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Having It All

Alma Mahler: Muse to Genius

by Karen Monson
Houghton Mifflin, 348 pp., $18.95

Alma Mahler (or Mahler-Werfel: she did not mind which) became legendary in her lifetime. This was intentional. She married three famous men: Gustav Mahler; Walter Gropius, architect and founder of the Bauhaus; and Franz Werfel, poet, playwright, and novelist. The last is not so famous anymore, except perhaps as the author of The Song of Bernadette—hélas, as André Gide might have said. Before marrying Gropius, Alma Mahler had a high-profile affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka. She had two children by Mahler, one conceived before they were married; one by Gropius; and one by Werfel during her marriage to Gropius. Of the four, only Mahler’s second daughter lived to grow up. In between, Alma had countless affairs, among others with the painter Klimt, the composers Schreker and Pfitzner, and a fashionable Catholic priest called Hollnsteiner. Some of these affairs (though not the last mentioned: she initiated Hollnsteiner into sex) may have been no more than heavy flirtations. It is hard to be sure because almost all the evidence comes from Alma herself, and she was an auto-mythomaniac.

In her old age she published two autobiographies. The first was in 1958, in English, and in collaboration with E. B. Ashton. It is called And the Bridge Is Love.1 The second came out in 1960 in German, and is simply called Mein Leben.2 Karen Monson distrusts both: “There is no doubt,” she says, “that Alma did not write them herself.” Besides, her memory must have been failing, and she “took much of her information from matchbooks and coasters collected from the various inns and hotels where she stopped on her numerous journeys.” In 1940 Alma had already published her memories of Mahler and his letters to her.3 Their daughter assured Karen Monson that this was “the best representation of her mother’s attitudes.”

In addition to these books Karen Monson consulted the Mahler-Werfel Collection in the Charles Patterson Van Pelt Library of the University of Pennsylvania. This includes “Alma’s diary, memorabilia and photographs, as well as letters sent to Alma” by many well-known figures including, besides her lovers and would-be lovers, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Her own letters she was careful to destroy whenever she could get hold of them. Oskar Kokoschka complained about it:

When later, after we had parted, I was severely wounded and my death was announced in the Viennese papers, Alma did not scruple to have sackfuls of letters carried off from my studio, to which she still had a key…. It mattered less to me that she also took hundreds of sketches and drawings….4

And that after she “had sung me Isolde’s Liebestod so often and with such an ecstasy of grief.” Ecstasy was Alma’s element.

She was such a self-dramatizer that there seems no reason to trust the diaries from the archive any more than the autobiographical writings. Karen Monson is suitably wary, yet all the same quotes long extracts and paraphrases a great deal more, even from Alma’s published works, unreliable as she acknowledges them to be. So an odor of dubious authenticity—or legend—refuses to be dispelled even from this painstaking book.

This is not Karen Monson’s only problem though. “Women like Alma do not exist in the society of the 1980s,” she declares, and continues ingenuously: “For that reason, it has been difficult for me to come to know and understand her.” The reader senses her difficulty only too well. But it would have arisen just as much if she had chosen to write about Joan of Arc or Madame de Maintenon. It is one of the hazards of biography.

In fact, the 1980s are full of women like Alma who pursue fame by attaching themselves to the famous—to pop stars, film stars, sports stars, even writers. Alma was a supergroupie of the German-speaking artistic elite in the early twentieth century. To be successful in such a role one needs a modicum of good looks and exceptional energy and powers of self-deception: to make others believe you are special it is necessary to believe it yourself. This Alma did. Where she differs from most modern groupies is that she was cultivated and interested—to a fault—in ideas. Her father was Jakob Emil Schindler, a popular Viennese painter. When he died her mother married his assistant Carl Moll, another painter, who became a founder member of the Sezession. So from birth Alma belonged to the milieu whose goddess she aspired to be.

In 1902 when, at the age of twenty-three, she married the forty-two-year-old Mahler, she was on the threshold of becoming a professional musician. “Alma’s talent was significant; her energy was greater,” Karen Monson observes in one of the deadpan judgments with which she occasionally refreshes her readers. Mahler was already famous as the director and chief conductor of the Vienna Opera: his own music was still accepted only by the avant-garde, which naturally included Alma. “For me, the only thing that exists is tomorrow’s truth,” she would declare. In fact, she did not care for Mahler’s music at all.

She was typical of her age in the self-image she chose and promoted. At the turn of the century it was no longer fashionable for a European woman to be just an angel in the house. She had to be interesting, unusual: wayward, unpredictable, even difficult, or at any rate difficult to tame, mysterious, elusive, elemental if at all possible. One has only to think of characters like Mélisande or Gerhart Hauptmann’s Rautendelein, both of them a faerie’s children. When Alma went shopping with Hauptmann’s mistress (later his wife) she got the point at once: Margarethe Marschalk was Rautendelein: “She wanted everything she set eyes on in a manner entirely elfish,” Alma noted. She herself had no chance of elfishness: though nicknamed “the most beautiful girl in Vienna,” she was no sylph and had a big chin. Her style was the tempestuous: Kokoschka called his double portrait of himself being swept off by her Die Windsbraut, or “The Hurricane”; the German is more evocative, literally meaning bride of the wind.

