10/25/16
Photo: TheSultanette

Walking Paris

Photo: TheSultanette

Shoes on Rue de Rivoli

In Paris, everything is perfectly clear below the surface. A recording on the Metro cautions you to watch the gap in French, English, and German. Meticulously numbered and color-coded subway lines assure you’ll never end up at the Front Populaire when your destination is Chateau de Vincennes.

Station names are literary triumphs. Where New York subway stops are prosaically titled 33rd, 59th, or 86th streets, the Paris Metro gives you La Motte-Picquet-Grenelle. Emile-Zola on the khaki colored line is just two connections from Victor Hugo in royal blue. It’s all to give the illusion that you can find your way around.

Photo: TheSultanette

Concorde, where a few lost their heads getting around.

But once you ascend to Paris plein-air, your Paris Classique par Arrondissement street guide might have been written by Jacques Derrida. A sudden minefield of intersecting rues is designed to keep you forever one turn away from the Brasserie Extraordinaire. Even the grand boulevards change names every three bistros.

Paris is so elusive it even keeps the French guessing. A woman I met who lives in a toney quartier, told me she once complained to her neighbor that the neighbor’s male housekeeper was making a show of his masturbation technique at a facing window. Next day, the neighbor reported, Mais non! He was merely polishing the candelabra!

Photo: TheSultanette

A hidden cours near The Sultanette’s Paris cache

Marie Antoinette lost her head trying to get around town. When her attempt to flee the guillotine failed because her entourage missed a turn in one of the city’s medieval warrens, it fatally slowing her escape resulting in her arrest at Varenne. So determined to keep The Sultanette’s head on one crisp October morning, I left the lux garret I’m renting in the Bastille area with directions in hand.

I was scheduled to meet with the directrice générale of a prominent publisher at 11:30am (it is bourgeois to schedule a morning meeting before 11:00am) to ply her with questions about the book research I’m doing here, on one of France’s sexiest tales of illusion. (If you want to know more, you’ll have to buy the book or see the movie that Hollywood will beg the rights for.)

Photo: TheSultanette

Petit dejeuner in grand style

After breezing through my Metro connections, I had time for a serving of butter-laden carbohydrates before arriving at exactly 11:25am at the address in my email instructions. I pushed my way through the door at the street, a heavy chunk of timber fitted with wrought-iron loops and hinges that could have kept a herd of peasants at bay. It opened into a dark, cobblestone passage where I again checked my instructions: Once inside, first door to the left, sixth floor. Easy enough.

Except that the first door on the left, a formidable leaded glass affair, refused to budge. Did she mean the first door at the circle of buildings after the passageway? I advanced to the sunny courtyard and tried that first door on the left. Success! I found the publisher’s name listed in the foyer, bagged the lift and began to wind my way up the grand staircase.

Photo: TheSultanette

Ascension at the Hotel Bristol if you are so blessed.

At the summit, breathless but victorious, I rang the door bearing the publishers name. A housekeeper answered. From what I could make out of the gloomy interior, the place hardly looked like an office but maybe the French preferred a lounge atmosphere to the cubicle design. In Franglais, I announced to her who I was meeting. She looked clueless.

Now a woman arrived at the door wearing pajamas, her coiffure more boudoir than bureau. Again I explained my mission. The woman seemed to know who I was referring to and either indifferent or unmindful of her appearance, began to grill me about the purpose of the meeting.

Photo: TheSultanette

A door … to where? Paris, the 5th.

Next a man’s voice interrupted from the apartment’s dark recesses. To reach the office, the voice said, somewhat irritated, I must go back downstairs to the door at the entrance. Either that, or he told me I was a foolish, dim-witted American and should take the first avion home.

With the stunning realization that I’d rung the prominent publisher’s flat, possibly disturbing his morning coucher avec la femme, I thanked the voice for his direction, and spouting apologies to the pajama lady that would have appeared fawning in Louis the Fourteenth’s court, I retraced my steps to the original doorway.

I gained entrance with the help of a guy smoking outside (the French still shamelessly smoke and kiss in public), loped to the sixth floor, and was greeted by the directrice générale.

