Barbara Hazel Guggenheim McKinley, sister of the more renowned Peggy Guggenheim, is unfortunately best known for a terrible tragedy that occurred 90 years ago, when her first two children died in what was officially ruled an accidental fall from a New York city rooftop.
The incident sent shock waves throughout the upper crust world of Jewish aristocracy that the Guggenheims belonged to, and left Hazel permanently stigmatized, living out her life as the exiled black sheep of the family. This, her own description of herself, gives some insight into the itinerant life she led, until she finally settled in New Orleans in the late 1960s.
What is not mentioned as often is that Hazel left a prolific body of work behind when she died in 1995. She’d begun painting already as a teenager, and when her first marriage failed, she ended up in France with her second husband. There, she broke free of the constraints of her restrictive upbringing, and dove headfirst into la vie bohème of 1920’s Paris, where she began receiving tuitions from modernist painters of the day.
When her second marriage ended, she moved to England with her third husband, and continued with her training. She was drawn to a group of avant-garde artists that had come together as a reaction to the stranglehold which the Royal Academy had on exhibiting new work. And Hazel began painting in earnest, using her new married name of King-Farlow. The first exhibitions of her paintings were held in England in the 1930s under this name.
Her many watercolors, drawings, and oil paintings, have been shown in galleries around the world, and can be found in many private collections, especially in the southern United States. She is considered by many in the USA a “New Orleans” artist, having spent such a large part of her adult life there. Reviews of her art over the years have been positive, but also very divided, running the gamut at times from enthusiastic to completely dismissive.
Whatever the opinions about her work, art appears to have been the fundamental element that her life revolved around. Either producing it herself, or by mentoring and generously supporting the many artistic and literary figures that she surrounded herself with. She had a reputation as an eccentric, yet kindhearted member of the Bohemian circles that she frequented.
From the 1920s-30s spent in Paris and London, to the 1940’s wartime Los Angeles, and throughout the remainder of her life, her many acquaintances included members of the European and American avant-garde and modernist movements. She was known for her salons and parties that brought some of the most interesting personalities of the 20th century art and literary worlds together. She studied art throughout her life, taking classes at various colleges and universities over the years, and at times teaching as a guest lecturer on art herself. In her 80s she was taking art classes in New Orleans, where teachers and fellow students alike would listen in awe to the stories she told of her friendships with her more famous contemporaries.
I knew Hazel as an intermittent presence, a kind of benevolent shadow, hovering in the wings of my family life while growing up, ignorant of any of the notoriety that surrounded her. My father had told me that she was my godmother, and family stories abound. After he died and I started sorting through his papers, a tale began to unfold that had always captured my imagination: their brief marriage to one another in the early 1950s, before he met my mother.
Her letters, artworks, sketchbooks, photographs, essays, all painting a picture of an intriguing woman, who I remember as being warmhearted, generous, and loyal. As prolific and consistent in her letter writing as she was with her painting and sketching, she continued checking up on me, my father, even my mother, as well as other extended family members, until her death in 1995. Growing up, her unconventional attitudes and lifestyle epitomized for me a kind of free spirit ideal, that I now see captured in her paintings. Hazel did not have a conventional bone in her body.
Her eccentricities made her a larger than life figure, as did her humorous deadpan quips, which are gleefully recalled by those who knew her. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has had a Hazel bon mot to share. And without fail, they imitate her singular throaty Britishy whisper while doing so.
And that is how this project began. My goal is to gather enough additional material to eventually be able to write something about Hazel, beyond the gossip, and single faceted story of tragedy that she is most famous for. She was such a charismatic figure in her own right, as an artist and as a personality, and far more than just Peggy’s little sister. At a time when women were for the most part still expected to get married and raise children, she managed to carve out a singularly interesting life for herself, that was completely on her own terms.
Comments and any additional information about Hazel are most welcome.