Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2003-2004

Music’s Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, by Sylvia Kahan

reviewed by Warren Allen Smith

On his wedding night when the prince entered the honeymoon chamber, he found the princess atop a large wardrobe, an umbrella in hand, yelling, “If you touch me, I’ll kill you!” The prince was Louis-Vilfred de Scey-Montbéliard, and his new wife was Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943), one of the sewing machine magnate’s 24 children.

This is how Sylvia Kahan starts this biography of a unique patron of the arts who may or may not have been sexually abused as a child by a stepfather but who was aware of her “nascent attraction to women”, not men. A millionaire at the age of eighteen, from 1888 to 1939 she headed what has been termed the most important avant-garde musical salon; lost the first prince to death and married a second, becoming the Princesse de Polignac; seemingly knew every VIP of the time (and paid commissions to musicians Falla, Fauré, Horowitz, Rubenstein, Satie, Stravinsky and one of her lovers, Ethel Smyth); contributed heavily to l’Opéra de Paris, Les Ballets Russes and l’Orchestre Symphonique de Paris; knew about “Paris-Lesbos”, a mysterious subculture at the end of the nineteenth century; was a chevalier of the Legion of Honour; entertained such people as Clive Bell (Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law), Claudette Colbert (a luncheon guest), Percy Grainger (who dedicated some folksong scores to her), Elsa Maxwell (who carved out a profession showing rich people how to spend money), Cole Porter (closeted, like Winnaretta, and with a wit, talent and privileged economic status that “allowed him to circulate discreetly as a homosexual in sophisticated social strata without attracting scandal”); Ezra Pound (who was sympathetic to the Fascist regime); Kurt Weill (who was told by Stravinsky that Threepenny Opera was “the most talked-about contemporary German work of art”); and Virginia Woolf (not too friendly, writing to a friend that “to look at [her] you’d never think she ravished half the virgins in Paris”).

Winnaretta chummed with the cultural elite: Nadia Boulanger (her close composer friend); Benjamin Britten (whom she met, along with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears); Debussy (who sometimes wore small, plain, gold-hooped earrings and didn’t particularly like being with the aristocratic milieu); Diaghilev (difficult to get along with, particularly after Nijinsky left him; in his final days his sallow face showed the ravages of diabetes; she often left flowers on his little tomb in the Greek cemetery at San Michele); Isadora Duncan (she “has reconstituted some dances according to the movements of the figures on the Etruscan vases”); Prokofiev (who wrote his Third Piano Concerto especially for her); Ravel (who dedicated his Pavane pour une infante défunte to her); and Oscar Wilde (a welcome guest of the Polignacs), to name but a few.

Winnie, as her close friends called her, lived at a time when marriages of convenience were common. While involved with Olga de Meyer, Winnaretta began an affair in 1905 with Beatrice Romaine Goddard (who married John Ellington Brooks, a pianist who had been Somerset Maugham’s lover, and later had love affairs with Lord Alfred Douglas (who thought John Masefield’s The Everlasting Mercy was “nine-tenths sheer filth”) and the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio). Romaine fell in love with Winnaretta at first sight, but then she also loved the Italian virtuoso Renata Borgatti. The book’s index is a must in sorting out who’s who in the aristocrats’ circles.

The entrancingly written work includes the differences of opinions held by musicians during the Dreyfus Affair; details the financial aid the princess contributed to charities during the two world wars; tells where the Belle Epoque’s notables hid when the bombs fell; and slyly reveals who was homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual as well as what many thought about each other. A scholarly work, it has over eighty pages of interesting footnotes (e.g. a breakdown of her stock holdings and net worth; how the Lord Chamberlain stopped a rehearsal of Wilde’s Salomé written expressly to be performed by Bernhardt because “it was blasphemous to stage a play with biblical characters”).

Many in the aristocracy assumed the Singers had Jewish origins even though they were brought up, “more or less, in the Protestant faith”. Winnie’s dad was Catholic and duelled with her Protestant mother (which led to their separation). When in England, Winnie attended Anglican churches, and when in France she had a regular confessor. The evidence is that she was a pragmatic freethinker, one interested in the cathedral’s architecture and its music, not in becoming une croyante. Kahan’s book is magnificently readable. My major complaint is that it stopped after 550 pages. We await a movie, based on the book, one that will describe the freethinking musician and patron of the arts, a lesbian of the last century who should not be forgotten.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-02-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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