Known for her riotous parties and outrageous behaviour, this wealthy libertine became one of the most celebrated champions of modern art. By Helen Gent.

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As the gleaming black gondola glided through the waters of Venice's Grand Canal, people turned to stare at the elderly woman sitting regally on board. With her huge sunglasses, smeared red lipstick and bright printed dress, she was an incongruous sight against the backdrop of T-shirted tourists. As people pointed and cameras clicked, the woman chatted to the little dog lying sleepily by her side, seemingly oblivious to the excitement she was creating. Suddenly, she flicked her hand, and her trusted gondolier nodded and turned the boat. As they moved gently through the rippling waters, the city shimmering in the summer haze behind them, the woman hoped that when she arrived home, everyone would, at last, be gone.

Putting up with prying tourists was a price Peggy Guggenheim was prepared to pay in order to share her love of art. During the '50s, '60s and '70s, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (now the Peggy Guggenheim Collection) was not only Peggy's home, but also a mecca for hundreds of thousands of visitors who flocked through its doors to see the private art collection she had amassed over an enthralling lifetime.

Displayed throughout the crumbling 18th-century palazzo, tourists could view Peggy's fabulous artworks while she avoided the crowds by riding her gondola - or sunbathing naked on the roof. "Fifty per cent of the people who come here genuinely want to see my collection; the others to meet what they consider a celebrity," she said of the daily intrusion.

An heiress of the famous Guggenheim family (industrialists who later founded the eponymous museum in New York), Peggy lived a life full of contradictions. Although she financially supported friends, family and the artists she championed, she was notoriously stingy, wearing op-shop furs and scraping dinner guests' leftovers back into serving bowls. She once spent an entire day searching Venice for cheap toilet paper.

With her "potato" nose, Peggy wasn't known for her beauty, but she was an exhibitionist - once standing naked in front of her butler while giving him orders - and was renowned for her insatiable carnal appetite. Dubbed "the female Don Juan" by some, Peggy was said to have bedded hundreds of men - and occasionally women. When asked how many husbands she'd had, she reportedly replied, "Mine or other people's?" Many of her sexual conquests were the artists she invited to the raging parties she was famous for.

Her love of modern art meant she mingled with some of the 20th century's most famous artists, including Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, French surrealist Jean Cocteau and German painter Max Ernst, whom she married after rescuing him from Nazi-occupied France. But her relationships were tempestuous and tragic. Many lovers were physically violent and two of them died - one of a heart attack, the other in a car crash. Her family life was troubled, too; Peggy's alcoholic daughter died of a suspected suicide at 42. Twelve years later, at the age of 81, Peggy died of a stroke in Italy, leaving her art collection - then estimated to be worth $30 million - at her palazzo, to be enjoyed by generations of art lovers to come.

Born on August 26, 1898, Marguerite Guggenheim grew up in Manhattan, New York, with her sisters, Hazel and Benita. Her parents, Benjamin and Florette, were wealthy German-Jewish aristocrats, and Marguerite was raised in the lap of luxury. Despite her privileged lifestyle - even her doll's house had crystal chandeliers - in her autobiography, Out Of This Century, she described her childhood as "excessively unhappy". Her mother was an eccentric, prone to repeating everything three times, her father was preoccupied with his many mistresses, and being tutored at home meant Marguerite had no friends. At 13, her world fell apart after her father died aboard the Titanic in 1912. The family was then forced to rely on charity from her uncle Solomon (who opened the Guggenheim Museum in New York) after discovering Benjamin had squandered the family fortune.

In 1919, Marguerite turned 21 and came into an inheritance of $450,000 from her late grandfather. She started calling herself Peggy - her favourite nickname - and had a nose job in 1920. But the operation was so painful that, midway through, Peggy begged the surgeon to stop, and left with the same bulbous nose she'd walked in with (only now, bizarrely, it swelled up when it rained).

At 23, Peggy - a tall, willowy brunette - took a holiday in Europe with her mother, and in Paris fell madly in love with American writer and painter Laurence Vail, 30, who Peggy dubbed "the King of Bohemia". Within months they were married - although Peggy was so unsure he would turn up to the nuptials, she didn't bother to buy a wedding dress. Life in 1920s Paris was glamorous and unpredictable, and Peggy embraced the flapper look. Through Laurence, she was introduced to a new literary and artistic circle, including French surrealist painter Marcel Duchamp, whom Peggy later credited as "the great influence of my life".

But there was a dark side to married life. Soon after their wedding, Laurence, a heavy drinker, began to physically assault Peggy, sometimes even throwing her down steps or punching her in the stomach. By the end of 1928, she'd had enough, and left him and their two children, Sindbad, five, and Pegeen, two, and moved in with a new lover, English writer John Holms, who she'd met at a cafe in Saint-Tropez.

Four years later, when her divorce came through, Peggy and John moved to England, taking Pegeen with them (Peggy had custody of her daughter and Laurence took Sindbad). After a year renting Hayford Hall - dubbed "Hangover Hall" by friends - in Devon, the couple moved to London, where John exerted a svengali-like influence over Peggy. "He knew I was half trivial and half extremely passionate, and he hoped to be able to eliminate my trivial side," said Peggy. She adored John and was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1934.

Now nearing 40, Peggy's privileged life took on a new direction. In 1937, her mother died, leaving Peggy another $450,000. Bored with country life, she decided to get a job. "Someone suggested either an art gallery or a publishing house, and I thought a gallery would be less expensive," explained Peggy, who had been introduced to the bohemian art world by Vail. "Of course, I never dreamed how much I would eventually spend." 

