Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac (8 January 1865 – 26 November 1943), was an American-born heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. She used this to fund a wide range of causes, notably a musical salon where her protégés included Debussy and Ravel, and numerous public health projects in Paris, where she lived most of her life. Singer made two marriages that were unconsummated, and openly enjoyed many high-profile relationships with women.
Early life and family
Winnaretta Singer was the twentieth of the 24 children of Isaac Singer. Her mother was his Parisian-born second wife, Isabella Eugenie Boyer. Winnaretta was born in Yonkers, New York. After the American 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 to Paignton, Devon where they moved to Oldway Mansion a 115-room palace built by her father.
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, was raised by Winnaretta after Isabelle-Blanche's death and 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.
Marriages and relationships
After Isaac Singer's death in 1875, Isabelle and her children moved back to Paris. Although known within private social circles to be a 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 (1834-1901), a gay amateur composer. Although it was a mariage blanc (unconsummated marriage), or indeed a lavender marriage (a union between a gay man and a lesbian), it was based on profound love, mutual respect, understanding, and artistic friendship, expressed especially through their love of music.
She had affairs with numerous women, never making attempts to conceal them, and never going for any great length of time without a female lover. She had these affairs during her own marriages and afterwards, and often with other married women. The affronted husband of one of her lovers once stood outside the princess's Venetian palazzo, 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 begun 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. Composer and conductor Ethel Smyth fell deeply in love with her during their affair. In the early 1920s Polignac became involved with pianist Renata Borgatti. From 1923 to 1933 her lover was the British socialite and novelist Violet Trefusis, with whom she had a loving but often turbulent relationship. Alvilde Chaplin, the future wife of the author James Lees-Milne, was involved with Singer from 1938 to 1943; the two women were living together in London at the time of Winnaretta's death.
Patron of arts
In 1894 the Prince and Princesse 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 Ravel dedicated his piano work, Pavane pour une infante défunte, to the Princesse de Polignac. Many of Marcel Proust's evocations of salon culture were born during his attendance at concerts in the Polignac drawing 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 Concerto for Two Pianos and Organ Concerto, Jean Françaix's Le Diable boîteux and Sérénade pour douze instruments, Kurt Weill's Second Symphony, and Germaine Tailleferre's First Piano Concerto. Manuel de Falla's El retablo de maese Pedro was premiered there, with the harpsichord part performed by Wanda Landowska.
In addition to Proust and Antonio de La Gándara, the Princesse de Polignac's salon was frequented by Isadora Duncan, Jean Cocteau, Claude Monet, Sergei Diaghilev, and Colette. She was also patron to many others, including Nadia Boulanger, Clara Haskil, Dinu Lipatti, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Armande de Polignac, Ethel Smyth, Le Corbusier, Adela Maddison, the Ballets Russes, l'Opéra de Paris, and the 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 Académie des Beaux-Arts. One canvas eventually appeared in the showcase of an art gallery, advertised as being a Manet.
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 the architect Le Corbusier to rebuild or construct several public shelters for Paris's Salvation Army. The plans of Le Corbusier's Salvation Army hostel in Paris show a private apartment at the top floor for "Miss Singer".
During World War I, working with Marie Curie, Singer-Polignac helped convert private limousines into mobile radiology units to help wounded soldiers at the front.
During the inter-war period, Singer-Polignac worked with Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan and assisted in the construction of a 360-bed hospital destined to provide medical care to middle class workers. The result of this effort is the Foch Hospital, located in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris, France. The hospital also includes a school of nursing and is one of the top ranked hospitals in France, especially for renal transplants. It has remained true to its origins and stayed a private not-for-profit institution that still serves the Paris community. It is managed by the Fondation médicale Franco-américaine du Mont-Valérien, commonly called Fondation Foch.
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. 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 programs that juxtaposed early music and modern compositions. After Boulanger's death in 1979, the composer Jean Françaix took over the organization of the concert series.
- Kahan, Sylvia. In Search of New Scales: Edmond de Polignac, Octatonic Explorer. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2009. ISBN 1-58046-305-3.
- Kahan, Sylvia. Music's Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2003, 2006, 2009. ISBN 1-58046-133-6.
- Kahan, Sylvia. "'Rien de la tonalité usuelle: Edmond de Polignac and the Octatonic Scale in Nineteenth-Century France". 19th-Century Music 29 (2005): 97-120.
- Kahan, Sylvia, and Nathalie Mauriac-Dyer, "Quatre Lettres inédites de Proust au Prince de Polignac", Bulletin Marcel Proust 53 (December 2003): 9-21.
- 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.