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Friday, May 27, 2011

Review (plus some): The Guggenheims by Irwin Unger and Debi Unger

I spent my 22rd birthday in Venice. You would think that would have been enough but it wasn't; I wanted to to spend my birthday with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection at her Venetian Palazzo. John and I traveled through the canals across tiny, beautiful Venetian bridges and arrived to find the museum closed. I was disappointed. Flash forward to this Christmas (almost four years later), John has a crazy glimmer in his eye when he hands me my Christmas present. I can tell it's a book, but what book would he be so excited to give me? I unwrap the package and find "The Guggenheims: A Family History" by Irwin and Debi Unger.

I'm still a bit confused at this point. It does look like an interesting book, but it's not one that was on my radar and I don't see why he'd be so excited about it. Then, the real present comes out: I'm going to Book Expo America! My Christmas present was that he went to all the trouble to orchestrate a week off for the two of us (a grand feat when your bookstore has exactly two employees - the two owners!). I am thrilled beyond measure by this. I mean, it's BEA - I don't have to tell you how big of a deal that is, right?

For anyone confused as to how the two preceding paragraphs relate to each other: he also got me advance tickets to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which is conveniently located in NYC - the city that hosts BEA. Feel free to ohh and ahh over how cute and sweet he is. He's pretty awesome. Anyway, the book ...

"The Guggenheims" is a group biography that you can read as a flash through modern history. The family definitely lived through it and more often than not they touched it beginning with Meyer Guggenheim's entrance into industry in the 1850s. The Ungers rather nonchalantly deliver lines such as "in ten minutes of conversation, the fate of the American rocket program was settled." The participants of this ten minute conversation were Daniel Guggenheim, Harry Guggenheim (by proxy), and Charles Lindberg and they went on fund Robert Goddard's research on rockets. Goddard's grant from the Guggenheim family allowed him the freedom to develop new rockets that when on to influence World War II. I just can't get over that - a ten minute conversation.

That's probably what I enjoyed most about this book, it read as a historical text but added names and faces to the events. In my opinion that's what good nonfiction does, it links story and history into something cohesive. I find that easier both to digest and remember. In the case of "The Guggenheims" the narrative is indeed historical (it's a family history after all) but not linear. I would call it more tangential. The Ungers focus on one aspect of the Guggenheim's life and follow it through to its conclusion then move on to the next aspect, which may have had its temporal beginning in the center of the previously described events.

The book starts in the 1800s with the first Guggenheim's immigration to America, follows Meyer's rise into industry, and the family's decline as an industrial player. This was the part I as a bit leery of. I'm not incredibly fascinated by the mining industry and I worried that I would find most of the book dry until I got to the part I was interested in, Peggy Guggenheim and her involvement in the art world. Let's be honest, parts of the beginning did drag a little as the Ungers described the ups and downs of the Guggenheim's business interests. But the book never became a chore to read because of the characters it was peopled with. Every time you begin to be bored with business prospects and contracts the Ungers throw you a bone in the form of an interesting historical aside such as the fact that Meyer's son Benjamin was a passenger on the Titanic. He was the guy you see in James Cameron's movie who is dressed in his tuxedo, having a drink in the dining room as the ship goes down. That actually happened. Benjamin's last known words, were "we've dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." Or, a chapter or so later you'll get this gem of a quote from Meyer's grandson, M. Robert Guggenheim: "Every wealthy family supports at least one gentleman in leisure. I have elected to assume that position."

The later half of the book deals with the aspects of the Guggenheims I was more familiar with. Solomon's museum, Harry's fellowship, and Peggy's liaisons. The Ungers point out in the beginning of their chapter on Harry that the lasting influence of the Guggenheims is not their contributions to the world of industry but to that of art. The family has started museums, newspapers, art gallerys, even a publishing house. It was fascinating to see how far their influence reached. It wasn't that they were famous creators of art (though many in the family did become artists) but they surrounded themselves with and supported many of the modern creators of great art. At one point the Ungers provide a list of famous recipients of Guggenheim fellowships, and seriously these are the names that everyone recognizes.

By the time I reached the section on Peggy Guggenheim (the Guggenheim I was originally most interested in) I was a little disappointed (but just a little). Her salacious lifestyle couldn't hold a candle to the stories of Harry Guggenheim influencing multiple strains of history or the many stories of family politics gone awry. All in all, this was a really good read. It's kind of a beast in length but definitely worth the time - and while you're reading it it won't feel like much time. Fully recommended.

So, BEA was this week and I'm sure I'll be posting about it next week, but for now here's a picture of John and me in front of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, "a daring and adventurous building."

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