leaves one feeling warm empathy towards its protagonists and wishing them a long, happy married life full of great sex.

Contributor

Book Staff

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