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Tales from the Vienna Woods

Alma Mahler or the Art of Being Loved

by Françoise Giroux
Oxford University Press, 162 pp., $21.95

The Bride of the Wind: The Life and Times of Alma Mahler-Werfel

by Susanne Keegan
Viking, 346 pp., $25.00

Oskar Kokoschka Letters 1905-1976

selected by Olda Kokoschka, by Alfred Marnau
Thames and Hudson, 320 pp., $40.00

Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge: An Artist and His Muse

by Wolfgang G. Fischer
Overlook, 175 pp., $50.00

The Fin-de-Siècle Culture of Adolescence

by John Neubauer
Yale University Press, 288 pp., $30.00

Do we need yet more books about Vienna in the early twentieth century? Publishers clearly think we do, for we now have two new biographies of Alma Mahler (although a perfectly adequate one was published as recently as 1983)1 as well as a selection in English from the letters of Oskar Kokoschka (four volumes of which were published in German between 1984 and 1988), and an interesting study of the Viennese couturière Emilie Flöge and her relations with the painter Gustav Klimt, to say nothing of a book on the fin-de-siècle culture of adolescence in Vienna and elsewhere which the author himself describes as a “large but inhomogeneous corpus…spanning a variety of ideologies, discourses, and national cultures.”

The contrasts in Austrian society more marked perhaps than anywhere else in Europe and brought out so well in Carl Schorske’s classic Fin-de-Siècle Vienna—still the main source for nearly all the subsequent books—are striking and puzzling. Was Vienna the birthplace of modernism, with Freud, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, and the rest, or the last bulwark of the Old Regime, with a formalized imperial court, an enormously elaborate bureaucracy, and rigid class divisions? Was Viennese society frivolous and pleasure-loving and basically conservative while waltzing its way to the abyss, or was it haunted by a sense of doom and doubt? Because it was all of these things, there are still many unanswered questions about their relation to each other. The World of Yesterday, the title of Stefan Zweig’s famous memoir, which is inevitably quoted by anyone writing about Vienna (often without much attempt to test the accuracy of its generalizations), also continues to fascinate us just because there are people still alive, though fewer and fewer of them, who can provide a direct link with that world. These perhaps are some of the reasons why the figure of Alma Mahler, who died in 1964 aged eighty-five, is apparently as irresistible to later generations as she was to some of her leading contemporaries.

Alma was the daughter of a prominent painter in the Viennese academic tradition, Emil Jakob Schindler, who came from the Viennese upper bourgeoisie. He died when Alma was thirteen years old, and she never really accepted her stepfather, Carl Moll, a painter whom she once described as a pendulum while her father had been a clock. Certainly as a young girl she seems to have been looking for a father figure and enjoyed flirtatious relations with older men while still believing, as she later wrote, in a virginal purity that needed to be preserved. Max Burckhard, the director of the Burgtheater, aged forty-two, sent her boxes of chocolates and took her out cycling; then, more seriously, the painter Gustav Klimt, seventeen years older than she was, fell in love with her and there was talk of an engagement. And then of course marriage to Gustav Mahler, nineteen years older, determined the course of her life, so that in spite of two subsequent marriages as well as several affairs she remained in her own mind Alma Mahler.

After Mahler died she had a few years of an intense and troubled relationship with the painter Oskar Kokoschka, then married the architect Walter Gropius (who had already become her lover while Mahler was still alive), followed by the writer Franz Werfel. Werfel, who was eleven years younger than she (“my sweet man-child” she called him), died in 1945, but Alma lived on, holding court in her apartment in New York, and receiving the famous (and the dedication of Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne), a living monument to Viennese culture until her death. “In a foreign land,” she wrote, “we built up a world which was more European than Europe itself.”

My mother Alma was a legend, and legends are hard to destroy,” her surviving daughter, Anna, told Karen Monson. Alma was legendary because she carefully cultivated her legend. Elias Canetti, a denizen if not a product of the same Viennese world and someone who did not succumb to Alma’s charm, recalled visiting her house in Vienna around 1930 and being shown her “trophies,” as he called them: the score of Mahler’s unfinished tenth symphony inscribed with the words “Almschi, mein Almschi,” the painting of herself as Lucrezia Borgia by Kokoschka (“too bad he never got anywhere,” Alma observed), and finally her daughter by Gropius, Manon, whose death from polio soon afterward was to inspire Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, itself a kind of requiem for that culture.

