Singer, Winnaretta (1865–1943)

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Singer, Winnaretta (1865–1943)

American-born artist, musician, and patron of the arts who established the Fondation Singer-Polignac. Name variations: Princess Edmond de Polignac; Princesse de Polignac; Princess Winnie; Princess de Scey-Montbéliard. Born Winnaretta Eugénie Singer on January 8, 1865, in Yonkers, New York; died of a heart attack on November 26, 1943, in London, England; daughter of Isaac Merritt Singer (millionaire creator of the Singer sewing-machine) and Isabelle Eugénie Boyer Singer of Paris, France; educated at home by governesses; married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard, on July 27, 1887, in Paris (civil divorce, March 1891, marriage annulled, February 1892, in Rome); married Prince Edmond de Polignac, on December 15, 1893, in Paris (died in Paris, August 8, 1901); no children.

Moved with family to Paris, France (1866); moved to England (1870); father died (July 23, 1875); returned to Paris (1878); studied art in studio of Félix Barrias; exhibited paintings in Salon in Paris (1885–90); bought palace in Venice (December 1894); translated Thoreau's Walden, published in La Renaissance latine (December 1903–January 1904); established Polignac Prize in the Royal Society of Literature, London (1911); created Fondation Singer-Polignac (March 25, 1928).

Winnaretta Singer was a talented musician and an accomplished artist, a patron of avantgarde culture, and presided over one of the most illustrious salons in Paris. She was wealthy, independent-minded, reserved, and urbane. She collected Impressionist paintings before they were publicly acclaimed, commissioned works by modern composers, such as Eric Satie and Igor Stravinsky, and developed friendships with Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, and her neighbor in Paris, the poet Anna de Noailles . Her generous financial subsidies ensured the success of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Europe. A lesbian, Singer contracted two marriages, her concession to prevailing social convention. In time, her "inner circle" was largely comprised of homosexuals who shared her cultural interests and adhered to a discreet code of behavior.

Isaac Merritt Singer was a self-made millionaire and father of 22 children, 6 of whom were born in wedlock. Gregarious and socially ambitious, Singer left the United States in 1861 to avoid being conscripted into the army during the Civil War and to escape his latest mistress. In France, he mingled easily with French society and met his future wife, 20-year-old Isabelle Eugénie Boyer. In 1863, they moved to America and married. Their son, Mortimer, was born six weeks later, followed by Winnaretta Eugénie in 1865, three more sons and another daughter. Singer acknowledged all his children by his several mistresses; each went by the name Singer and was provided for in his will.

Winnaretta was two years old when the Singers returned to France in 1866. Music was already an important part of the Singer household, and Isaac Singer's riches provided a cultured environment for his children. However, in 1870, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the Singers fled France and settled in London and then in Torbay in Devon where Isaac built a large, elegant mansion. In July 1875, when Winnaretta was ten, her father died. After three years, Isabelle Singer decided to return to her native Paris, the cultural and social center of Europe. Soon after arriving in France in 1878, she married a Luxemburg noble, Vicomte d'Estenburg and Duc de Camposelice. The new duchess was beautiful, and when Frédéric Bartholdi was sculpting his Statue of Liberty during the 1880s, he modeled the head of the famous statue on her facial features. Isabelle's salon soon attracted a cultured elite who enjoyed the lavish weekly musical events that spurred Winnaretta's own interest in music.

Winnaretta did not approve of her mother's marriage, and their relations were often strained. In contrast to Isabelle, there was "something slightly intimidating" about Winnaretta; her reserved demeanor added to her air of aggressiveness, which masked a shyness that was not readily apparent. In Paris, Winnaretta developed an interest in art and studied with the formalistic Félix Barrias. But she much preferred the unconventional works of the Impressionists Manet, Sisley, and Monet, whose paintings were rejected and ridiculed by the artistic arbiters and critics of Paris. Their unorthodox techniques provided a "different way of looking at life" for Singer. Having no need to earn a living, she could follow her own artistic inclinations and develop her talents as she wished. In 1885, she exhibited a full-length self-portrait at the prestigious Salon in Paris, and several canvases were shown in the next few years. The Louvre asked her to prepare their catalogue in English for the museum, attesting to her fluency in French and English and to her artistic acumen.

