The Princesse de Polignac led a well-off life in Paris in the early parts of the 20th century. She is most notable for her incredible patronage of the arts, and in particular that of music. Through cursory research, however, one will discover another notable facet of this great woman: she went by many names. She was born Winnaretta Singer to the Singer family (of sewing machine fame – and fortune) in New York. When she married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard in 1887, she became known as the “Princesse (Louis) de Scey-Montbéliard” or “Princesse Winnaretta.” The marriage, for a number of reasons (although largely due to incompatible sexual orientations) was annulled five years later, and she was once again Winnaretta, or more familiarly, Winnie. One year after that, she married again, this time in a union that would last, to the Prince Edmond de Polignac, and became known (as she mostly is now) as the “Princesse de Polignac.” Even so, she was still commonly called “Princesse Winnie,” “Tante Winnie” (Aunt Winnie), or by her husband’s name as the “Princesse Edmond de Polignac.”
This abundance of names makes finding sources about the Princesse fairly difficult, as she may be called by one name in one source, and another name in another; fortunately, many of the sources available list her full maiden name alongside whatever name they use, which makes her a little easier to track down, although not much. Another challenge in the research is that she does not seem to have written much herself; after some hunting I was able to find memoirs that she wrote, but this is the only primary source I have access at the moment.1 I foresee the memoirs being immensely useful, especially when it comes to defining her taste and preferences in the arts. Because it was published in a literary magazine, she is clearly writing to a public with particular interests; although she does talk about music, she also spends a fair amount of time on visual art and some literature.
The other major source I’ve gotten my hands on, The Food of Love,2
is more or less a biography of the Princesse. It also seems to be very useful, although perhaps more for its bibliography than its contents. While it certainly is a scholarly book, the author is also writing to a more general audience – he does not seem to be bringing all that much new scholarship into play, but rather collecting events of her life and trying to present them accurately. As such, there is no real argument, at least not so far as I have read. Conveniently, the organization of the book lends itself to making a chronology (seeing as it’s chronological), although I have become frustrated that the Princess’s patronage of music is blended in with her support of all the other arts as well, which makes it particularly challenging to extract just the relevant information. Finally, the writing reiterates who exactly the intended audience is: not fellow scholars, but rather an educated and engaged public (and sometimes a not-so-engaged public). The writing tends towards a journalistic style at times, seeming to want to tell a story (not a narrative), with little scraps of information of uncertain origin thrown in, such as comments a particular person made at a particular dinner party. This contributes to the sense that the book is intended for those who are not necessarily looking for facts about Winnaretta Singer’s support of the art as much as they are looking for a series of interesting stories about the Princesse de Polignac.