Winaretta was the twentieth child of an extravagant American, Isaac Singer, the sewing machine tycoon and a handsome French woman, Isabella Eugenie Boyer. Isaac’s larger than life personality had amassed an exceptional fortune and he procreated with the same zeal. After having sired nineteen children with two former wives and one lover, he espoused Isabella, who was thirty years younger than him and gave him six more children. One of them was Winaretta.
This young girl was unusually determined and had developed from an early age a strong set of convictions. Her passion for music and painting burgeoned in her adolescence and never left her. With the financial wind blowing her sails, she navigated the sophisticated elites of Parisian life and married a presumably wealthy prince, Louis de Scey-Monbeliard. Two years later, after his continuous demands for money and suspicious of his fabrications, she sued for divorce. A white marriage followed another. This time to a much older gentleman, prince Edmond de Polignac, composer, holder of one of the most aristocratic French titles, and an avowed homosexual. Was there any calculation on Winaretta’s part? After all, the new prince was 59 years of age when the bride just had turned 28. Was she attempting to disguise her sexual preferences? All Paris knew of the leanings of Polignac so society could be excused if it speculated about her innocence or her alibi. Either way, the couple came to share her passion for music, the bond upon which their feelings solidified.
The new princess de Polignac helped the career of composers and interpreters. She engaged intensely with Ravel, Fauré, Hahn and Stravinsky. In her memoirs, she recalled that moment when “it was decided that I was not to study music but to learn painting at an atelier in the Rue de Bruxelles, conducted by a Monsieur Félix Barrias”. In spite of negating her formal musical training, her fierce and determined personality propelled her to become the most discerning musical hostess in Paris.
Posterity had been kind and respectful to her, a special individual, patron of the arts, splendidly generous. Yet some questions remained as to who she really was. Her conceit and haughtiness was not making good bedfellows with her apparent generosity. When asked why she had not invited Chanel at the first hearing of Stravinsky’s “les Noces”, she replied tartly: “I don’t entertain my trades people”.
In her eagerness to please and be acknowledged, as a young woman she wrote to Virginia Woolf after meeting her at a party: “Dear Mrs. Woolf, when will you allow me to call you Virginia, and when will you call me Winnaretta?”. In later years Woolf wrote about her: “to look at her you’d never think she ravished half the virgins of Paris”. Needless to say, there was never a chance that Virginia Woolf would call her Winnaretta.