sunday dinner, summer 1941: sojourn on the coast of portugal
Having recently fled German-occupied France, Peggy Guggenheim found herself on a Sunday afternoon in late June 1941 holding court at a large table in the dining room of a Portuguese resort hotel, surrounded by a motley band of friends and family, including a painter, a writer, an ex-husband, children, and others who were depending on her to get them out of wartime Europe. They were cooling their heels in Estoril, a resort town on what was once known as the Portuguese Riviera and home to exiled European royalty, including Juan de Borbón of Spain, Karl von Habsburg of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and King Carol of Romania, which lent a certain frisson to the Guggenheim party’s experience. The town lay between the small coastal fishing village of Cascais and Lisbon, the latter near enough so that members of Peggy’s party could make forays there to try to determine when their enforced exile would end—for Estoril was just a way station on the journey to America. For the past three weeks they had been waiting for passenger lists that would tell them when they could, all eleven of them, get passage on a Pan American Clipper flight bound for America.
Lisbon at that time was the single most important point of embarkation for refugees from Europe who wanted to go to the United States.
Portugal was a neutral country, and more than 70,000 refugees passed through the port during the war. In the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca, Lisbon is the destination for the refugees stranded in Morocco.
Because of its transatlantic connections, and because it was a city crowded with foreigners of all nationalities, it became a rendezvous spot for spies and a hotbed of intrigue.
It is difficult to overstate the anxieties of those wishing to flee the Nazis—not to mention the fears of the Jews among them. One observer took measure of the atmosphere on a train heading for Lisbon after the war commenced: “Outside the sun beats down in muggy waves, but inside . . . fear—like a blanket of dark cobwebs—lies over the lives of the passengers. Fear that visas may expire before a destination can be reached. Fear that each new border check might bring a gruff order to get off the train and turn back. Fear that scanty funds may not last until a safe place is reached in the New World. Fear that an outbreak of war in a new theater will slam the gates to freedom at the last moment. Fears by the hundreds—by the thousands.” The Guggenheim party was not immune to such fears; just keeping their papers together was an anxiety-ridden chore.
Most refugees got out of Lisbon when they could, and many of them went to America. The war saw a torrent of them making their way to the United States, through Lisbon or through Marseilles, another jumping-off point. In the French city, the American intellectual Varian Fry ran the Emergency Rescue Committee, which conspired to help refugees from a list of two hundred mysteriously given to him in the States. Fry risked everything as he maneuvered around and away from the Gestapo and the Vichy police to secure passage to the United States—usually through Lisbon—for the writer Hannah Arendt, the painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among many others.
Peggy Guggenheim—herself, as a Jew, in a very vulnerable position —had aided Fry materially, giving the committee 500,000 francs in December 1940: she also arranged and paid for the flight to the United States of André Breton and his family. The surrealist potentate, whom Peggy would support for a good part of his stay in America, would reassemble his court around Art of This Century, Peggy’s wartime gallery in New York City. Among the other artists seeking haven in New York were Chagall, the Chilean-born Roberto Matta Echaurren, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, and Kurt Seligmann. In fact, Peggy’s gallery would become a place where the European refugees could meet with emerging American artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell in a heady mix of cross-pollination and creative collaboration, out of which came abstract expressionism, and which saw the center of the art world move from Paris to New York City.
The year before Peggy and her party arrived in Lisbon, as a German invasion threatened, she had tried desperately to find ways to preserve her remarkable trove of surrealist and abstract art, which would serve as the anchor of her New York gallery and which by then included, she wrote, “a Kandinsky, several Klees and Picabias, a Cubist Braque, a Gris, a Léger, a Gleizes, a Marcoussis, a Delaunay, two Futurists, a Severini, a Balla, a Van Doesburg, and a ‘De Stijll’ Mondrian. Among the surrealist paintings were those of Miró, Max Ernst, Chirico, Tanguy, Dalí, Magritte and Brauner. The sculpture [included] works by Brancusssssi, Lipchitz, Laurens, Pevsner, Giacometti, Moore, and Arp.” When the Louvre declined to store the collection, a museum director in Grenoble had agreed to show it and to store it afterward, but he kept putting off the exhibit. Finally, a shipping agent and family friend suggested that she wrap up all her artworks with the rest of her possessions—dishes, furniture, and her car—and send them to America as “household goods.”
The woman who assembled this remarkable collection was not a conventional collector or patron. Peggy had found her vocation within the larger frame of a life in quest of a personality separate from the confining world of her prominent and wealthy family. Instead of a respectable marriage and a stable home, she had opted for an itinerant life with a succession of male companions, friends, and hangers-on in the literary and artistic circles of France and the United Kingdom. The entourage she took with her on her constant travels across Europe—and now to America—was an inextricable part of her life, for better or for worse. Out of these circumstances Peggy became one of the most colorful figures in the expatriate community of the 1920s and 1930s, and her New York endeavor would prove the most distinctive and individual in America in the 1940s. The collection she assembled represented her iconoclasm: decidedly modern art, heavily surrealistic, a genre that was sexually and ideologically confrontational. She had been brought up on old masters. True, her uncle Solomon Guggenheim was collecting the works that would form the backbone of his Museum of Non-Objective Painting—later the Guggenheim Museum in the Frank Lloyd Wright building on Fifth Avenue in New York—but he was thought to be eccentric himself, and at any rate he thoroughly disapproved of his niece having a career in the first place, not to mention dealing in modern art.
The party in the hotel dining room on a summer Sunday made a de- cidedly unconventional family picture. Peggy, at the center, was then forty-two and had maintained her attractive, slim figure; her build was delicate in the wrists and ankles, and she waved her hands when she talked, giving her an air of fragility and vulnerability. She could be a strikingly handsome woman, with raven black hair and bright blue eyes, but her crudely applied makeup—a crimson gash for her mouth —and her famously ugly nose marred her looks. She spoke in vaguely English-sounding, plummy tones, her voice often dryly amused, radiating an ironic air that masked an underlying insecurity about how others regarded her.
With Peggy in Portugal was her ex-husband Laurence Vail, a harddrinking literary and artistic dabbler, equipped with a volatile temper but a wonderful sense of fun. Once known for his yellow mane, Laurence wore his light, receding