Interior designer and socialite Nicky Haslam knew the eccentric collector well, but a trip to Venice gave him a chance to talk about art, her Shih Tzus and a detachable penis
I met Peggy Guggenheim in September 1958 when I was 19. I was taken to Venice by the painter Michael Wishart, who was a relation of Peggy’s, and saw her often that fortnight. Venice was magical – no crowds, though of course the beau monde summered there.
Peggy was captivated by Venice. She’d bought her baroque, and famously unfinished, palazzo 10 years earlier. It had belonged to the Marchesa Casati, who gave elaborate balls there – very different to Peggy’s regime.
Her collection was equally unfinished: not catalogued or organised, as now. Paintings were on every wall, and stacked against them. Pointing, Peggy would ask if they meant as much to you as to her. She was completely absorbed, especially in Jackson Pollock at this period, as well as other work bafflingly new to me. To Peggy, art wasn’t just to look at. It was the life-blood that engaged her intellectual eye.
She didn’t give dinner parties, lunch was more her thing. She liked to have it in the stone-columned temple in the courtyard. Not caring much about food, they were pretty grim affairs, with minimal wine, and perhaps a vermouth before. It wasn’t lavish but there were always fascinating people… I remember Nancy Mitford, but painters and sculptors were more likely. Though not beautiful, Peggy was flirtatious, with great sex appeal. And while brusque, she was oddly cosy.
About four o’clock, friends arrived to be taken on Peggy’s daily gondola ride around the city. There were few private gondolas even then; when she died, hers was the last. Her gondolieri wore white with green sashes. You’d board the gondola at the landing-stage below the palazzo, by the great bronze Marino Marini sculpture, with the phallus you could unscrew. To signify she was not at home, Peggy took it in the boat, and sat in the stern, surrounded by about 14 writhing Shih Tzus who followed her everywhere. She adored them.
In lesser canals, Peggy pointed out unfamiliar sights, describing who lived where, and scandals about them, laughing. She had a unique laugh, Peggy, a kind of gruff chuckle. She’d only stay out an hour, as the dogs had to pee. They were all exactly the same, a rippling fur carpet on the boat-boards. Soon they’d start tumbling about – she was constantly wary of them jumping over the side. On landing, the phallus was reinstated on the Marini.
In the evening we’d walk to the little piazza behind the palazzo for a negroni. She wasn’t a great frequenter of Harry’s Bar. If her artist-lovers wanted to go she would accompany them, but she didn’t hanker for a bellini at 6pm, like everybody else – she was far too unconventional, unsentimental and progressive for that.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is in cinemas 11 December. Nicky Haslam’s Memoir, Redeeming Features, is published by Vintage