Volume 74, Number 8 | June 23 - 29, 2004

A special Villager supplement,

Singer heiress sewed wild oats in Paris music scene

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, in “Music’s Modern Muse, A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac” (University of Rochester Press, Woodrich, Suffolk, $49.95, 550 pages, 2003), starts the biography of a unique patron of the arts who might or might 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 18, from 1888 to 1939 Winnaretta Singer headed what has been termed the most important avant-garde musical salon. She lost the first prince to death and married a second, becoming the princesse de Polignac. She 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).

Singer contributed heavily to l’Opéra de Paris, Les Ballets Russes and l’Orchestre Symphonique de Paris. She knew about “Paris-Lesbos,” a mysterious subculture at the end of the 19th century. She was a chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

Singer entertained such people as Clive Bell (Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law), Claudette Colbert (a luncheon guest) and Percy Grainger (who dedicated some folksong scores to her). Others she socialized with included 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”) and Ezra Pound (who was openly sympathetic to the fascist regime). She also knew Kurt Weill (who was told by Stravinsky that “Threepenny Opera” was “the most talked-about contemporary German work of art”); and Virginia Woolf (who was not too warm, 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, 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; Singer 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 poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. Goddard fell in love with Winnaretta at first sight, but then she also loved 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. The book also details the financial aid the princess contributed to charities during the two world wars, and tells where the Belle Epoque’s notables hid when the bombs fell. It is slyly revealed who was homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual as well as what many thought about each other. A scholarly work, the biography has over 80 pages of revealing footnotes (e.g., a breakdown of Singer’s stock holdings and net worth; how Lord Chamberlain stopped a rehearsal of Wilde’s “Salome,” written expressly to be performed by Bernhardt, because “it was blasphemous to stage a play with biblical characters”).

Dr. Kahan is chairperson of the Department of Performing and Creative Arts at the College of Staten Island. Her book is magnificently readable. The reader’s complaint might be that it stopped after 550 pages and has not yet been made into a movie.

Smith, the book review editor of “The Humanist” (1953-1958), is a Stonewall Riots veteran and longtime resident of Greenwich Village.

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