Every evening at precisely six o’clock Peggy Guggenheim—Ultima Dogaressa, Champagne Glug-Glug of the Grand Canal—would take a punt around Venice in her private, black-lacquered gondola. Wigwagging, lollygagging about the waterways accompanied by her Canal-Casanova, today’s preferred gondolier plucked from the gang of gigolos at her disposal. From behind spectacular sunglasses, the Art World’s Grande Dame, the collector superior, buttocks cushioned on her throne, would pop a cork and toast her city, her Venezia preziosa, sipping from a crystal coupe before tossing the remainder of the bottle to the fishes, who would multiply in giddy pleasure.
Perhaps some daily witness—for there were plenty such—to this biblical-miracle-spectacle might have guessed that one day the vision would vanish, fizzing up on a bubble of vintage champagne and floating off. But no one would have gone so far as to imagine that Peggy herself, the flesh-and-blood Party Queen, could actually disappear.
The first to feel her absence were Peggy’s beloved babies, Pegeen, Cappuccino, Gypsy, and Madame Butterfly. Their long-haired Tibetan coats went unbrushed and their plates of spaghetti alle vongole—served with the tiniest of clams—had not appeared, as they usually did at teatime. Instead of their customary passeggiata along the zattere with their mistress, dazzling the eyes of other dogs with their diamond-studded leashes and stopping for doughnuts filled with zabaglione ice cream, today they would make do with a pad-about-the-palazzo.
It was this forced entrapment that had led Gypsy to do her business on a priceless Brancusi sculpture, a golden shower raining over the polished bronze setting off the WEE-WEE-WEE alarm system and bringing with it a rush-crush of worried onlookers The gigolo-gondoliers, the convocation of canine-cooks, the froth of champagne-collectors, the swish of sunglass-polishers, the bewildered houseguests and the hungry hounds were making a cacophony of sounds, clamoring for their mistress.
What news on the Rialto? Peggy was dead! Peggy had slipped into a painting! Peggy had gone over to a ministry of nuns! Peggy had boarded a vaporetto wearing nothing but a single dangly Calder earring!
The question on everyone’s lips was what was to be done about tonight’s party? These were legendary affairs, and it was not out of the usual to see the steps of the palazzo lit up in flames with fire-throwers juggling their flammable spindles to dizzying heights, nor to see guests clad in sheer sequin catsuits swinging from cut-glass chandeliers, nor to see Peggy herself carried in a howdah atop a bejeweled Indian elephant. It was said that champagne bottles lay six feet deep in the canal outside, so often would they be tossed out of windows at these gatherings.
Tonight, ahead of the Biennale, 500 guests were expected to descend on the palazzo. A roll call of Art World Names: Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock, Jean Cocteau, Henry Moore, and more and more would be appearing, and what of this disappearing hostess? All they had found were her sunglasses, floating amid the striped Guggenheim totem poles in the sparkling Grand Canal.
But no one would have gone so far as to imagine that Peggy herself, the flesh-and-blood Party Queen, could actually disappear.
As luck would have it, the city’s esteemed carabinieri occupied the imposing Prefettura building, directly opposite the palazzo. It was a subject of great amusement within the constabulary that Il Capo, Cosimo il Grande, Chief of Police had a soft spot for our Grande Dame. On warm days, the enamored Captain would shut the door to his office only to throw open the windows over the Grand Canal and recline back in his chair to watch that operatic daily spectacle that was Miss Guggenheim’s life.
Just this morning, he had gazed across the water with hopes of seeing Peggy on the roof sunbathing in the nude, as was her summertime custom. Instead, he had found her clothed in a sublime Schiaparelli cellophane wrap dress, a string of pearls dangling almost to the floor and her little feet clad in silver-heeled shoes stepping aboard a traghetto. What a vision! He had nearly forgotten his morning meeting.
Thus it was that when the alarm-commotion-cacophony sounded out, Cosimo was on his feet quick-as-you-like and speeding across the Grand Canal followed by a fleet of police boats. Hotfooting it into the palazzo garden and stepping up onto a Byzantine marble throne, he blew his whistle and began commandeering the Search Party with impeccable organization. Dogs! To sniff out the Biennale Gardens. Cooks! To scour the floating market. Sunglass-polishers! To sweep every boutique in the city. Gigolos! To stop in at every Champagne-Glug-Glug bar from Caffè Florian to the Gritti Palace.
At the palazzo, the show must go on. Already, gondolas and sandoli were pulling up along the jetty and esteemed guests were beginning to arrive for tonight’s party, a charity gala in aid of La Serenissima. The previous winter had seen a record acqua alta—with floodwaters lapping at the heels of our hostess—and funds were needed to protect the sinking city before it subsided and disappeared like Miss Guggenheim herself.
