Gloria “Gigi” Guggenheim, known as “The Lost Guggenheim”, was one of the most accomplished – yet most mysterious and least understood – women of the 20th century. She was born Gloria Greenwell in 1929 outside Honolulu (thirty seven years before Hawaii would become a state), to American missionaries living on a coffee plantation. Her earliest memories were of “running through acres of coffee berries with the kanaka oiwi as a girl. . . these were such carefree days.”
In 1939 the Greenwells were reassigned to the mainland and the family relocated to North Dakota, which was a marked change in the way of life for Gigi and her older brother, George. Unaccustomed to the harsh winters, Gigi and George longed for their lives in Hawaii. George enlisted with the U.S. Army at the age of 15 (he forged his birth certificate) and was stationed in North Carolina. Having George gone, and her parents deeply committed to their missionary work, left Gigi even more lonely and bored than she was before.
In a stroke of luck a local family, The Shephards, took a liking to Gigi and helped pay for her tutoring and for new clothes. And in 1942, to the surprise of Gigi and her parents — but recognizing the intelligence of young Gigi — the Shephards paid to send her to Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut.
Gigi thrived at Miss Porter’s. Although much of her academic record has since been expunged from the school records because of Gigi’s later work with U.S. intelligence agencies (see below), we know from Gigi’s diaries that she became fluent in French and Portuguese, mastered lacrosse, and wrote short racy stories and essays under a nom de plume so as not to offend her conservative parents. It was also at Miss Porter’s where Gigi befriended a young woman her same age, Jacqueline Bouvier. They would remain friends for almost fifty years.
During her time at Miss Porter’s Gigi had a feminist awakening. Surrounded by her bright young classmates, she was inspired to see women in leadership roles at the school, and to see women excel in all fields without the pressures of men. Her parents made repeated and desperate requests to have her join the missionary upon graduation, but Gigi refused, writing to them, “Despite the experiences you showed me as a child, I am now a young woman and eager to see the world. I’m not coming back.” It was at this time that Gigi, inspired by her screen idol Katherine Hepburn, also cut her hair short and began wearing trousers, much to the shock of her parents and even to some of her classmates.
After Miss Porter’s, Gigi moved to Paris to enroll at the Sorbonne, in 1947, where she perfected her French and took an interest in art history. A classmate-turned-lover, Michel Boucher, took her to Vallauris, where she met Pablo Picasso, but she and Michel broke up shortly upon returning to Paris amid rumors that Gigi and Picasso’s relationship was something more than platonic.
In addition to her studies at the Sorbonne, Gigi became involved in women’s and civil rights, befriending both Simone de Beauvoir and Josephine Baker. She joined them in speaking and fighting for equal rights and justice, but she was also looked upon with some suspicion by French authorities, who kept a dossier on her. This might be because of Gigi’s work with U.S. intelligence, an episode of her life about which little is understood. What is known is that a visit to the U.S. Embassy in 1949 to report a lost passport led, somehow, to Gigi being recruited as a spy. Unfortunately, and despite several FOIA requests, documentation about Gigi’s life in Paris has mostly been lost.
Gigi returned to the States in 1953 for the wedding of her friend Jacqueline to John F. Kennedy. Having dropped the Greenwell surname, Gigi introduced herself as “Gloria Guggenheim”, and a new identity was born. There were conflicting stories about her new name: Gigi told some friends that she had married a member of the storied Guggenheim family in Europe but he had died a year into their marriage, leaving her a substantial estate. Others, however, believed that “Guggenheim” was a name Gloria had made up as part of her undercover work for the Central Intelligence Agency. For the rest of her life Gigi never explained her new name.