Art remained a lifelong interest, but music came to occupy the center of her cultural pursuits. Musicians and painters attended her mother's salon, and in 1880, she met Gabriel Fauré for whom she later served as patron for over a decade. In 1882, Winnaretta accompanied her mother to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, which became for her an "annual pilgrimage" to hear the music of Wagner.

As an unmarried young woman, Singer was socially restricted; to be fully integrated into society,

she needed a suitable marriage. Her mother was determined to see her children marry into "the top ranks of French society," and Isabelle chose Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard, the third son of an old aristocratic family, as Winnaretta's prospective husband. Their marriage in July 1887 freed Winnaretta from her mother's "custodianship" and allowed her to establish her own house and control her fortune. Unfortunately, the prince's "idea about the nature of their marriage differed from hers"; their conjugal incompatibility led to a separation shortly thereafter and to a civil divorce in March 1891. The marriage was officially annulled by the Roman Curia in February 1892. Winnaretta's lesbian leanings were known before she married, but her husband had not taken this seriously despite his wife's insistence on "a marriage of convenience," a marriage in name only.

She possessed a certain timeless quality: she could mix with all types of people but felt most at ease with forward-looking artists whatever their age.

—Michael de Cossart

As a result of her failed marriage, writes Michael de Cossart, "Winnaretta would never again put herself in a position in which she might find herself dominated in any way by another human being." However, she had benefited from her alliance with a noble family; she had acquired a title and social status. Invited to the illustrious salons of the time, she met many of the cultural and intellectual elite of Europe. Her sexual orientation was not a secret, but Singer was discreet and never approved of homosexual displays in public. The more mature, wiser Winnaretta also "had acquired an incisiveness of mind and a directness of approach which … were considered too aggressive" at times and intimidated even those who knew her well.

Indeed, she was most comfortable with homosexuals, both men and women, and formed close friendships with "the great or notorious" if they shared common interests. The laissez-faire attitude of French society towards sexual preferences contributed to the relaxed civility found in the salon culture. And Singer's salon became one of the most refined and popular gatherings in Paris. In 1890, she bought a large mansion on the avenue Henri-Martin (home of the Fondation Singer-Polignac today) and began to reconstruct it in the 18th-century French classical style. Her friend, Comte Robert de Montesquiou, who was known for his exquisite taste in objets d'art and decor, helped decorate the Grand Salon and huge music room that contained an organ. They also shared an interest in music. Montesquiou had suggested to Fauré that he compose a musical score for the poet Paul Verlaine's Claire de lune; the first performance was given in a special concert in Singer's house. Works by Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, and Emmanuel Chabrier also debuted there. Singer became close friends with Chabrier and Ignacy Paderewski and with the painter John Singer Sargent (no relation to her) who painted a full-length portrait of Singer entitled the Princess de Scey-Montbéliard. Sargent was also responsible for introducing Winnaretta to the beauty and cultural pleasures of Venice where she later bought a handsome villa on the Grand Canal.

By 1892, Singer had achieved a position in Parisian society and was considered the "guiding spirit behind an increasingly avant-garde salon." In addition, she had begun to commission works from modern composers she favored, such as Fauré and Chabrier. She also learned not to interfere with their creativity, but to allow them to develop their own ideas. Although she had attained acceptance in society, her money alone would not admit her to "the more stimulating circles of French society," Montesquiou told her. Moreover, she was a "divorced" woman which was an awkward position. He urged her to remarry, and he had a prospect in mind.

The ideal husband for Singer would be Prince Edmond de Polignac, a close friend of Montesquiou. The prince was from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Europe, a composer, "a musician and dilettante with exquisite taste." Grandson of Marie Antoinette 's favorite, Yolande Martine de Polignac , and great-uncle to the future Prince Ranier of Monaco, Prince Edmond had both royal and social connections; and Winnaretta had the wealth to ensure them an elegant lifestyle. Moreover, he was a well-known homosexual, which allowed Singer to pursue her own sexual orientation. She was 28 years old when she married the 59-year-old prince in December 1893, at the Chapelle des Carmes in Paris with only family members present. Montesquiou felt slighted and never forgave them; Cossart suggests that because Montesquiou was homosexual, his presence would have called unnecessary attention to "the unconventional marriage" of the couple.

