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Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac (8 January 1865 – 26 November 1943) was a musical patron and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Born in America, she lived most of her adult life in France. In 1893, at the age of 29, she stepped companionably into an equally chaste marriage with the 59-year-old Prince Edmond de Polignac (19 April 1834 – 8 August 1901), a gay amateur composer. Although it was a mariage blanc (unconsummated marriage), or indeed a lavender marriage (a union between a gay man and a lesbian), it was based on profound love, mutual respect, understanding, and artistic friendship, expressed especially through their love of music. (P: NMeM 126946, Mrs Paris Singer and her daughter Miss Winnaretta)

She had affairs with numerous women, never making attempts to conceal them, and never going for any great length of time without a female lover. She had these affairs during her own marriages and afterwards, and often with other married women. The affronted husband of one of her lovers once stood outside the princess's Venetian palazzo, declaring, "If you are half the man I think you are, you will come out here and fight me." (P: James Tissot (1836-1902), The Circle of the Rue Royale (Prince Edmond de Polignac))

Polignac had a relationship with painter Romaine Brooks, which had begun in 1905, and which effectively ended her affair with Olga de Meyer, who was married at the time and whose godfather (and purported biological father) was Edward VII. Composer and conductor Ethel Smyth fell deeply in love with her during their affair. In the early 1920s Polignac became involved with pianist Renata Borgatti. From 1923 to 1933 her partner was the British socialite and novelist Violet Trefusis, with whom she had a loving but often turbulent relationship. Alvilde Chaplin, future wife of the author James Lees-Milne, was involved with Singer from 1938 to 1943; the two women were living together in London at the time of Winnaretta's death.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). Princesse Louis de Scey-Montbeliard, 1889
Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, was a musical patron and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. In 1893 she undertook an equally chaste marriage with Prince Edmond de Polignac, a gay amateur composer. The lavender marriage was based on profound love, mutual respect, understanding, and artistic friendship, expressed through their love of music. Polignac had a relationship with Olga de Meyer, Romaine Brooks, Ethel Smyth, Renata Borgatti, Violet Trefusis and Alvilde Chaplin.

Adolf de meyer (1868-1946), Olga de Meyer, 1897

Romaine Brooks, ca. 1894

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)/NPG 3243, Dame Ethel Smyth, 1901

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Renata Borgatti, 1921

Violet Trefusis

Alvilde Chaplin and James Lees-Milne

Winnaretta Singer was the twentieth of the 24 children of Isaac Singer. Her mother was his Parisian-born second wife, Isabella Eugenie Boyer, who was possibly the model for Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty. Winnaretta was born in Yonkers, New York. After the American Civil War, the Singer family moved to Paris, where they remained until the Franco-Prussian War. The family then settled in England, first in London, and then to Paignton, Devon where they moved to Oldway Mansion a 115-room palace built by her father.

Winnaretta's older brother, Adam Mortimer Singer, became one of England's landed gentry. Her younger sister, Isabelle-Blanche (1869-1896) married Jean, duc Decazes. Their daughter, Daisy Fellowes, was raised by Winnaretta after Isabelle-Blanche's death and became a noted socialite, magazine editor, and fashion trendsetter in her own right. Winnaretta's younger brother, Paris Singer, was one of the architects and financiers of the resort of Palm Beach, Florida; he had a child by Isadora Duncan. Another brother, Washington Singer, became a substantial donor to the University College of the southwest of England, which later became the University of Exeter; one of the university's buildings is named in his honor.

After Isaac Singer's death in 1875, Isabelle and her children moved back to Paris. Although known within private social circles to be lesbian, Winnaretta married at the age of 22 to Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard. The marriage was annulled in 1892 by the Catholic church, five years after a wedding night that reportedly included the bride's climbing atop an armoire and threatening to kill the groom if he came near her.

In 1894 the Prince and Princesse de Polignac established a salon in Paris in the music room of their mansion on Avenue Henri-Martin (today, Avenue Georges-Mandel). The Polignac salon came to be known as a haven for avant-garde music. First performances of Chabrier, d'Indy, Debussy, Fauré, and Ravel took place in the Polignac salon. The young Ravel dedicated his piano work, Pavane pour une infante défunte, to the Princesse de Polignac. Many of Marcel Proust's evocations of salon culture were born during his attendance at concerts in the Polignac drawing room.

