Winnaretta Singer

Winnaretta Singer, Princess Edmond de Polignac (8 January 1865-26 November 1943), was an important musical patron and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. She was the twentieth of the twenty-four children of Isaac Merritt Singer. Her mother was his Paris-born second wife, Isabelle Eugenie Boyer, who was possibly the model for Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty. Winnaretta was born in Yonkers, New York. After the outbreak of 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 Paignton, Devon; there, Isaac Singer built a 115-room palace modeled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, which he named "The Wigwam."

Marriages and relationships

After 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 1893, at the age of 29, she stepped companionably into an equally chaste marriage with the 59-year-old Prince Edmond de Polignac (1843-1901), a gay amateur composer: he died in 1901. Although it was likely to have been a mariage blanc (unconsummated marriage), the union was based on profound love, mutual respect and understanding, and artistic friendship, expressed especially through their love of music.

Patron of arts

In 1894 the Prince and Princess 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 Maurice Ravel dedicated his celebrated piano work, "Pavane pour une infante défunte" to the Princesse de Polignac. Many of Proust's memorable evocations of salon culture were born during his attendance at concerts in the Polignac living 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 Two-Piano and Organ Concertos (The Organ Concerto being initially a commission to the young Jean Françaix, who didn't have the time and passed the commission to Poulenc), Kurt Weill's Second Symphony, and Germaine Tailleferre's First Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Manuel de Falla's El retablo de Maese Pedro was premiered there, with the harpsichord part performed by Wanda Landowska. (Kahan 2003)

In addition to Marcel 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 also acted as patron for many others, like Nadia Boulanger, Clara Haskil, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Ethel Smyth, Adela Maddison, the Ballets Russes, l'Opéra de Paris, and l'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 Salon de Beaux-Arts.

In addition to playing piano and organ, Singer-Polignac enjoyed some success as a painter; a number of her canvases were accepted for annual exhibitions of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. One canvas eventually appeared in the showcase of an art gallery, advertised as being a Manet.

Public service

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 architect Le Corbusier to rebuild or construct several public shelters for Paris's Salvation Army.

During World War I, working with scientist-inventor Marie Curie, Singer-Polignac helped convert private limousines into mobile radiology units that could used to help wounded soldiers at the Front.

Fondation Singer-Polignac

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. After Singer-Polignac's death, 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 stimulating programs that juxtaposed early music and modern compositions. After Boulanger's death in 1979, composer Jean Françaix took over the organization of the concert series.

Lesbian relationships

She was involved in numerous affairs during both of her marriages and afterward with other women, some married, others not. She maintained lesbian affairs with numerous women, never making attempts to conceal them, and never going for any great length of time without a female lover. Composer and conductor Ethel Smyth fell deeply in love with her during their affair. Polignac frequently became involved with married women. The affronted husband of one of her married female lovers once stood outside the princess's Paris house declaring, "If you are half the man I think you are, you will come out here and fight me."

Polignac had a relationship with painter Romaine Brooks, which had began 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. Alvilde Chaplin, the future wife of writer James Lees-Milne, was also involved with Singer for a time. In the early 1920s Polignac became involved with pianist Renata Borgatti. From 1923-1933 her partner was the British socialite and novelist Violet Trefusis, with whom she had a loving but often turbulent relationship. Trefusis, when she and Singer met, was just coming off a very stormy relationship with writer Vita Sackville-West, which had ended badly.

The Singer relatives

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, raised by Winnaretta after Isabelle-Blanche's death, became a noted socialite, magazine editor, and fashion trendsetter. 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.


Further reading

  • Sylvia Kahan (2003). Music's Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, Eastman Studies in Music. University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-58046-133-6.
  • Michael de Cossart, Food of Love: Princesse Edmond de Polignac (1865-1943) and her Salon, Hamish Hamilton, 1978. ISBN 0-241-89785-8
  • James Ross, ‘Music in the French Salon’; in Caroline Potter and Richard Langham Smith (eds.), French Music Since Berlioz (Ashgate Press, 2006), pp.91–115. ISBN 0-7546-0282-6.

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