In spite of their unusual alliance, a "deep sympathy and mutual respect" developed between them. Their love of music, art, and literature provided the basis for a "tender and happy" marriage. The prince, who was bilingual like Singer, introduced her to Henry James and the painter James Whistler. They collected paintings by the Impressionists and several Old Masters. Annual art exhibitions were held at Singer's house, and she and the prince were welcome in the salons of productive artists who were associated with a more bohemian lifestyle. The prince was a composer whose work had been praised by Wagner, and Singer had his works played at her evening musical events. Handel and Bach (her favorite composers) were also often featured. The princess' salon had the reputation of being one of four "academic" salons in Paris, "a forum for ideas on anything connected with civilization," from art to politics. Her guests were an eclectic mix of writers, composers, and social figures: the refined Marcel Proust, the flamboyant Oscar Wilde and his lover "the beautiful Lord Alfred Douglas," the couturiere Coco Chanel , Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy. In 1894, Singer bought a 15th-century mansion in Venice, presented it to her husband and renamed it the Palazzo Polignac. As in her Paris residence, music and cultural gatherings made it a social center for the arts.

In the latter years of the 19th century, the Belle Époque was "becoming less beautiful, less integral as an age." Notes Cossart, Singer and her circle of friends became aware that homosexuality was under attack as "the wasting disease of degeneracy infecting the pleasantly intellectual spirit," especially among the more strait-laced English. Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Goal in England in 1895, condemned for exhibiting "an unmanly style of life and way of thinking." On his release, Singer again entertained him in her home and appeared with him in public. She and Prince Edmond, however, escaped criticism for they closely guarded their private life, and their marriage was "an acknowledgment that society's most sacred convention—appearances—must be respected." If their salon was perceived "as being per se immoral" by a few Parisians, it was almost universally agreed that "Winnaretta ran what was the most important music salon in Paris." Music lovers and friends were attracted to the refined decorum of the Polignacs' salon where were heard the premier performances of future great composers who recognized the value of their host by dedicating their works to her. Singer was also responsible for introducing the dancer Isadora Duncan to her guests; Prince Edmond was charmed by her performance, but Singer found Duncan's technique and style "not really serious enough." Her brother (Paris) Eugene Singer was also impressed and carried on a passionate affair with Isadora; they had a son Patrick (b. 1910), who would drown in the River Seine with Patrick's half-sister Deirdre and a governess in 1913.

Prince Edmond died in 1901, leaving Singer "disoriented" and restless. She spent increasingly long periods away from Paris, mixing with an international elite throughout Europe. In an age of growing nationalism, the princess was convinced that "National consciousness was a barrier to intellectual development," and thought of herself as a "citizen of the world." During the Edwardian era, she bought a house in London (1908) which became a cultural mecca for London high society. And although shy she embarked on a series of relationships with women. However, she avoided associating with the uninhibited, assertive women of that world, such as Gertrude Stein , Natalie Clifford Barney , and Princess Violette Murat . On the other hand, Singer enjoyed male company, and her salon attracted intelligent, creative individuals, such as Cocteau, Proust, Diaghilev, José-Maria Sert, Thomas Mann, Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, and Raymond Poincaré (future president of France), each able to appreciate and contribute to the wide-ranging conversation.

Around 1906, Singer had met the Russian impresario Diaghilev at a dinner party given by the Grand Duke Paul of Russia. Through her salon, Diaghilev met potential backers who followed Singer's example of generous support for more than two decades. She thought him to be a genius, and she was the major financial contributor to the successful season of the Ballets Russes in 1908, which introduced Nijinsky, Ida Rubenstein , and Anna Pavlova to Paris audiences. At the same time, she was a patron of young artists, Sert, Romaine Brooks , and Jacques-Emile Blanche. Encouraging and supporting young talent never interfered with her own intellectual pursuits. At age 50, she began to teach herself ancient Greek so she could read Plato and Aristotle in the original. In a short time, she had mastered the language and delighted in discussing the classics and philosophy with Henri Bergson and the British diplomat Sir Ronald Storrs. Her studies led to an interest in Greek and Roman coins which she collected. And she continued to collect art which graced her several residences. In 1911, Singer provided a large sum of money to the Royal Society of Literature in London for an annual prize to be awarded to an author chosen by the members; the Polignac Prize was established as a tribute to Prince Edmond.