Chief Cosimo had chosen to station himself at the top of the Campanile di San Marco. From this towering vantage point he would be able to see Venice spreading out below him in all directions; from the rainbow-colored Burano fishermen’s houses along the pointed finger of the Lido, over the Guidecca and inland toward the Dolomiti mountains that loomed over the Lagoon. Through long-lensed binoculars he watched flocks of pigeons fluttering, the thrum of tourists meandering, and finally he watched the sun go down, dropping into the water like a sinking heart. And with it, an epiphany appeared before him, swimming into clarity. Peggy, oh, darling Peggy!
By nightfall the Search Party and the Palazzo Party had amassed into one frizzante-festival. Cooks were hobnobbing with bankers, sculptors were serenaded by gondoliers, and the dogs leapt along the jetty howling at the moon. Word had spread about the missing Dogaressa, but this served only to add extra voltage to the atmosphere that crackled with anticipation as Il Capo again climbed above the crowd and blew his whistle.
It was said that champagne bottles lay six feet deep in the canal outside, so often would they be tossed out of windows.
In rapid Italian, tears running rivers and hands a-frenzy, he explained that our precious Art Collector, our Grande Dame, had sacrificed herself in the name of tonight’s cause. If the city was drowning, then so would she. Watery exits ran in the family, and in Italy la famiglia è tutto. As everyone well knew, Peggy’s father, Benjamin Guggenheim—the source-spring of immense fortune—had dressed up in his finest evening dress to sink with the Titanic in 1912. And hadn’t he witnessed his bella amore doing the same this very morning, donning her finery in preparation for a momentous self-sacrifice? “Lament! And let this not be in vain!” he cried, and wily artists, deep-pocketed collectors, inebriated policemen, and weeping gigolos reached for checkbooks, slid off diamond rings, pledged paintings, and tossed the lot into a gigantic glazed Duchamp pot.
There was one particular guest for whom this sudden disappearance, this out-of-the-blue-into-the-blue martyrdom, was too much to bear. With a large fist he crunched the stem of his champagne flute, blood splattering down over his shoes in pitter-patter-spatters. In search of something to staunch the bleeding, he found himself in Peggy’s bedroom, mesmerized by a swirling silver bedhead.
It was nearly a decade since they had slept together in Paris. “Oh, Oblomov,” she had cried, a tangle of limbs in the sheets. The Russki-lusty nickname had befitted Samuel Beckett, meaning someone not so much lazy as simply prone to spending a lot of time in bed. The couple had met at a party filled with Left Bank friends: that had been on Boxing Day of 1939, and they did not get up again until the New Year of 1940, stopping only for a brief interlude of sandwiches and champagne.
The start of a New Year often begins with resolutions. And what had these two promised, pillow to pillow as the Nazis rounded in on Paris? They say that opposites attract, but perhaps that friction can combust just as furiously. Where he was philosophical, she was practical; where he intellectual, she impulsive; he doom-gloom, she defiant.
On that first day of January, he lay still while she tossed and turned. After a short while of his droning on things had grown so unbearable that Peggy leaped out of bed like a rocket. “Do what you like, Oblomov! I shall buy a painting a day!” And this she had done; spinning her web of modernism, placing the players on the stage and setting off a merry game. On the day Hitler took Norway, Peggy was buying a Léger, and by the time they marched into Paris, she was in Brancusi’s studio being handed Bird in Space, his tears rolling down a wet cheek.
In her outrage, Peggy had left it late to flee. At this particular moment the name Guggenheim was problematic, and so it was in a state of raised alarm that she had approached the bespectacled suits at the Louvre, appealing to them to safeguard her collection as a matter of national duty, but they had refused. “Non! These? These are simply not worth saving!”
Thus it was that in those heady days of accumulation our Peggy, our Dowager Dogaressa, had been forced to make a deal. Down at the docks—and with not a moment to lose—she had sought out Beckett’s Resistance contacts, known for their capabilities in smuggling out items under the guise of household goods. Picassos would travel among pots and pans, Picabias would be stuffed cozily into the stuffing of mattresses, and off they would go, on their perilous journey across the Atlantic, floating past U-boats and bound for New York.
And now they were here, floating again, and this time on the walls of a Venetian palazzo. It scarcely seemed real to see the surreal swimming with the abstract, the Cubist with the Expressionist, the Dada-dialogue of it all. Having bandaged up his hand with a familiar-looking silk slip, Beckett was beating a retreat from the bedroom back through the palazzo. The remainder of the guests had filtered out, and he was quite alone. How strange, he thought, that she had brought this collection that spoke the bright language of modernity here, to Venice, to converse with the Renaissance art that filled dark churches. To the city of endless reflections, where old longings might be washed back in with the rise of the tide.
All this and where was Peggy? It simply beggared belief that she should choose tonight to disappear, to quit the great game without so much as a fight. What a simpleton the police chief had been, how little acquainted he must be with her true nature. In spite of their differences, or even because of them, Beckett found that he longed to see Peggy again. He resolved that she must be elsewhere, in another square of the checkerboard city. And he would do what he was used to doing. He would wait.
The Russki-lusty nickname had befitted Samuel Beckett, meaning someone not so much lazy as simply prone to spending a lot of time in bed.
