by ALEX CARNEVALE
Marcel Duchamp introduced Peggy Guggenheim to all the artists he knew in Paris. By various looks and expressions it was obvious to Duchamp that the heiress knew little of modern art, so he endeavored to teach her. He did not ask for money in exchange for his services, since the instruction of women was not considered a financially profitable task. Moreover Peggy was planning to open a gallery in London, and he saw it as something of a duty to ensure the place was filled to his liking.
When she was not with Duchamp, Peggy socialized in Paris with frenetic abandon. At a party thrown by James Joyce she observed across the table a slender, quiet, bespectacled amalgam of Irish masculinity. She stared at Samuel Beckett the entire night.
They walked the entire way back to her apartment on the Rue de Lille. Beckett’s novel Murphy had begun to slowly appear across Europe. Although she had not read it, she knew it was accomplished, and she had already pleasantly digested his views on Proust. As a friend of Sam’s later wrote, “She wanted to be a part of whatever good things were going to happen to him.”
In her own book, Peggy wrote that Beckett was a “a tall lanky Irishman of about thirty with enormous green eyes that never looked at you. He wore spectacles and always seemed to be far away solving some intellectual problem; he spoke very seldom and never said anything stupid.” They spent the next 24 hours in bed together. The only interruption came when Beckett leapt out of the sheets to purchase a few bottles of champagne and return. After Peggy finally left the embrace, Beckett murmured, “Thank you. It was nice while it lasted.”
She found his long expositions on Irish painting a bit tiring, but pretended as well as she could to listen the entire time. Besides Joyce he told her he felt Journey to the End of Night was the greatest novel written in French or English. He gave her all of his books; intellectually she felt they were really clicking.
Joyce called for Beckett the next day. Both he and Guggenheim made a point of telling everyone they knew about Beckett’s Parisian night and morning.
Peggy Guggenheim and Samuel Beckett did not see each other for more than a month, before Peggy made a show of running into him. Peggy was housesitting for her friend Mary Reynolds nearby; did he want to come back for a drink?
They spent the next fortnight there, Beckett drunk throughout. The sex was far from exciting – Beckett struggled to maintain his erection when he consumed alcohol. When that happened, the two would just keep drinking as they strolled through Paris until they came out the other side. The affair ended for the first time when Beckett fucked an Irish girl visiting from Dublin. To explain this behavior to Peggy, he told her “making love without being in love is like taking coffee without brandy.” She did not buy this bullshit whatsoever.
They reconciled shortly after Beckett was knifed by a pimp. Peggy visited his hospital bed then, insisting as seductively as possible that she loved him. Joyce paid the cost of a private room for his protege, and passed the time waiting for Beckett’s recovery by roaming, blind, through the hospital’s wards. Seeing him reduced to a patient, she eagerly forgave him.
Peggy’s London gallery opening was a tremendous success. One attendee called her the female W.C. Fields. She did not stay in London long enough to enjoy this adulation, because her Beckett was in Paris.
Beckett was no longer interested in being with Peggy. He had moved on to a pianist named Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, six years his elder. Suzanne nursed the wounded writer back to health, and eventually she would become his wife in 1961. Peggy reacted to the rejection by sleeping with one of Sam’s friends, briefly reigniting Beckett’s interest.
Meanwhile, she prepared an exhibition of Kandinsky’s work for her new gallery. She became somewhat obsessed with getting her Irishman back, writing to her friend Emily Coleman that “I love being with him. It is more and more my real life. I have decided now to give up everything else, even sex if necessary, and concentrate on him.” She was aware of Suzanne’s presence in Beckett’s life, but struggled to view the older musician as proper competition, remarking that “she made curtains while I made scenes.” Beckett refused to sleep with Peggy despite her entreaties.
She did not sell a single Kandinsky.
“Before the Fire” – Santigold (mp3)