I read the biography of Diane Arbus after seeing that extensive review in the New Yorker and subsequently came across Francine Prose’s book about Peggy Guggenheim in a recent ad. So I also conjured it into my Kindle and just finished reading it. So it is sheer coincidence that I read these two books consecutively. And while there are huge differences between the two women—starting with the generations to which they belong: Arbus, 1923–1971; Guggenheim, 1893–1979. The similarity between them is nonetheless quite striking.
Start with externals: both women were the children of upper crust Jewish-American families. While Peggy’s belongs to the higher layer, Diane’s family were no slouches either. Her father, after establishing and running a prestigious clothing store, retired to become a successful painter of flowers. Diane’s brother, Howard, was a poet, writer, and teacher, who served as poet laureate of the United States. Diane had a much more problematic a career as a photographer, whose unique style produced prints that came to be sold for six-figure dollars—though only after her death, so that she never benefited from that financial success.
Peggy’s life-time pursuit was to create a collection of contemporary art, works which at the time she was active were not in the repertory of what more conventional collectors were up to. This was by no means just a matter of rich person supporting what was fashionable; perhaps the best way to make that clear is the fact that Peggy provided a subvention to Jackson Pollock, long before he became well known.
Those are the “professional” similarities between the two. What they had in common, as well, is the fact that they were both obsessed by sex, though that may not at all be the right word. Each of the biographers reports the women’s moves from bed to bed, with affairs lasting longer or hardly at all, barely interrupted by marriages. Arbus has a cheerfully incestuous relationship with her poet brother Howard and surely the only reason Peggy did not have a similar attachment is the fact that she was an only child.
What is remarkable, at least in my bourgeois view, is the way the biographers present these escapades by either of those women, also bourgeoises, after all, as the way life is lived, without further explicit reflection, not to mention moralizing. Peggy Guggenheim is several times reported to have “fallen in love” with this or that man, while Diane Arbus’s biographer makes no report of that sort.
Were such lives normal in their upper crust world or were Peggy and Diane unusual? Am I surrounded by similar shenanigans? I never thought of myself as such an innocent.