By her own admission, Peggy knew nothing about modern art - "My knowledge of art ended at impressionism" - but she soon learnt from Duchamp, who taught her the difference between abstract and surrealism. Armed with her new knowledge - "I took advice from none but the best ... I listened, how I listened! That's how I finally became my own expert." - Peggy travelled to Paris to scout for artists to exhibit in her gallery. Between meetings with painters and sculptors, she had a passionate affair with Irish writer (and future Nobel prize winner) Samuel Beckett. "His comings and goings were completely unpredictable, and I found that exciting," wrote Peggy in her autobiography. "[He'd] show up in the middle of the night with four bottles of champagne and wouldn't let me out of bed for two days. Not that I wanted him to."

In 1938, Peggy's gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, opened in Cork Street, London, with an exhibition by Jean Cocteau. The surrealist and abstract art she showcased was new to the UK. Many people were "baffled" by it, and few bought it. So, to boost sales and "console" artists, Peggy secretly began buying works herself. "That's how the collection began," she revealed. In 1939, she closed the gallery and returned to Paris on another buying mission - this time for a modern-art museum she was planning to open.

Peggy was still in Paris in September when World War II erupted. Rather than retreat to the safety of New York, she rented a unit and launched into a buying frenzy. Her motto was to "buy a picture a day", and with the German invasion imminent, there was no shortage of sellers. "Everyone knew I was in the market for anything I could lay my hands on," said Peggy. She spent about $40,000 on paintings and sculptures, often buying direct from the artists at knockdown prices.

On June 12, 1940, two days before the Germans invaded Paris, Peggy finally fled to Grenoble in the south of France. Her collection had been transported to a friend's barn in central France for safekeeping (she was furious the Louvre had refused to store it, deeming it too modern to save). But she was soon on the move again, after a group of painters (including Max Ernst, who had escaped from a concentration camp) asked her to help them leave France. It was a dangerous time for the Jewish heiress. But after several months in Marseilles, where she enjoyed a lusty liaison with Max, Peggy and the rescued artists escaped to the US in July 1941.

Back in New York, Peggy and Max moved into a mansion on the East River, and married the following December. In October 1942, Peggy opened her longed-for modern-art museum, called Art Of This Century, in Manhattan. As well as showing work from emerging artists like Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, Peggy championed American abstract painter Jackson Pollock. Of everything she did in her life, she said discovering Pollock was "by far the most honourable achievement". But in later years, she was embittered that her association with the artist had been downplayed ("everything I had done for Pollock was being either minimised or completely forgotten"). Back then, Peggy sold Pollock's work for no more than $1000 - today, his paintings are worth more than $100 million.

With her treasured Lhasa apso dogs trailing behind her, Peggy arrived daily at the gallery in a thrown-together outfit with smudged lipstick and her hair dyed a severe black. At night, she hosted wild parties attended by avant-garde guests, like the actress and writer Gypsy Rose Lee. Peggy claimed she went to bed drunk every night for five years, but Pollock was rarely invited to her outrageous bashes "as he drank so much", she noted, "and did unpleasant things on such occasions". (He once urinated into a fireplace.)

In 1943, Max moved out. "Peace was the one thing that Max needed in order to paint, and love was the one thing I needed in order to live," observed Peggy. "As neither of us gave the other what he most desired, our union was doomed to failure." Then, in May 1947, Peggy closed Art Of This Century after five years. "I was exhausted by all my work in the gallery, where I had become a sort of slave," said Peggy, who was now approaching 50.

She decided to return to Europe, settling in Venice, one of her favourite cities, where she would remain for the rest of her life. She moved into the white stone Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in 1949, where she lived in grand style with her servants and 11 dogs, and commissioned the last privately owned gondola. In 1951, she opened the doors of her palazzo to the public. Three afternoons a week, visitors were allowed to roam through Peggy's home to see her magnificent collection (there were even paintings in the bathroom, along with her wet stockings). The public access caused more inconvenience than Peggy had anticipated. "If I want to get across the hall in my dressing-gown I find myself rather out of luck." Still, as ever, Peggy supported rising talent and opened her cellar as an artist's studio.

She continued to host regular parties and entertained famous guests like Japanese artist and future wife of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and American writer Truman Capote. Despite her wealth, Peggy's catering was lacking ("a can of sardines goes a long way", son Sindbad wryly observed). The men in her life now were mostly homosexual companions, save for a three-year relationship with Raoul Gregorich, a "madly beautiful" garage mechanic 23 years her junior, who died in a car crash in 1954. It wasn't the last tragedy for Peggy. On March 1, 1967, her daughter, Pegeen, died in mysterious circumstances at her home in Paris. An alcoholic painter who was also reputedly addicted to Valium and sleeping pills, Pegeen had previously tried to commit suicide and was found slumped on the floor of her bedroom by her husband, British artist Ralph Rumney. Peggy, who was informed of her daughter's death by telegram while on a trip to Mexico, never recovered from the loss.

In 1962, Peggy was made an honorary citizen of Venice and, almost until her death from a stroke on December 23, 1979, she could be seen cruising the canals in her gondola - on one occasion writing to a friend: "I adore floating to such an extent I can't think of anything as nice since I gave up sex, or, rather, it gave me up."

Just before she died, Peggy reflected; "I look back on my life with great joy. I think it was a very successful life. I always did what I wanted and never cared what anyone thought. Women's lib? I was a liberated woman long before there was a name for it."