By Helen A. Harrison
On a cold winter weekend, what could be better than a hot book? The two I have in mind aren’t hot in the best-seller sense, since they’ve been around for a while. You’ll have to call the John Jermain Library and order them through inter-library loan, or you can find them for sale on the Internet, in either the original hardcover editions or paperback reissues. These books are hot in the other metaphorical sense, dealing as they do with the sex lives of two of the art world’s most colorful female characters. No bodices are ripped—these gals willingly shed their garments.
The gals in question are the celebrated art collector Peggy Guggenheim, whose memoir, Out of This Century, with a jacket design by Jackson Pollock, was published by Dial Press in 1946, and Ruth Kligman, mistress to the stars and author of Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollock, published in 1974 by William Morrow. Kligman added a preface in 1999, when her book was republished in paperback by Cooper Square Press. Guggenheim updated hers in 1960 and again in 1979, when Macmillan brought it out as Confessions of an Art Addict.
Guggenheim has been the subject of three biographies, but no one tells her story with the verve and candor that she brings to the saga of her scandalous escapades as an expatriate heiress in interwar Europe, where her modest fortune went much further than in her native New York City. It financed a bibulous social life, complete with a cast of world-class eccentrics, adulterous liaisons, verbal (and sometimes physical) conflict, and whirlwind travels punctuated by the acquisition of a fabulous collection of modern art. Peggy chronicles it all breathlessly, often at her own expense. When the book was first published, her horrified family reportedly said it should have been titled Out of Her Mind, and tried to buy up all the copies.
She came into her inheritance at the age of 21, just as World War I ended, and within a year was in Paris, where she lost her virginity to Laurence Vail, a neurotic, alcoholic would-be writer and artist whom she called the King of Bohemia. In the original 1946 edition, she identifies him by the pseudonym “Florenz,” an odd conceit considering that he was well known as her first husband and the father of her two children. Some of her other lovers who were then living are discreetly disguised—Samuel Beckett as “Oblomov,” Douglas Garman as “Sherman” and Marcel Duchamp as “Luigi,” for example—while others, even those inconveniently married to other women, are allowed to sail under their own colors.
During World War II, people named Guggenheim were not welcome in Hitler’s domain, so Peggy returned to New York with her art collection and a retinue that included her current lover (soon to be husband number two), the Surrealist painter Max Ernst. In New York she opened a gallery, Art of This Century, which showcased her treasure trove of abstract and Surrealist art, as well as local talent of the vanguard persuasion. Among her discoveries was the then-unknown Jackson Pollock, who became her protégé. The Pollock biopic, starring Ed Harris as the artist and his off-screen wife, Amy Madigan, as Peggy, gives them an abortive love scene, but if such an encounter did occur the memoir is uncharacteristically silent on the matter. Indeed, in the expanded version, written after Pollock’s death, Peggy describes their relationship as “purely that of artist and patron.”
Whether that implies any extracurricular duties on his part is left to the reader’s imagination—just about the only thing in this tell-all that is.
Kligman’s book, on the other hand, leaves no doubt that her knowledge of Pollock was carnal; the title alone makes that clear. By turns gushingly romantic, deeply delusional and painfully conflicted, it describes her brief, turbulent involvement with the artist at the end of his career—in fact, at the end of his life. They met in the spring of 1956 at the Cedar Bar, the artists’ hangout in Greenwich Village, where a drunken Pollock would bait his colleagues and make passes at their dates. Even though, mired in alcoholism, he was no longer painting, he was still top dog among the abstract expressionists.
An aspiring artist herself, Ruth (18 years his junior) was star-struck. She threw herself at him, and to no one’s surprise—except maybe Pollock’s—he caught her. After a steamy encounter in her apartment, they declared their mutual love, and the affair was off and running.
That summer Ruth wangled a job at the Abraham Rattner School of Art in Sag Harbor (the former Baptist church that now hosts Larry Rivers’ legs sculpture), handily close to Pollock’s home in Springs. No longer would their trysting require a Long Island Rail Road commute. Inevitably Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, noticed that something was up, especially when she caught the errant couple sneaking out of his studio the morning after. This led to the predictable ultimatum. To her credit, Ruth is frank about her doubts that the relationship had a future, although she had a habit of jumping back into the deep end in spite of her misgivings. When Lee took off for Europe, she moved into the Springs house, where she fantasized about reviving Pollock’s creativity and despaired over his black moods and violent temper.
It all builds to a climax on an August night, when a drunken driver, a misjudged curve and an overturned convertible spelled serious injury for Ruth and death for Pollock and another passenger. This section of the memoir is both cinematically vivid and melodramatic to the point of bathos, including a flashback to her rejection by a judgmental father. And by the time the book appeared in 1974, her pledge of enduring devotion:
“That great romantic love. It can never come again,” was sounding a little hollow. Pollock’s body was barely cold when she took up with his great rival, Willem de Kooning, followed by a veritable Who’s Who of male art-world luminaries. Nevertheless, for the rest of her life—she died last March at the age of 80—Ruth dined out on Pollock, and I don’t mean the fish.