One of my recurring fantasies is the Dinner Party where the living and the dead, my gods and goddesses, come together for dream dinner banter. My table is a large one, admittedly, and it includes Peggy Guggenheim. I’m not even sure I would have liked Peggy, but boy did she live the life. She mixed with the who’s who of the art world, bagged herself a Venetian palazzo, collected discarded artists and their art over the years and amassed a formidable, now priceless, collection. She lost her father on the Titanic as a girl, eluded the Nazis as an adult, and mourned a daughter when she was 69. And the next best thing to having Peggy Guggenheim for dinner is to see her in the near-flesh in Jermyn Street’s production of the heart-stirring, Woman Before a Glass. The one-woman show stars Judy Rosenblatt who has been channelling Guggenheim in New York since 2011.
Peggy’s home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice, is the jazzy setting for our evening. The extraordinary and eccentric Luisa Casati was its previous owner, another one of my Dinner Party guests. Today, art-lovers and tourists flock from around the world to visit the Palazzo (re-named The Peggy Guggenheim Collection). It houses Peggy’s jaw-dropping modern art collection, including works by Picasso, Miró, Duchamp and Dalí.
The 90-minute Woman Before a Glass is a monologue in four acts but with no interval. In the opening scene, Peggy is getting ready to meet the Italian Presidente who wants her art collection for Italy. We hear the Louvre and the Tate are also in the bidding. The collection might be available for $20 million, the Palazzo Venier for an extra $10 million, give or take a million. A camera crew is waiting to interview her with a list of preposterous questions. Peggy is braless and wearing a diaphanous gown.
She makes herself a martini, and shows us her couture collection with outfits by Chanel, Schiaparelli and Fortuny. (“I paid more for one gown than my first Picasso”) There’s even a one-of-a-kind dress covered in paint from a Jackson Pollock painting. Entranced, we are no longer the audience but one of Peggy’s confidantes. She starts to share her secrets with us.
Peggy talks men: she collected them like she collected art and had a voracious sexual appetite (she is thought to have had a thousand lovers in her lifetime). Samuel Beckett was a favourite, and she confides that they spent four days in a hotel room, rising only for room service and champagne. She still mourns the love of her life, John Holms, “hero of the Somme who loved my nose.”
Peggy also talks art, referring to her collection as her children. When she asked the Louvre to store her art during the war, they refused on the basis that she had nothing of value. When she arrived in New York with her rolled up canvases, she was told that “modern art can only be loved by Jews.”
We never see her, but Peggy’s daughter Pegeen is next door and getting ready for her one-woman art show that evening. Guido the gondolier is invisible but floats in and out of the story. (Where are her beloved dogs, I wonder?) Eventually, the phone rings with devastating news.
Woman Before a Glass is more than a kiss-and-tell story. it’s a sad tale of love: the father lost at sea, the daughter broken by drugs and sadness, the dead lover. And when the party’s over, the only thing left behind are the shadows of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, Peggy’s real children.
I fell in love with this version of Peggy Guggenheim. She’s the best friend I always wanted: witty, funny, eccentric, an enfant terrible with some serious attitude. This is the Peggy I really really want at my Dinner Party. The reflection in this mirror is just gorgeous.
Woman Before a Glass is playing until the 3 February at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London. Note: If you would like to learn more about Peggy Guggenheim, I recommend you read: Out of This Century: The Autobiography of Peggy Guggenheim.