She was tall and slim with perfectly strayed wisps of hair framing a face that bore not a stitch of makeup as far as I could detect. Dressed in black tights and high-tops, a scarf twisted and draped around her neck with careless aplomb, she hardly met the New York Times female CEO image. But this was Paris after all, where nothing dares to appear as it seems.

Photo: TheSultanette

Tout droit in the Palais Royal.

Over the next two hours, we talked about love and sex, coupling, complicity, feminism, politics, writing, literature, and well-crafted lies. She never checked her emails, rang her assistant or responded to a text. When I confessed my earlier detour, she was amused.

Beyond the insights gained in those two hours, I experienced a near-extinct commodity. Undivided time. Maybe that’s what this city, in its frustratingly unaccountable whimsy, was able to hold close.

I thanked the directrice and made my way back to the Metro. But as I was going down the steps, I stopped. Where did I need to get to in such a hurry? I headed back up to the inscrutable streets of Paris and started walking.

09/23/16

Introducing the State-of-the-Art Orgasm

Vesper, Photo: Michael Topolovac/Crave

Vesper, Photo: Michael Topolovac/Crave.

You say your Apple Watch can give you an orgasm? Okay never mind then, you won’t need Objects of Desire, a tantalizing compendium of sex toys, brilliant widgets, and couture erotica you didn’t know existed, designed to inspire an orgasm you didn’t know you could have.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the book’s writer, Rita Catinella Orrell and designer, Jason Scuderi by email. What struck me was their smart and thoughtful approach to a subject that so often gets tossed in the taboo file. No, I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about pleasure. It’s now possible to get sex at the click of a mouse or swipe of an app but pleasure isn’t so easy to manufacture.

Hello Touch, Photo Jimmyjane.

Hello Touch, Photo Jimmyjane.

I know, I know, who has the time? Pleasure requires finesse. A slowing down and savoring. A connection with the sensorial coaxed by a willingness to be present. But if there is a single theme to the book’s array of elegant paraphernalia, it can be found in the introductory quote by American designer & architect, Charles Eames. “Take your pleasure seriously.”

A look at the table of contents reveals the stunning choices. Beyond dildos so brilliantly devised they could get off a rocket scientist, the collection includes vibrators, strokers, harnesses, couture, jewelry, light BDSM, toys for every orifice, and a chapter dedicated to “A category of their own.” (If you want to know about those cheeky items, including a Swedish oral sex stimulator that beat out Samsung for a Cannes Lions in product design, you’ll have to buy the book!)

Tailbud, Photo Rosebuds SARL.

Tailbud, Photo Rosebuds SARL.

Truth told, I’ve never been one to collect an arsenal of sex toys, generally preferring human beings to batteries. But these products aren’t just clever new mouse traps. “I don’t think replacing the middle man is the goal exactly,” says Orrell. “It’s that you now have more options to customize your experience.”

Example? If your lover isn’t the brightest bulb on the marquee, try the artificial intelligence of Hum by Dimensional Industries, Inc. “This technology can respond to the female orgasm and draw out the experience,” says Orrell. The smarts? “A 3D-printed internal structure, motion sensors, and thousands of lines of code, respond intelligently to movement and touch, delivering varying frequencies of vibrations in response to how much pressure is exerted, and in return, creating an organic experience for the user.” In short, fasten your safety belt.

Blue Leather Tassel Strap & Ceramic Dildo, Photo Shiri Zinn,shirizinn.com.

Blue Leather Tassel Strap & Ceramic Dildo, Photo Shiri Zinn,shirizinn.com.

But does the spontaneity get lost in the coding? Scuderi hit my cerebral G-spot when he explained it this way: “I like to think of myself as an adult but in all reality, I also like not to grow up.” These gizmos may be highly rational but their brilliance is in their ability to provoke highly irrational results.

Scuderi was drawn to the project when his work on conventional consumer products lead him to see the “addictive, almost sensual relationship” between products and consumers. He views the entrepreneurs featured in Objects as intensifying that connection through a kind of sensorial production quality. “These are real artisans with real emotion creating seriously designed pieces,” says Scuderi. “With a dash of sex aficionado thrown in for good measure,” adds Orrell.