After her husband's death, Winnaretta Singer-Polignac used her fortune to benefit the arts, sciences, and letters. She decided to honor his memory by commissioning several works of the young composers of her time, amongst others Igor Stravinsky's Renard, Erik Satie's Socrate (by her intercession Satie was kept out of jail when he was composing this work), Darius Milhaud's Les Malheurs d'Orphée, Francis Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos and Organ Concerto, Jean Françaix's Le Diable boîteux and Sérénade pour douze instruments, Kurt Weill's Second Symphony, and Germaine Tailleferre's First Piano Concerto. Manuel de Falla's El retablo de maese Pedro was premiered there, with the harpsichord part performed by Wanda Landowska.

In addition to Proust and Antonio de La Gandara, the Princesse de Polignac's salon was frequented by Isadora Duncan, Jean Cocteau, Claude Monet, Serge Diaghilev, and Colette. She was also patron to many others, including Nadia Boulanger, Clara Haskil, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Armande de Polignac, Ethel Smyth, Adela Maddison, the Ballets Russes, l'Opéra de Paris, and the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris. In addition to performing as pianist and organist in her own salon, she was an accomplished painter who exhibited in the Académie des Beaux-Arts. One canvas eventually appeared in the showcase of an art gallery, advertised as being a Manet.

Winnaretta Singer-Polignac was also an important leader in the development of public housing in Paris. Her 1911 building of a housing project for the working poor at Rue de la Colonie, 13th arrondissement, was considered to be a model for future projects. In the 1920s and 1930s, Singer commissioned the architect Le Corbusier to rebuild or construct several public shelters for Paris's Salvation Army.

During World War I, working with Marie Curie, Singer-Polignac helped convert private limousines into mobile radiology units to help wounded soldiers at the front.

During the inter-war period, Singer-Polignac worked with Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan and assisted in the construction of a 360 bed hospital destined to provide medical care to middle class workers. The result of this effort is the Foch Hospital, located in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris, France. The hospital also includes a school of nursing and is one of the top ranked hospitals in France, especially for renal transplants. It has remained true to its origins and stayed a private not-for-profit institution that still serves the Paris community. It is managed by the Fondation médicale franco-américaine du Mont-Valérien, commonly called Foundation Foch.

After Singer-Polignac's death, her legacy of enlightened generosity was carried on through the work of the Fondation Singer-Polignac. Created in 1928, the goals of the foundation are the promotion, through gifts and bourses, of science, literature, the arts, culture, and French philanthropy. The Foundation continued to present concerts and recitals in the Polignac mansion's music room. The performances were first organized by Nadia Boulanger, who presented programs that juxtaposed early music and modern compositions. After Boulanger's death in 1979, the composer Jean Françaix took over the organization of the concert series.


Further Readings:

Music's Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac (Eastman Studies in Music) by Sylvia Kahan
Series: Eastman Studies in Music (Book 22)
Paperback: 572 pages
Publisher: BOYE6 (June 30, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1580463339
ISBN-13: 978-1580463331
Amazon: Music's Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac

Superb new biography...The list of her achievements - music dedicated to her, works commissioned by her, artists supported by her - are all scrupulously recorded here...a dazzling and inspiring array...In Sylvia Kahan Winnaretta (Singer-Polignac) has a biographer able to explain her special mixture of arrogance, intelligence and bravery. --Margaret Reynolds, The Times 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. THE VILLAGER The American-born Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943) was a millionaire at the age of eighteen, due to her inheriting a substantial part of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Her 1893 marriage to Prince Edmond de Polignac, an amateur composer, brought her into contact with the most elite strata of French society. After Edmond's death in 1901, she used her fortune to benefit the arts, science, and letters. Her most significant contribution was in the musical domain: in addition to subsidizing individual artists (Boulanger, Haskil, Rubinstein, Horowitz) and organizations (the Ballets Russes, l'Opéra de Paris, l'Orchestre Symphonique de Paris), she made a lifelong project of commissioning new musical works from composers, many of them unknown and struggling, to be performed in her Paris salon. The list of works created as a result is long and extraordinary: Stravinsky's Renard, Satie's Socrate, Falla's El Retablo de Maese Pedro, and Poulenc's Two-Piano and Organ Concertos are among the best-known titles. In addition, her salon was a gathering place for luminaries of French culture such as Proust, Cocteau, Monet, Diaghilev, and Colette. Many of Proust's memorable evocations of salon culture were born during his attendance at concerts in the Polignac music room. Sylvia Kahan brings to life this eccentic and extravagant lover of the arts, whose influence on the 20th Century world of music and literature remains incalculable.

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