Meanwhile, Peggy was sipping a Bellini at Harry’s Bar. What a life-shattering discovery. The ripest of white-peach nectar blended with ice-cold sparkling prosecco. Now this was a drink! In fact, it was the latest invention of that whirligig-cocktail-impresario Giuseppe Cipriani, who would later go on to open the Hotel Cipriani, with Venice’s largest and most glamorous piscina. The rosy hue of the drink was, to Cipriani’s gimlet eye, the exact same shade as the toga of a saint depicted in the San Zaccaria masterpiece by Giovanni Bellini. Thus came the drink’s name, as well as its moral timbre; for this was a concoction both sacred-sweet and profane-pink. There was no telling what one might do after allowing the intoxicatingly expensive Bellini to seep its way into the system.
Sitting at the bar and sipping her fourth—or possibly fifth?—was Prima-Donna Peg-Peg. So nestled was she among the tantalizingly ritzy-glitzy cocktail-crowd that she had in effect been hiding in plain sight, the light bouncing off the shiny, sheer cellophane of her dress and rendering her near invisible to the passing Search Party. She had come in for a single steadying drink, something to ease her into the evening, when, she knew, she might be confronted with any number of old flames flickering together beneath one roof. That was several hours ago, and by now she was perfectly drunk, thoughts of the party long forgotten.
It was among the swell of chitter-chatter that Peggy had overheard an American voice, cutting through it deep and clear, declaring Venice—her Venice—“absolutely goddamned ruined.” Ears pricked, attention piqued, she felt that intense inner tug of attraction and enragement. How dare he speak of this city in such a manner?
Ernest Hemingway occupied his corner table as though it were an extension of his body, arms solid and strong as the dark wood of the furniture. Hanging off his every word were a crowd of frothy-frolicking-females some 20 years his junior, their silky curls bouncing with lipstick laughter. He continued to prophesize grandly about Venice, battling with the acqua alta that would eventually eat her up like an insatiable lover, before spitting her out, leaving nothing but legend behind.
“Not on my watch!” A fist thumped down onto the wooden table. The hand extended into a cellophane sleeve and up to a pearl-strung neck, to the face of Madame Guggenheim.
“Funds will appear, mark my words, sir. Venice shall live on, and those who hold her in so little faith shall no longer be welcome to enjoy her.” The recipient of this pointed attack turned his chin upward and looked his match in the eye. “Tosh.” And they flew then into a dialogue duel where the stakes for their mutual disregard grew ever steeper.
He—that great wild-hunter—declared that he would take his shotgun to her beloved babies, to Cappuccino, Madame Butterfly, Pegeen, and Gypsy. She would tear the inky pages of his freshly completed manuscript and float them one by one “across the river” of the Grand Canal. He would slash through all the paintings in her precious palazzo. She would chop off his manhood with the swipe of a silver sword. The clash-flash of passion lit up the air with fireflies, and now they were arm-wrestling, and now they were double-bent laughing, and now they were dancing a salsa with hands clapping in a circle around them. Corks popped, glasses clinked, and by closing time, instead of sleeping with the fishes, Peggy was considering how to bed her latest lover.
Drunk with peach-sweetness the pair trip-tipped out of Harry’s Bar into the pitch dark of the night. At the sound of the Marangona midnight bell, they raced into St. Mark’s Square and chased about between the arches of the piazza, darting in-again-out-again, leaping over the smooth of the flagstones, skipping over the Bridge of Sighs and kissing beneath the Bellini altarpiece in the deserted church of San Zaccaria. A dust that had settled over the static church, over hymnbooks and embroidered pew cushions, was rising, clouding around the couple like a prayer.
It was decided that they would return to his place, a small inn on Torcello that also happened to be owned by their friend Giuseppe Cipriani. It was not a short journey to the northern end of the Lagoon, and they made love in the cabin of the gondola all the way there. In the pink light of the new dawn they tiptoed ashore, onto this silent sleeping island, and collapsed into bed.
So it was that at the break of the new day, Il Capo Cosimo, our heartbroken Chief of Police, was hoisting a black flag from his window, to hang grimly over the Grand Canal. Across the water the tumble of dogs had lost their minds and were running in circles, chasing their tails on the roof. The gigolo-gondoliers considered themselves off duty and were slurping spaghetti at a trattoria beside the Accademia Bridge.
Over its arch were heard the hurrying steps of artists restless on the first day of the Biennale, whilst the remaining crush of party-goers were waking up, heavy-limbed and booze-breathed, wondering what had happened last night. Samuel Beckett wanted to find out, and was trudging the pavements slowly and methodically, waiting, waiting. And there, with her head on the pillow, was our heroine herself, champagne-shimmering eyelids closed, her mind filled with tiddely-pom. It was only later, when she stepped off the jetty and back into her deserted palazzo, that she discovered among the shattered bottles and pools of tears a vast urn brimming over with dollar bills.
Daisy Allsup is the editor of the newsletter A Little Bird. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including CN Traveller and House & Garden