Minna Limon, Photo Brian Krieger/Minna Life.

Minna Limon, Photo Brian Krieger/Minna Life.

Beyond possessing state-of-the-art brains, this new age of digital widgetry is as irresistible as it is ingenious. These are sleek objects you want to hold, exciting fabrications you want to feel next to your body, and elegant accessories that dangle around your neck like the discreetly vibrating pendant on the book’s cover. Which brings me to one more quality these products embody – a sense of complicity. And Ohmibod’s Bluemotion wins in that category hands down.

Imagine your standard office cocktail party. Your date appears to be fiddling with an app on his smart phone but in fact he’s remotely manipulating a massager tucked in your Ohmibod-designed lacey thong. Depending on which functions he chooses, you are experiencing various levels of vibration as you nibble on a shrimp canapé while talking office politics with your boss. When I commented on the delicious complicity of such a concept, Orrell concurred that Ohmibod is taking “the erotic experience out of the bedroom while keeping it discreetly between the participants.”

Might complicity be life’s ultimate aphrodisiac? Is there anything more intoxicating than the stolen kiss? The clandestine interlude between lovers? And now, the Bluetooth-enabled foreplay across a crowded room? Yet as we persist upon posting, sharing, and tweeting every digital detail of our existence, are we denying ourselves the joy of secrecy?

Seduce Me Collection, Photo Jimmyjane.

Seduce Me Collection, Photo Jimmyjane.

To further research this modern conundrum, The Sultanette is about to spend a month in Paris. There, in the city that invented the cinq à sept (the witching hours reserved for rendezvous between five and seven p.m.) I will contemplate keeping secrets. (Okay, I’m writing a book about a spectacularly surreptitious French affair, but why would I tell you that!)

If a tangle offers itself at cinq o’clock, I may not refuse. But there will be oysters on the half-shell and aperitifs at the Ritz, shopping in Le Marais and book stalls along the Seine to keep The Sultanette entertained. And a state-of-the-art toy or two in the privacy of my pied-à-terre? Maybe so, but I’ll never tell. “I love products that hide secrets” says Orrell, “they are magical in a way.”

05/11/16

Where Have All The Playboys Gone?

Giove seduces Olimpiade, fresco, Giulio Romano.

Giove seduces Olimpiade, fresco, Giulio Romano.

I remember the Playboy Mansion like it was yesterday. Gotcha, salacious followers! Okay, The Sultanette never wore Bunny ears and cottontail though I’ve been known to don the random, ribboned corset. And I did press my face against the wrought iron gate of Hugh Hefner’s Chicago chateau at 1340 North State Parkway in hopes of spotting a louche Leporidae.

Freshly graduated from Dairy State U, I was living up the street in a mansion that had been converted into apartments. On weekends, my roommates and I joined the throngs along Chicago’s Gold Coast single’s bars searching for Sex-in-the-Second-City.

Rush Street, ink, Scott Nazelrod.

Rush Street, ink, Scott Nazelrod.

When I found it on occasion, in a haze of marijuana-inspired gropings (The Sultanette never inhaled) it seemed hardly a match for the sybaritic antics at the mansion. Not that I had aspirations to serve cocktails in bunny drag to ogling James Bond wannabes. But Hefner’s televised series, Playboy After Dark, featuring girls with torpedo tits and perfect flips draped over Barcelona sofas enjoying laid-back flirtations with cool celebrities, seemed more compelling than suffering boilerplate come-on’s in the din of Rush Street’s beer palaces.

May ‘58 Playboy Playmate of the Month, Lari Laine & Ozzie Nelson on Ozzie & Harriet.

May ‘58 Playboy Playmate of the Month, Lari Laine & Ozzie Nelson on Ozzie & Harriet.

I was reminded of the Playboy heyday upon reading Christopher Turner’s review of the phenomenon’s recent interpretations, “If you don’t swing, don’t ring” in the London Review of Books. If the same publication that holds forth on Sartre, Freud and Descartes can spill ink on Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” it’s worth a shout-out from The Sultanette.

Full frontal disclosure, I do have insider’s info on the Playboy days from the first Bunny costume design meeting to eggs with Lenny Bruce in the mansion’s breakfast nook. Nothing you can’t find in a memoir I collaborated on (unless you count the unpublished bits I’ll never reveal) with the artist LeRoy Neiman, “Hef’s” lifelong friend and Playboy Magazine contributor.

Memories of rich conversation while working on All Told with LeRoy are as potent as the aroma of the Cuban he puffed on everyday after lunch, its precarious ash accumulating as each story unfolded. But that’s another story. If you want to know how a Depression kid went from WWII GI to partying with Salvador Dali, cavorting with Sinatra, and sketching Muhammad Ali, Amazon awaits your order. For now, it’s Playboy’s art of sex for seduction sake I invite you to consider.

At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo, oil on canvas, 1892, Edvard Munch.

At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo, oil on canvas, 1892, Edvard Munch.

When Hef conjured up the idea that LeRoy would set up studios in Paris and London and record his experiences in Man at his Leisure, the magazine’s column became his Playboy Philosophy writ large. From nude beaches to Ascot, Paris discos to the casino in Monte Carlo, the life of a jet-setting bon vivant embodied “The Man Who Reads Playboy.”

While LeRoy was gallivanting, Hef was playing lord of the bachelor pad in his pipe and silk pj’s. Turner writes that his third floor bedroom with its “circular rotating (and vibrating) bed” served as Playboy HQ. If he didn’t invent the man cave, he furnished it. Playboy’s first editorial declared, “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”

Is there a sapiosexual in the house? Bookish Playboy.

Is there a sapiosexual in the house? Bookish Playboy.

Stop! When did the seduction playbook change? While The Sultanette may not require beluga or a discourse on Karl Marx to surrender her accouterments, how about a subject, a verb, and some savoir faire? And when did we become so authentic we lost our sense of irony? I would still prefer a tongue-in-cheek quip like, “I know a spot with some decent Bordeaux, good music, and rare filet mignon. My place?” to a “What’s up?” on WhatsApp, i.e., “Want to grab a drink and my dick?” Note to prospective Male Harem members: A text is not foreplay.

In Danger of Being Seduced, litho, 1855, Berlin.

In Danger of Being Seduced, litho, 1855, Berlin.

Once in the door, according to Playboy’s “25 Steps to the Perfect Seduction” a mandatory piece of furniture is the bar trolley which “permits the canny bachelor to remain in the room while mixing a cool one for his intended quarry … “. In that vein, while Canny Bachelor is fumbling to undo Intended Quarry’s bra strap after a libido-lubricating conversation about Kierkegaard, his couch flips to horizontal at the touch of a button. Brilliant solution to the hazards of martini spillage on the commute to the boudoir.

The last official Playboy Club (Manila) closed in 1991. The sixty-year-old Playboy centerfold was inevitably eclipsed by online porn. But where have all the playboys … and playgirls gone? In a world of multi-tasking is there no place for an intermezzo with a chéri(e) amour? A stylish caper with a sig other in the midst of life’s daily barbarism? The thrill of complicity between consenting adults seeking mutual plunder?

Allegorical Scene, oil on canvas, Konstantin Makovsky.

Allegorical Scene, oil on canvas, Konstantin Makovsky.

Curiously, non-American men, seem to more readily embrace the concept that sex is an event that occurs before penetration, and that seduction involves gamesmanship. (Due credit to The Impresario.) American men, like good capitalists, just want to get the job done so they can concentrate on boosting the GNP and watching baseball. In their befuddled efforts to treat women as equals like they’ve been told, they’ve gone from behaving like gentleman to jocks.

In 1967, Hef fitted out a black DC-9 jumbo jet with the Bunny logo on its tail and christened it the Big Bunny. “It was a penthouse on wings,” Turner writes, “with dance floor, screening room, wet bar, sleeping quarters for sixteen and an elliptical bed for Hefner covered in Tasmanian opossum skins.” The last time we saw anything close were the bar stools on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis, upholstered with the foreskin of the minke whale.