When World War I began in 1914, Singer remained apolitical, but was pleased that her friend Poincaré was president of France. In her opinion, "governments, any government, were not held in high regard concerning competence." Nor did the women's suffrage movement receive her support; she was more concerned with the social role of women than with obtaining political rights for them. Singer remained in Paris during the war, even as the Germans came within sight of Paris. She gave substantial sums of money to Marie Curie to pursue her work on radium, which would benefit wounded French soldiers, and raised funds for the army and navy through charities and art exhibitions. Money was also dispensed among Russian artists, such as Stravinsky and Diaghilev, who were cut off from their resources after the Russian Revolution. To save the Ballets Russes company, Singer contacted her relative, Prince Pierre de Polignac, the son-in-law of the prince of Monaco; Pierre and his wife Charlotte became patrons and agreed to help obtain a contract with the Monte Carlo Opera.

During the war, the princess maintained her salon and continued her patronage of avantgarde artists. She bristled when their public performances met with raucous laughter and catcalls. Cocteau's ballet Parade, with music by Satie, elicited such a reaction, as did the latter's Greek drama set to music (Socrate) where "boos and titters" greeted the performance. Singer was his patron and "became known as the fairy-god-mother to his disciples." She appreciated the modern, the daring, and frequented parties attended by the Dadaists, by Picasso, Cocteau, André Breton, and Paul Claudel. She tried to foster the reputation of the poet Paul Valéry who attended her salon and occasionally gave lectures there. Not every talented artist fit into Singer's refined salon atmosphere; the young composer Maxime Jacob, for example, "was not sufficiently attuned to sophisticated life to qualify for entry into the inner circle of friends."

By the mid-1920s, the heyday of the grand salons was passing, writes Cossart, but not at Singer's where "all aspects of civilized life … without much attention to the social standing of the participants" continued to flourish. By the end of the decade her "inner circle" was comprised of homosexuals. Among them was Violet Trefusis , Singer's lover for ten years, and Violet's husband Denys who was knowledgeable about music. However, Singer and her friends had little contact with groups such as Gertrude Stein's; Picasso had introduced Stein to the princess during the war, but Stein "was not European enough," and too masculine for Winnaretta. Her antipathy is evident in her refusal to even meet the American composer Virgil Thomson who was a friend of Stein.

If Paris was changing, so was Venice. Millionaires and American nouveaux riches brought "decay and decline" to the Old World culture center, epitomized by the professional American party arranger Elsa Maxwell who served "the uninspired rich." Still, Singer enjoyed the plethora of parties, balls, and dinners given by the newer arrivals in Venice; the English Cunards, Victor, Edward, and the eccentric Nancy Cunard , Lady Diana Duff Cooper and her husband Alfred were among Singer's acquaintances.

The princess was socially and physically active, but as friends and relatives her own age (63) were dying, she began to think about properly disposing of her riches. In 1926, in Venice, her friend Maurice Paléologue suggested she create "a foundation which could foster and endow artistic and scientific projects," and fund activities at the Collège de France. Singer thus became the college's "second protector"—after King Francis I. Her friend Raymond Poincaré became the first president of the Fondation Singer-Polignac which was "authorized by special legislation on 25 March 1928 and confirmed as an independent body under Swiss law as the Institut Singer-Polignac on 22 December 1934." Thinking of her own mortality, Singer decided in the spring of 1927 to visit the United States which she had not seen since she was two years old. The French referred to her American origins at times, a country that was foreign to her. Violet and Denys Trefusis accompanied her on the trip to Washington, D.C., where they met the "taciturn" President Calvin Coolidge, and on a tour of the Southern states. Finding "little intellectual stimulation in the plutocratic circles" she encountered in America, they left for Cuba. As she told reporters, she had not been to America for over sixty years, and "it would probably have to wait another sixty before she returned." Moreover, as she had always known, Paris was "the only place she ever regarded as home."

She knew, too, that her patronage of the arts was essential if new works were to be encouraged and performed. Singer continued to subsidize the Ballets Russes and provided financial backing for Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. After a preview at her house, the public performance in 1927 failed to impress the audience or the critics. As Janet Flanner , who wrote for The New Yorker magazine, noted, "The Latin was sung, with Italian pronunciation, to the French audience by Russians." Diaghilev's death in 1929 "marked the end of an artistic era" and "the end of a period of Winnaretta's life." Pure music—opera, chamber, and orchestral music—interested her more, and led to closer ties with Nadia Boulanger and her students. The princess further commissioned Nicolas Nabokov's Job, Stravinsky's Persephone, and a symphony by Kurt Weill. In 1933, her friends arranged a special concert of all the music that composers had dedicated to her, a tribute "to her contributions to the music world." She also had kept in touch with literary friends, Ezra Pound who shared her interest in music, the poet Léon-Paul Fargue whom she admired for his compassionate nature, and Jean Cocteau who insisted Winnaretta resembled Dante in Giotto's portrait of him. Addicted to opium, Cocteau displayed erratic behavior that made him a difficult friend. After the death of Anna de Noailles, Singer became close friends with Colette , both being "naturally witty, clever and down to earth."