From 1953 to 1955 Gigi settled in New York’s Greenwich Village, where she owned a bookstore (long since closed) and hosted regular salons in her apartment. Surrounded by artists and writers, Gigi was in her element, and a fortuitous invitation to the 26th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, co-hosted at the NBC Century Theatre in New York, introduced her to the movie business and a handsome producer named Gilbert Baum, who invited Gigi to come to Los Angeles to co-produce films. In 1955 Gigi closed her bookstore, sold her apartment, and moved west.
Although her relationship with Baum ended soon after her arrival in Los Angeles, Gigi took up screenwriting (always under an assumed name) and continued to host monthly salons from her Spanish-style home in Los Feliz. Despite writing under a pseudonym, Gigi was blacklisted, and refocused her energies and her considerable resources (the source of which remained a mystery) to labor organizing, philanthropy, gardening and painting.
At the request of a friend from her days at Miss Porter’s, Gigi returned to New York for two years, from 1965 to 1967, where she briefly became a society doyenne (the highlight being an appearance she made at Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball in 1966). But New York’s cold winters were too much for Gigi; they reminded her of winter in North Dakota. She longed for California’s year-round summer weather.
In 1967 she returned to Los Angeles and, having previously sold the Los Feliz house, moved in with D.T. Anderson, an architect she had met at one of her salons. Guggenheim and Anderson spent frequent weekends in Palm Springs, visiting many of their friends from their time in Los Angeles who had homes there, including Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and Liberace.
Anderson died suddenly and unexpectedly in the summer of 1970, at which time Gigi moved to the Indian Canyons neighborhood of Palm Springs, where she lived full-time. These years in the desert were the happiest for Gigi since her childhood in Hawaii: Her mornings found her on the golf course or hiking in the canyons, and in the afternoons she often played tennis at the Racquet Club. She also took up swimming and placed in several local competitions. In the evenings, Gigi frequently hosted dinners, game nights and pool parties at her estate, and became known as the desert’s bohemian hostess.
When she wasn’t entertaining at her estate, Gigi frequently appeared at restaurants and night clubs in Palm Springs, including The Original Las Casuelas (the first Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs), Le Vallauris (which reminded her of time in the city of the same name), and Lyons English Grille (where she had a permanent reserved booth and even a drink named after her, The Gigi).
Even today, it isn’t uncommon to hear Palm Springs’ longtime residents, over lunch at the Racquet Club or on the golf course, reminisce about Gigi’s wit, style and generosity, and the impression she left from her time in the desert.
In early 1974 Gigi met Gabriel González, a respected cattle rancher and human rights activist from Argentina who was in town to play in a polo match at the Eldorado Polo Club in Indio, California. Gigi and Gabriel had an instant connection, and she accepted his marriage proposal — surprisingly, the first one she had ever received. They were married in the town of Mercedes in March of 1975. Their original plan was to divide their time between Palm Springs and Mercedes but political instability in Argentina, and González’s activity in pro-human rights causes, required his expatriation.
Gigi encouraged Gabriel to move into her Palm Springs home with her, but the secret forces of Argentinian dictator Jorge Videla ordered his immediate arrest and return to Argentina. Through the support of her contacts in U.S. intelligence, Gigi was able to secure safe passage for them both to Switzerland, where they were able to accept new identities.
Although Gigi agreed to sell her Palm Springs home as part of her relocation to Switzerland, she and Gabriel did make several secret return visits to Palm Springs under their new identities, which have never been publicly revealed. It is believed that Gigi and Gabriel spent the rest of their lives in a town outside of Lucerne, in happiness and anonymity.
In a secret letter to a friend in Palm Springs, Gigi wrote from Switzerland, “How I miss the desert! The arid landscape, surrounded by the San Jacinto Mountains, punctuated by ocotillo and Mexican bird-of-paradise, not to mention the most beautiful azure swimming pools. I was happiest there, and felt a connection to the land and the ancient peoples who lived on that sacred land before I did. I’ve lived in some wonderful places in my life, from New York to Paris to Switzerland, but I do believe my heart was always in Palm Springs. xo “Gigi””
The letter had no return address.