“The Flying Nun” Sister Aquinas,1943, DC.

“The Flying Nun” Sister Aquinas,1943, DC.

The plane, alias “Hare Force One” was sold in 1976. Its latest clone was the private jet of “King of Good Times” Vijay Mallya, who stamped his initials in gold on the wingtip. It was verified to me in droll conversation with a former passenger (don’t ask) that babes were frequent flyers. But recent news that the roué’s misspent lifestyle has landed the plane on the auction block by Indian tax authorities could mean the demise of flying the horny skies.

Is it the end of getting high on seduction? Turner writes that Hugh Hefner founded Playboy with a loan from his mother who had hoped he’d become a missionary. If instead, he became minister to the Church of The Glorious Chase, get me to the nunnery.

04/7/16
Photo: TheSultanette

Trickery! Cheating! Chicanery! It’s Tax Time!

Head over heels at The Met.

Welcome to the perilous days of April, fellow Americans, when we’re reminded that nothing is certain but death and taxes, and that cheating (not the fun, sweaty kind) is a patriotic duty. So what better inspiration than a trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play.

Encouraged by Andy Battaglia’s Wall Street Journal review promising “shady characters, dirty deeds and their often grizzly results” I hopped an uptown subway to the Met, still a sacred monument to art in spite of its jazzy new logo.

Photo: TheSultanette

Enter under your own risqué.

Threading my way past heroically endowed Greek warriors in the buff and ermine-clad monarchs in gilded frames, it was a relief to face the raw candor of honest criminals and the exhibition’s inviting threat of graphic subject matter. “Rangy social outcasts” is how the opening salvo described the gallery of reprobates – always on the Sultanette’s A-List.

Runway Chic or Runaway?

Runway Chic or Runaway?

The first set of assorted characters, posed for booking shots at the Chicago Police Department, hardly looked menacing. One woman reminded me of my Aunt Annette Krystowiak whose closest brush with crime was cooking blood sausage in Milwaukee. The men might have been posing for a Dolce and Gabbana spread.

Lend me your ears!

Lend me your ears!

On to a more encouraging crew – French anarchists. Sniffing them out in late-19th century Paris was dealt with in such scrupulous detail by French criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon, suffering the process became known as being “Bertillonaged.” As curator Mia Fineman explained it to Battaglia, “If you really wanted to make sure you had the right person, you would look at the shape of their ear, which was unique.” Credited as the first mug shots, these are selfies on steroids.

Book it, Danno!

Book it, Danno!

If you were looking for naughty nightstand reading in 1860, you’d click on Amazon (What! There was no Amazon!) for Rogues: A Study of Characters. Compiled by Samuel G. Szabo, its medley of bad boys including sneak thief, highway man, lifter, and wife poisoner, are straight out of Dickens. Each entry, labeled in elegant script, purports to uncover criminality through physical characteristics.

The eyes have it!

The eyes have it!

Why have we made such a science of exposing evildoers? Are we that easily fooled by the con man? Or do we prefer to swallow the most convenient truths, even from our lovers, family, and cohorts? … Do my darling’s eyes betray that he’s a lying, cheating bastard? Is jolly cousin Molly plotting to edge us out of the will? Might glad-handing Bob at the office really be back-stabbing Bob?

Mea culprit!

The Reverend. Mea culprit!

Working my way through the show, I became an amateur criminologist, analyzing the faces of these masters of guile. “The Reverend” Lawrence Hight’s unimpassioned stare from behind bars masked a venomous nature coiled to break free.

Freddie the farm boy

Freddie the farm boy.

The benign demeanor of 12-year-old Freddie the farm boy who shot his two sisters in Wausau, Wisconsin, belied a calculating murderer.

Then there was Frank Smith (a likely name). Hauled back to Kansas State Prison on an illegal gun charge after moldering there for twenty-six years on a previous conviction, he’s reported as saying he was “glad to be back.” Compared to the deadly reality of life on the outside maybe incarceration had its perks.