Singer's place in le grand monde of Paris was secure; she was equally in demand socially in England where she served as a link to civilized Europe, a woman of unquestioned taste. At a party at Lady (Sibyl) Colefax 's house, Singer was not impressed with the music (Mad Dogs and Englishmen and other "popular" fare) enjoyed by several of the English guests, including King Edward VIII and his American paramour, Mrs. Wallis Simpson (Wallis Warfield, duchess of Windsor ). The latter lacked "sophistication" according to Singer who "could put on a cold, forbidding look of detachment," notes Cossart, when she found herself among those "who were less than civilized by [her] standards."

In Paris, Singer continued to support the arts. She provided a monthly allowance to the pianist Clara Haskil , helped fund the career of Renata Borgatti , also a pianist, and financed the founding of the Nadia Boulanger Orchestra. In the late 1930s, the princess began suffering from angina and made out a final will to dispose of her remaining property. She left a legacy to many who had benefited from her largesse over the years, and she discharged the debt owed by the Duc d'Ayen, allowing him to purchase his family's château at Maintenon. Paintings and objets d'art were bequeathed to the Louvre Museum. Houses, books, furniture, and money were to be distributed among her heirs, and bequests were made to composers, musicians, and artists.

The Fondation Singer-Polignac was already actively supporting the arts. In addition, laboratories were established at the Collège de France, and over the years conferences on natural history, hormonal research, and astrophysics were held. Archaeological expeditions to Greece were funded, and money was provided for the restoration of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. A ship named Winnaretta Singer was given to the Institut Oceanographique for use in underwater studies, and a mobile lab was purchased for the Institut Pasteur in Dakar, Senegal. Singer also gave to charities and causes; she financed construction of Salvation Army hostels and the renovation of working-class housing in Paris.

On September 3, 1939, an era and a way of life abruptly ended when Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. Singer had gone to England to bury her brother Franklin in the family vault in Torquay. Her family persuaded her to stay in England as the war escalated, and she rented a small apartment in London. When France fell to the German onslaught in June 1940, Singer realized she was now a refugee and that "her world had collapsed." Fearful and unwell, she was cut off from her sources of income from Singer shares. She worried about her Paris house, but the German officials in Paris mistakenly assumed she was in a neutral South American country and did not confiscate her property. Always hoping to return to Paris and her friends, she occupied her time by painting, attending concerts, galleries and museums, and socializing. By the autumn of 1943, her attacks of angina intensified. On November 24, she gave a dinner party, went to a luncheon the next day and spent the evening with friends. At 2:00 am on the 26th, Singer suffered a heart attack and died without seeing her beloved Paris again. A requiem mass was celebrated on December 1, and the Princess de Polignac was buried beside Prince Edmond in Torquay.


Cossart, Michael de. The Food of Love: Princesse Edmond de Polignac (1865–1943) and Her Salon. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978.

Haight, Mary Ellen Jordan. Paris Portraits, Renoir to Chanel: Walks on the Right Bank. Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith, 1991.

Mignot-Ogliastri, Claude. Anna de Noailles, Une Amie de la Princesse Edmond de Polignac. Méridiens Klincksieck, 1987.

suggested reading:

Cossart, Michael de. "Princesse Edmond de Polignac: Patron and Artist," in Apollo. Vol. CII, no. 162. August 1975.

Gavoty, Bernard [Clarendon]. "À la Memoire de la Princesse de Polignac," in Le Figaro. December 9, 1965.

Hall, Richard. "Princesse Winnie," in Opera News. Vol. 3–4, nos. 9–10, 1969–70.

Haslach, Linda Allison. "Entre Nous: Vocal Music from the Salon of Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse Édmond de Polignac." D.M.A. thesis, School of Music, University of Maryland, College Park, 1999.

Polignac, Winnaretta, Princesse Edmond de. "Memoirs," in Horizon. Vol. XII, no. 68. August 1945.

Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah