A collector's life displayed

"Woman Before a Glass" tells story of Peggy Guggenheim

Photo of Joseph Dalton
Judy Rosenblatt in "Woman Before a Glass."
Judy Rosenblatt in "Woman Before a Glass."

The American arts patron and heiress Peggy Guggenheim is best remembered for her unparalleled collection of works by titans of 20th-century art, including Picasso, Kandinsky, Calder and Braque. But her life story is just as oversized, complex and haunted as the canvases of those great artists.

Actress Judy Goldblatt steps into the life, the world and the psyche of Guggenheim in the one-woman show, "Woman Before A Glass," which plays for three performances this weekend at Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill.

"Yes, her contribution was incredible," says Rosenblatt, "but on a personal level, there was lots of loss and guilt. Her father, who she adored, died on the Titanic when she was 14."

Diving into any character, Rosenblatt's first objective is to find some levels of identification. That made for an easy starting point since the actress comes from a family of painters and has a keen eye. "I love to be surrounded by beauty," she says.

Another commonality also arises from family roots – both women are Jewish. The difficulty of being Jewish was literally beaten into Rosenblatt as a youth in the Bronx.

"When I was a child living in Riverdale, it was a Catholic community at the time," she recalls. "Five boys beat me up and called me a dirty Jew. My father said if someone tells you something, to say I'm a Jew and proud of it."

That attitude has carried over into her current and rather all-consuming role. Rosenblatt says her Jewishness shadowed Guggenheim's life in Europe during the period before World War II, when the heiress was immersed in high society and mingling with now legendary photographers, sculptors and painters.

"There's this constant terror of what's going to happen connected to her being Jewish. Even when she was growing up it was in the air," says Rosenblatt. "This time in history was characterized by Hitler and what he did. And a lot of the art she collected was by Jews."

More Information

If you go

"Woman Before A Glass"

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Bridge Street Theatre, 44 W. Bridge St., Catskill

Tickets: $10-$22. Call 518-943-3818. More info: bridgest.org

The consequences of the war became impossible for Guggenheim to ignore. After running a gallery in London in the late 1930s she fled to Paris, then to the south of France. She ultimately returned to New York in 1941.

"All the surrealists and expressionists would have been lost if she didn't take the canvases off their frames, roll them up and squeeze them into her suitcases," says Rosenblatt. "She packed the sculptures in with pots and pans."

The play is set in the mid-1960s when Guggenheim is looking back on her past, but also still working to preserve her legacy as a collector.

"I use humor a lot to deal with things. That also is a Jewish characteristic. I heard that in the camps, there was a lot of humor," says Rosenblatt.

"I tell everything to the audience, all kinds of private things," she continues. The memories shared are startlingly intimate, sometimes pained.

Guggenheim had a bulbous nose that caused her a lifetime of slights. "Her mother said a beautiful gown is a wonderful way to offset a homely face," says Rosenblatt. Also, a story has gone about that Jackson Pollock told her that sleeping with her would be like sleeping with W.C. Fields. Though Rosenblatt shares that sorry anecdote, she's never found confirmation that it's true.

Guggenheim's looks, however, didn't seem to hamper her love life.

"She must have been really incredible in bed because she slept with a lot a lot of men and women," says Rosenblatt. "She was married to Max Ernst who treated her very badly. She also had a love affair with Yves Tanguy. She said Tanguy was the sweetest man, like a boy, a winsome little boy in the body of a man. You can see it in his landscapes."

Those last couple of lines are quoted from the script. But Rosenblatt's insights are informed by the broader legacy of Guggenheim. She read every biography that she could get her hands on and has had lots of time to live with the role.

It was about 10 years ago that she first came across the one-act play, written in 2005 by Lanie Robertson. After using some excerpts in workshops and auditions, she reached out to Austin Pendleton, a noted director and actor who staged the play in its off-Broadway debut. After the two got acquainted and Rosenblatt demonstrated her talent and commitment, Pendleton said he'd be happy to work with her on the play, she'd just have to wait a year until his schedule opened up.

"I said yes and started working on the lines and research," she recalls.

Rosenblatt ultimately made her debut in the role at the Abingdon Theatre in New York in May 2011. The production was revived for an extended run in London's West End earlier this year. It received excellent notices from an array of publications.

"She brims with attitude: bolshie and boho, grand and girlie," said The Times. The reviewer for StageTalk Magazine gushed: "It's a tour de force and a fascinating, enlightening piece, not just on the life of Guggenheim but on the experience of art, love and tragedy."

For all the travels and tumult in Guggenheim's life, Rosenblatt goes back to the art collection as her greatest achievement. It was art that still speaks of a troubled time, a time that needs to be remembered and never forgotten.

"Modern art is never an answer, it's a question — why is all this happening, such evil and hatred?" says Rosenblatt. "That's why she saved it and that's her contribution."

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.