Debutante romp.

Patty Hearst debutante romp.

The exhibit may best demonstrate the allure of crime in the Femme Nikita photo of heiress Patty Hearst turned bank robber. Snatched from her gilded cage by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, she was held hostage for nineteen months of capers before being rescued by the FBI. “Tania” then listed her occupation as “Urban Guerilla” and was sentenced to seven years in prison, commuted after twenty-one months by President Carter. Upon release, she tied the knot with her prison bodyguard and raised two children. Was the marriage a form of self-imposed house arrest to resist the exciting life of crime?

If the shoe fits ...

If the shoe fits …

Or does it inevitably end on a shelf at the morgue like John Dillinger’s sheeted body, his feet tagged as if at a sample sale. I wondered studying the soles of this notoriously dashing gangster, if a hunted-down corpse manifests a different postmortem persona than a body that dies a natural death. If I ever invite a coroner into The Male Harem, we’re in for some grisly pillow talk.

Doormen on duty.

Doormen on duty.

Still, the romance of the outlaw persists. Based on the show’s 1892 portrait of the Wild Bunch, you’d take these hotties over your milquetoast accountant any day after April 18. All dapper and dandy in bowler hats, they look more like investment bankers than bank robbers (though these days they’re one and the same). In comparison, a gaggle of cops from the 40’s, taken by crime photographer laureate, Weegee, look like Upper Eastside doormen with nightsticks.

It would be easy to relegate Crime Stories as an homage to film noir and head for dinner at Demarchelier on 86th(their coq au vin makes for good tax-time comfort food). The Valentine’s Day Massacre has become endearing folklore. Even the infamous electric chair at Sing Sing earned the charming moniker “Old Sparky” and was painted by Warhol.

But that might be denying ourselves another impulse.“Poring through the gore in the collection offered certain forbidden pleasures,“ writes Battaglia of the show’s curation. Whether artistic in intention or vernacular in nature, curator Doug Eklund tells him, the images ‘have a kind of energy and make you look’.

"Old Sparky" at Sing Sing

“Old Sparky” at Sing Sing.

Maybe observing this parade of wrongdoers allows us to become voyeurs of our baser selves. These hard-boiled criminals stir up the dirty little secrets that we conceal with such immaculate pretense – those private transgressions that escape the scrutiny of judges or juries, spouses, friends, children, even the tax man. Yes villainous acts against society should be punished. But in freeing their calamitous spirits, are these daring outcasts more wildly sincere than our shamefully hidden selves?

To quote outlaw laureate, Oscar Wilde, “Sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world.” These photos, in stark black-and-white attest to it.

Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 31. Suggested admission is tax deductible.

 

 

 

01/26/16

Do You Want Sex Or Düsseldorf?

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

The World Happiness Report is out! In its third survey since 2012, the United Nations reveals the happiest places on earth. Or so they say, reports John Kay in, “Why ‘happy’ is boring.”

I spotted Kay’s piece in the Financial Times Weekend last September, just as I was escaping New York City for three months in England. According to the UN, I had the wrong country. The winner was Switzerland. (We’re getting to Düsseldorf, intrepid globetrotters, restrain yourselves!)

As Kay assesses the findings, “Switzerland is rich, temperate and has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. … You feel completely safe in the streets. And yes, the trains run on time.”

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

Security, consistency, and the goodness of nature. That would be enough to seduce any sentient being, right? Isn’t this why so many retirees flock to golf courses? Or babysit grandchildren? But Kay has another take on the Alpine paradise: “Boring.”

Kay’s recent book, Other People’s Money was named 2015 Book of the Year by the Economist, Bloomberg and the FT. In 2014, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) “for services to economics.” But what does a numbs and figs guy know about happiness? Everybody knows money can’t buy it, even though, like sex, we’d still prefer to have as much of it as possible.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

This brings us to Düsseldorf. It comes up sixth in a study compiled by benefits consultants Mercer, and here Kay shows he can look beyond a spreadsheet. “There may be a surer way to end a promising relationship than to propose a romantic weekend in Düsseldorf,” he offers, “but it is hard to imagine one.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, Mr. Kay, or may I call you Johnnie? Do we want Düsseldorf or romance? Rational or sensational? Security or ecstasy? Are we after a livable life or a lived one?

Welcome to Peggy's place.

Welcome to Peggy’s place.

Casting aside polls for people, I invite you to Peggy Guggenheim’s eighteenth century Palazzo Venier in Venice, where her louche, eccentric spirit still lurks among one of the world’s most audacious art collections.

Was she a quirky socialite who slummed with creative types? A serious art connoisseur? A bag lady with a trust fund? A flighty romantic who chased from one lover’s bed to the next?

Peggy’s indomitable originality has always intrigued me, so I recently headed for the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

If you are tempted to assign Peggy the role of Venetian vixen who flaunted her family fortune to play patron and pussy cat with the art crowd, prepare for disappointment.

The film, centered around a taped interview unearthed from a basement cache of books, brings the private Peggy out of her public persona with sympathetic detachment. The woman we see and hear suffered the death of her adored father when she fourteen (on the Titanic). Her certifiably narcissistic mother was no consolation. One of the “poor” Guggenheim’s, she endured the condescension of her posh and supercilious relatives, who disdained her taste in art.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

She had an eye and she would follow her instincts. A young Lucien Freud made his first appearance in a children’s exhibition at her London gallery. In 1943, she organized the first show devoted exclusively to women that included Louise Nevelson and Frida Kahlo.

She was instrumental in the careers of Kandinsky and Motherwell. Not only did she take a chance on the work of undiscovered artists, she provided a stipend for the struggling Jackson Pollock so he could pursue his muse unfettered by the natty demands of survival.

During the war, she staged a brilliant scrimmage to prevent the German’s from appropriating her collection. She later helped put the Venice Biennale on the map. All of this while dealing with love, loss, and a botched nose job.

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. Fondation Peggy Guggenheim "Torre: a Cor-Ten steel tower, with ogival windows, tracery and turrets in the International Gothic style, on the terrace of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, overlooking the Grand Canal " http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

But then the film asks the ultimate question: Did it make her happy?

Alas, Peggy never found lasting love. (To the question, how many husbands had she had, she was said to reply, “mine or other people’s?”) It’s been suggested that she was looking for too much love on all the wrong mattresses. That her serial romps were a desperate attempt to fill the vacuum left by childhood abandonment.

When the film’s director was asked in a Vanity Fair interview whether Peggy had pursued art as a safe harbor from the personal tragedy in her life, Vreeland responded, “[Peggy] identified with the art and the artists and found solace in all of it.”

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

A man’s happiness is seldom offered as a criterion of his accomplishments. His sexuality rarely shows up on the scorecard of a fulfilled life. While some may debate the merits of the Clinton presidency, few feel it necessary to analyze whether the skirt-chasing Bill was a happy guy. It is his long-suffering wife that we tsk at for putting up with his antics. It will probably dog her reputation even if she saves the free world.

“I’m a lone wolf,” Peggy says in the film. No apologies. You could say she was lousy at love and a shameless hussy. But must a lack of romantic closure deem her life unfulfilled? Or her sexual proclivity cast a shadow on her accomplishments?

To the growing minority who believe that art is important for life’s sake, perhaps Peggy Guggenheim’s singular passion for championing genius, supporting the unanointed, and risking a fortune on a new way of looking at things, might be enough to celebrate. That’s not about getting trains to run on time but a world that too easily rationalizes the banal might be unlivable without it.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Which brings us back to the United Nations Happiness Report. “Why do so many young people,” writes Kay, “go to London or New York in search of the excitement and creativity rather than the livable?” To answer, he takes us to the Floating City.

“Venice is crowded, hard to navigate, inadequately served by public transport, its public administration is hopeless and its commercial activities are corrupt,” he concludes, “but however often you have visited, the magic remains.”

No coincidence that Peggy Guggenheim made this uncooperative, impious, ineluctable city home. Düsseldorf anyone?