Laurence Vail portrait.


Who was Laurence Vail? And why did he have so many troubled children?

Laurence Vail and children

The recent release of Art Addict, a documentary on Peggy Guggenheim got me thinking. A few years ago I was working with the archives of Malcolm Cowley, and came upon a cache of letters from late ‘50s, early ‘60s from Laurence Vail. For some reason, he and Cowley’s wife Muriel shared a correspondence. Only Vail’s letters are in the papers, but the conversation clearly focuses on the trials and tribulations of parenthood. His tales of troubled daughters and violent actions sent me on a quest.

I had to know the whole story, and of course, there is no whole story. Just fragments of memories, versions of stories tainted by bitterness and narcissism. But there is a line that runs through the wreckage, and it always leads to Laurence Vail.

Who was Laurence Vail? And why did he have so many troubled children?

Laurence Vail

According to Art Addict (which is really a very bad movie), he was a horrible, wife-beating drunk who got his kicks humiliating his first wife Peggy Guggenheim in bars. Maybe. The 1920s were crazy times. He was a dabbler and gadabout at best. He made a little sculpture, a little collage, wrote a book that was never published. He was called “The King of Bohemia,” but that just makes it sound like he partied a lot with artists.

First child, Michael Cedric Sinbad, b. 1923. When the Vails split up, he went with Peggy. He survived the Vail curse and grew in much the same mold as Laurence. Dabbler. Peggy underwrote a literary magazine for her son, Points, and he ended up hanging around a Paris crew of 1950s expats like Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg. Word is he came to fisticuffs with Hoffenberg after sleeping with Hoffenberg’s wife. Otherwise, he spent his life doing the things he liked best—driving fast cars, playing billiards and drinking.

Pegeen Vail

Second child, Jezebel Margaret Pegeen Vail, b. 1924. She goes with Vail after the split. By all accounts she was a messed up child from the get go. Needy, dramatic, prone to attention seeking theatrics. But she became a painter and her work is creepy and beautiful and awesome. She is also creepy and beautiful and awesome. The most talented of the bunch.

Pegeen Vail - Childbirth Painting
Pegeen Vail – Childbirth Painting

Laurence Vail married his second wife, the equally dramatic Kay Boyle, around 1930 after both of their divorces. She was fresh from Raymond Duncan’s nature cult at Neuilly, France and already had one daughter. Together they had three more.

Apple Joan Vail, b. 1929. (Apple’s website)

Third child, Apple-Joan – who became the apple of Vail’s eye, was born in 1929. Vail and Boyle buy a chalet with an inheritance called alternately Les Cinq Enfants, or Les Six Enfants.

Amusing aside: Boyle’s oldest daughter Sharon purportedly set fire to Les Six Enfants around this time, but that is unconfirmed.

In the letters from the Cowley papers, Vail mentions Apple having particular trouble around 1956. She married a man named Joseph Edward “Ted” Goeser, and sources say she threw a knife at him in a drunken episode. It’s also possible that as an adult she climbed a tree and wouldn’t come down. She paints, and her work is jagged and strange. It shares with Pegeen’s a curved distortion of figures, human and not.

Mess is Thinking-Apple-Vail
Mess is Thinking – Apple Vail

Fourth child, Kathe Vail, born July 7, 1934. According to biographical accounts she was, “no one’s particular favorite.” In his letters, Vail talks about Kathe’s husband, “committing a great number of sordid horrors.” This is never clarified, but it’s safe to assume Kathe was not together mentally, like her sisters, and was institutionalized in 1962.

Fifth child, Clover Vail is born in 1939, and says Kay, “It was rather a blow to have another girl.” Boyle decides to nickname her “Jerry.” She also paints, but leaves any suggestion of figure right out. It’s pure neurosis.

Clover Vail painting
Clover Vail painting – [Clover Vail’s website]
Boyle did not understand why her children felt abandoned, as their comments repeatedly testify. She believed that she was a wonderful mother even after one of her lovers slept with two of her daughters and she forgave him. Even when three daughters and one stepdaughter attempted suicide (!)

By 1957 Pegeen had a brood of her own, three children by artist Jean Helion – Fabrice, David, and Nicolas. When she left Helion, like an echo of mother, she took only the youngest son Nicolas.

In the doc, Peggy Guggenheim is heard groaning about how awful Pegeen’s second husband is, “that terrible, terrible man,” but neglects to name him. I guess it would have thrown the scale of interest to reveal it was Ralph Rumney, co-founder of the Situationists. They have one son, Sandro in 1958.

Pegeen and art
Pegeen and art

Pegeen attempted suicide more than once, and on one occasion Peggy G. found her with slit wrists in the bathtub. She finally succeeds with a combo of Valium and whiskey in 1967, leaving her husband, children, and cats behind.

Amusing aside 2: Kay Boyle’s daughter Faith, aka “Mousie” by Baron Joseph von Frankenstein, was devoted for a time to Mel Lyman’s hippie cult, the Fort Hill Community, whose aim is still unclear.

by Apple Vail
by Apple Vail

Based on those letters, I’m not so sure Laurence Vail was such a bad guy. He was there for all of those children, if at least providing room and board while Peggy G. and Kay B. could not be bothered. The letters indicate that he looked at his girls and saw into them, but perhaps, did not know how to help them.