Alma was already working at being a personality when she became engaged to Mahler, and he was justifiably worried: “A human being can only acquire the sort of personality you mean,” he wrote to her,

after a long experience of struggle and suffering and thanks to an inherent and powerfully developed disposition…you couldn’t possibly already be the sort of person who’s found a rational ground for her existence within herself and who, in all circumstances, maintains and develops her own individual and immutable nature and preserves it from all that’s alien and negative, for everything in you is as yet unformed, unspoken and undeveloped. Although you’re an adorable, infinitely adorable and enchanting young girl with an upright soul and a richly talented, frank and already self-assured person, you are still not a personality…. Not one of the Burckhards, Zemlinskys [these were among Alma’s admirers: Burckhard, an elderly poet and the director of the Burgtheater; Zemlinsky, Alma’s teacher of composition who had also taught Schoenberg], etc. is a personality. Each one of them has his own peculiarity—such as an eccentric address, illegible handwriting, etc.—which, because inwardly lacking self-confidence, he defends, by constantly remaining on his guard against his “nourishment” for fear of becoming unoriginal….

You all intoxicated each other with verbosity.

It was Alma’s turn now to be alarmed by this uncomfortably perceptive and schoollmasterly letter, which goes on to demand total submission and that she give up her music entirely for the sake of her future husband’s:

Don’t misunderstand me and start imagining that I hold the bourgeois view of the relationship between husband and wife, which regards the latter as a sort of plaything for her husband and, at the same time, as his housekeeper…. But one thing is certain and that is that you must become “what I need” if we are to be happy together, i.e., my wife, not my colleague.

Mahler was able to imagine that this was not the ordinary bourgeois view because he was subjecting Alma not to himself but to his art. His own life was an austere routine dedicated to the production of music. There was no time for anything but work, interrupted by three deadly punctual meals a day and a swift walk round several blocks after lunch. Alma’s milieu had taught her to accept that genius and creativity overrule all other considerations, and so she submitted—though not without complaining constantly in her diary about Mahler’s workaholism and inconsiderateness toward her. But, as she says in Mein Leben (apropos of Pfitzner, not Mahler, as it happens): “In persons of great significance I recognize the right to absolute selfishness.”

Mein Leben ends on a note of satisfaction: “God allowed me to know works of genius of our time before they had left their creators’ hands. And if I was permitted for a while to hold the stirrup for these champions of light, then my existence has been justified and blessed.” The first sentence reminds one of another collector of creative lions, Lady Colefax. When she went to heaven, it is said, Saint Peter asked her whether she had read the Bible. “In proof,” she replied. But she was not quite Alma’s match: she kept her lions in the drawing room, not the bedroom, and compared to that tigress she was a domestic English mouser.

Alma certainly picked a true genius the first time round, and, in spite of his tyranny in the house and on the podium, a man of profound moral and psychological subtlety, with a Dostoevskian capacity for cosmic suffering and a goodness of nature that gave him a devastating charm when he allowed it to show—especially with his children.

The eldest died in torment of diphtheria in 1907. Alma was in a state of collapse, and the doctor who examined her also took a look at Mahler and discovered he had a serious heart condition: from that moment he knew he had not very long to live. His last years, over-shadowed by his favorite child’s death and the imminence of his own, are harrowing to read about. Alma was packed off to a spa (everyone spent a great deal of time in such places), and there Walter Gropius fell in love with her. After she had returned home he wrote asking her to marry him, but through an extraordinary slip he addressed the envelope to Mahler who read the letter and was shattered. Shortly after, Alma spotted Gropius near their summer holiday house; Mahler rushed into the village, found Gropius, and left him in tête-à-tête with Alma, telling her she must choose between them. She chose Mahler, but he remained disturbed, recognizing that her restlessness was mostly his own fault. He decided to consult Freud, and traveled to Leiden where Freud happened to be. They went for a two-hour walk together discussing Mahler’s problem. It was anything but an orthodox analysis, and it sounds as though Mahler showed himself so aware of Freud’s techniques that he was able, as it were, to save him the trouble of probing into his feelings and memories by telling him what he needed to know about his childhood. In this single interview Freud explained to him the effect of his past on his relations with Alma. From then on Mahler made touching efforts to be more attentive to her.

  1. 1

    Harcourt Brace.

  2. 2

    Fischer Verlag.

  3. 3

    English translation: Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, edited by Donald Mitchell and Knud Martner (University of Washington Press, 1968).

  4. 4

    Oskar Kokoschka, My Life (Macmillan, 1974).

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