During the Gilded Age, Winnaretta Singer emerged as one of the most colorful and interesting million-dollar princesses not only because of her immense fortune and intriguing private life, but also because of her ceaseless patronage of music and the arts and support for social causes.
Birth and Early Years
The American heiress was born on January 8, 1865 in Yonkers, New York, U.S.A., the 20th of the 24 children of Isaac Merritt Singer, inventor and founder of Singer Sewing Machine Company, and his second wife, Parisian model Isabella Eugenie Boyer. Following the American Civil War, Winnaretta’s family moved to Paris where they remained until the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The Singers then moved to England and took up residence at Mr. Singer’s Oldway Mansion, a palace in Paignton, Devon.
Winnaretta showed a profound passion for music since her teenage years that on her 13th birthday, she requested to hear a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 131, a piece of music considered to be “incomprehensible” by the Parisian music society at the time. She was 15 when she met composer Gabriel Fauré, with whom she began a lifelong relationship rooted on mutual respect and admiration. Author Sylvia Kahan compared Gabriel’s feelings towards the Singer heiress “to those of Schumann for the young Clara Wieck before the blossoming of their romance”. Winnaretta, on the one hand, considered Mr. Fauré as her “first musical mentor, and an important friend”.
Isaan Merritt Singer died in July of 1875, leaving her wives and children a colossal fortune of over $13 million. A series of lawsuits among his heirs followed and Winnaretta eventually received $900,000, already considerable at that time. As soon as she turned 21, she organized for her wealth to be put in her name and become the legal administrator of her inheritance.
Winnaretta attended Bayreuth Festival in 1882 for the first time. There she fell in love with Wagner’s music and went on to visit the place once each year. Back then, her affinity towards contemporary German music was considered astonishing given that Wagner’s masterpieces were unwelcome in most Parisian theaters and concert halls due to anti-German sentiments.
At the age of 22, Winnaretta married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard in order to obtain financial freedom from her family and penetrate the Parisian elite artistic circles. On their wedding night, the American heiress climbed on top an armoire, and with an umbrella in her hand she threatened her husband: “I am going to kill you if you come near me!” Given the fact that Winnaretta very much preferred the company of women, their marriage was unconsummated and was eventually annulled in 1892.
In 1893, Winnaretta married her second husband, Prince Edmond de Polignac, a 59-year-old openly gay amateur composer who lost his entire fortune in the stock market. Although theirs was considered a mariage blanc (unconsummated marriage) or a lavender marriage (a union between a gay man and a lesbian), the couple bonded through their love for music. They lived happily together until Prince Edmond’s death in 1901. Winnaretta never remarried.
Princesse de Polignac and her husband established in 1894 the Polignac salon in the music room of their mansion on Avenue Henri-Martin, which became known as a haven for avant-garde music and was frequented by the likes of Marcel Proust, Colette and Claude Monet. It was at the said salon where the first performances of Maurice Ravel, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Paul Marie Théodore Vincent d'Indy, and Alexis-Emmanuel Chabrier took place.
She had a brief affair with composer and suffragette Ethyl Smyth. Though the latter madly fell in love with the Singer heiress, Winnaretta—who distanced herself from the more flamboyant lesbian personalities in the belief that restraint and decorum was essential for her survival in Paris—was stubborn in her decision to be just in a platonic relationship with Ethyl.
Winnaretta was not the only lesbian American expatriate in Paris at the time. She found herself sharing the limelight with poet, playwright, and novelist Natalie Clifford Barney, who published love poems directed towards women in order to fend off attention from young males. Winnaretta kept her distance from the flamboyant Natalie and even pretended she did not know her. Interestingly, they both shared the same lovers including Romaine Brooks, who ended Princesse Polignac’s relationship with then married Baroness Olga de Meyer, a British model. She also had a discreet relationship with Italian classical musician Renata Borgatti when she met one of her great loves, English socialite and author Violet Trefusis. They remained lovers for ten years until the Singer heiress fell in love with Alvilde Chaplin, an English gardening expert and landscape artist. The two reportedly had a turbulent relationship, but they stayed together until Winnaretta’s death.
Winnaretta also loved painting. In 1885, she painted a portrait of her sister Belle-Blanche, which was admitted at the Paris Salon a year later. “Although I secretly loved music most, painting attracted me almost equally, and I spent all the time possible at the Musée du Louvre, without understanding much of what I saw there, but forming the strongest likes and dislikes,” she confessed in her memoirs.
The Development of Public Housing in Paris
Princesse de Polignac was considered an important figure in the development of public housing in Paris. Her 1911 housing project for the impoverished residents of Rue de la Colonie became a template for future projects. Winnaretta also bought the barge Louise-Catherine and commissioned architect Le Corbusier to transform it into a refuge for the Paris Salvation Army and for the homeless during winter. It also served as a summer camp for children.
World War I Efforts, Later Life and Death
During the First World War, Winnaretta helped convert private limousines into mobile radiology units in order to help wounded soldiers. The inter-war period saw Winnaretta collaborating with fellow American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan to assist in the construction of a 36O-bed hospital, the Foch Hospital in Suresnes, Paris, France.
Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, died on November 26, 1942 in London, United Kingdom. She was 77 years old. Her legacy was carried on through the Fondation Singer-Polignac, which continues to present concerts and recitals in the music room of the Polignac mansion.