Lou Andreas-Salomé was the greatest intellectuals’ woman of her age, the two decades on either side of 1900; the most distinguished performer since Madame de Staël in her particular field, but unique as a tease, as an exponent of not kiss and tell. Her three principal conquests (Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud) clearly exceed in distinction the three husbands of Alma Mahler, her only possible contemporary competitor (Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel), and although Rilke was the only one Lou went to bed with she played quite a significant part in the lives of the other two.
She was born in St. Petersburg in 1861, the daughter of a Baltic German general who was in charge of the accounts of the Russian army. In her late teens she fell under the influence of a good-looking Dutch clergyman, Hendrik Gillot, who awoke her voracious intellect with theological discussion and a course of reading. To get over the unhealthy excitement this engendered she was taken to Zurich by her mother in 1880 and embarked on a regime of theological and philosophical study so intense as to be injurious to her health. In 1882 she met Paul Rée, a pathetic character who attempted to shore up his damp soul and forget his unappetizing appearance by developing a toughly reductive theory about the origins of conscience.
Rée’s close friend Nietzsche was greatly taken with Lou, seeing in her a potentially ideal disciple. They established an odd and unstable triangle, whose abiding memorial is a photograph of Nietzsche and Rée pulling a small cart in which Lou kneels, holding an ineffective-looking whip, its meager thong dangling impotently. Their plans for studious retirement together came to nothing very much. Rée jealously slandered Nietzsche to Lou, while she, in a dire confrontation with his sister Elisabeth, poured out her revulsion from Nietzsche as a dirty old man. Nietzsche and Lou broke off their relations. Lou says she made the break despite Nietzsche’s persistent entreaties: Professor Binion makes a vast and persuasive case for the view that this was a lie.
For the next few years she lived, non-sexually, with Rée, getting a proposal of marriage from the psychologist Ebbinghaus and exciting a considerable emotional disturbance in the breast of the sociologist Tönnies, familiar to all students of his subject for distinguishing Gemeinschaft from Gesellschaft. In 1886 she married an Oriental philologist, Friedrich Carl Andreas. The marriage was never consummated. This fact must have played some part in the general fruitlessness of Andreas’s career, assisted, no doubt, by his nocturnal habits, his intuitive and disorganized methods of thinking, and his inability to adjust himself to the orderly expectations of the German academic world.
Lou soon became associated with the Freie Bühne group—in particular with Gerhart Hauptmann—and began to write for their periodical. She assembled a collection of pieces on Ibsen’s heroines in one book and in 1894, with…
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