Guggenheim, Olga H. (1877–1970)

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Guggenheim, Olga H. (1877–1970)

American philanthropist and organization executive. Name variations: Mrs. Simon Guggenheim. Born Olga H. Hirsh on September 23, 1877; died in 1970; daughter of Barbara (Steiner) Hirsh and Henry Hirsh (a New York realtor and diamond merchant); educated at private schools in America and Europe; married Simon Guggenheim (1867–1941, U.S. senator andphilanthropist), on November 24, 1898; sister-in-law of Irene and Florence S. Guggenheim ; children: John Simon Guggenheim (1905–1922); George Denver Guggenheim (1907–1939, committed suicide with a hunting rifle).

Olga Guggenheim was an early member of the board of The Museum of Modern Art and benefactor of the museum collections. With her husband Simon Guggenheim, an erstwhile U.S. senator from Colorado, Olga Guggenheim established the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in February 1925, in memory of their deceased son who had suddenly died of pneumonia and mastoiditis at age 17 while at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. The purpose of the Foundation was to bestow scholarships "to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding, and the appreciation of beauty by aiding—without distinction on account of race, color, or creed—scholars, scientists, and artists of either sex in the prosecution of their labors." The couple made a preliminary gift of $3 million, later supplemented by an additional gift of $1 million to include Latin-American scholarships.

When Simon died in 1941, the foundation was the residuary legatee of his estate, now worth $28 million. Olga succeeded him as president of the foundation and remained in that position for many years; at the time of her death in 1970, she was president emeritus and also left the bulk of her estate, $40 million, to her foundation.

Through the years, there have been two attempts by Congress to limit the use of the Foundation's monies. An attempt was made during the Nixon years to curb the rights of any foundation to make individual grants. In 1951, during Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade, the Foundation's existence had also been threatened when some in Congress learned that Aaron Copland, a Guggenheim Fellow, had written for the left-leaning New Worker and New Masses. During a congressional probe, Harry Allen Moe, in defense of the Foundation, told a Congressional committee:

I hold fast to what Mr. Justice Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion." I believe that if this Foundation… should attempt to prescribe "what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion," natural science, social science, or in any other manifestations of the mind or spirit, it had better not exist.

In 1952, when Olga Guggenheim was honored by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, it was noted at the award ceremonies that she kept an atrocious third-rate tapestry on the wall of the foyer of her lavish Fifth Avenue apartment to "remind her continuously of her mistakes." By 1976, nearly 10,000 scholars, artists, and scientists had benefited from the generosity of the Guggenheims, and the foundation's assets were over $100 million; by 1986, 57 Guggenheim Fellows had received the Nobel Prize.


Davis, John H. The Guggenheims: (1848–1988) An American Epic. NY: Shapolsky, 1988.

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Guggenheim, Olga H. (1877–1970)

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