Alma not only lived at the center of Viennese culture—and the recent books remind us of how much of it survived the breakup of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918 and lasted through the politically and economically troubled years of the first Austrian republic—she also embodied many of the contradictory Viennese qualities. She was beautiful, gifted, and had aspirations to be a serious composer until Mahler admonished her, “How do you picture the married life of a husband and wife who are both composers? Have you any idea how ridiculous and, in time, how degrading for both of us such a peculiarly competitive relationship would inevitably become?”

Alma was certainly full of the eroticism that seems to have been so marked a feature of Viennese culture at the turn of the century, and she knew how to use her charms. But if she seems to symbolize the sensual and erotic aspect of Vienna she also retained some Viennese prejudices. She was conservative and a snob; she admired Mussolini; and although two of her three husbands were Jewish, she remained anti-Semitic: there were moments when she saw Werfel as a small, ugly, corpulent Jew, and she was furious when her daughter Anna married the Jewish conductor Anatole Fistoulari as the fourth of her five husbands. One can’t help feeling that part of the attraction of Walter Gropius was that he was a north German and undoubtedly Aryan, looking as if, she wrote, he could have been cast as Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. (Indeed Gropius’s second wife had much the same impression: “When I joined the Bauhaus I found a knight in armour.”)

Yet Alma’s ambition and her social prejudices were offset by a genuine independence and courage; and whatever the basis of her feelings for Mahler, she tried to create for him the surroundings he needed in order to compose. He clearly could be insensitive to her feelings and needs, as when he thought that a suitable distraction for her in the pangs of childbirth was to read aloud from Kant.

Her relationship with Walter Gropius, which Gropius seems almost deliberately to have revealed to the composer by writing a love letter to Alma and then addressing the envelope to Herr Gustav Mahler, was broken off after Mahler’s death and then interrupted by her involvement with Kokoschka. It was resumed in 1915 when they were married, though for a time the marriage was kept secret because of the intense antagonism Gropius’s mother felt for Alma. Alma’s relations with her mother-in-law later improved a little, and Frau Gropius, embodying the rectitude of the north German upper classes when confronted with Viennese laxness, made a shrewd assessment of Alma’s character when she wrote to her son:

You have obviously found a real treasure, and a rare and fine human being with rich inner resources has become yours…even if many of her ideas, habits and views are foreign and strange to me. Her being very spoiled in every way worries me often…in many ways I much admire her because she is intelligent and overwhelming….I never saw anyone of such a manifold nature.2

But Gropius’s service at the front, which involved long absences, and where he was wounded and decorated, made sustaining the marriage very difficult, though the birth of their daughter Manon kept it going a little longer.

Then in October 1917 Alma met Franz Werfel, who was beginning to make his reputation as a poet. She became pregnant by him; the child was born prematurely and died after a few months, by which time Gropius had realized that he was not the father. For a while he seems to have done his best to patch things up for the sake of his daughter, and Werfel made rather embarrassing overtures of friendship. But Alma refused to give up Werfel and at one moment she characteristically proposed that she should spend half the year with Werfel in Vienna and half the year with Gropius, who was now busy establishing the Bauhaus in Dessau. After some acrimonious months and arguments about the custody of Manon, they were divorced in 1920.

Alma continued to live with Werfel and they were eventually married in 1929. The marriage lasted until Werfel’s death in 1945. Alma promoted his career as a writer, possibly, it has been suggested, cheapening his talent by pressing him to write best sellers that made them rich (though some of his books, notably The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, are perhaps better than they are now thought to be). Werfel once remarked wryly, “Ich kann nicht sagen ob Alma mein grösstes Glück war oder mein grösstes Unglück” (“I can’t say whether Alma was my greatest good fortune or my greatest misfortune”).

She would not have been obliged politically to leave Vienna after the Anschluss in 1938. Her stepfather remained and became a prominent Nazi, committing suicide in 1945, and Alma herself was heard during the war to declare, much to Werfel’s fury, that the concentration camps had excellent medical care and that the Red Cross was watching over the welfare of prisoners. But she knew that Werfel as a Jew must leave and was prepared to go with him, first to Prague, then to France, and finally in 1940 on the difficult journey to exile in Hollywood, where she looked after him faithfully in his final illness. Nor, in spite of growing fat and drinking, it is said, a bottle of Benedictine a day (she seems to have started drinking under the strain of her life with Mahler), did she lose her ability to charm at least some famous people up to her death, and to play a leading part in the German-speaking world she had succeeded in creating in America.

Writing the biography of this remarkable, courageous, but often impossible woman is not made easier by the fact that Alma Mahler-Werfel wrote her own life as well as her memories of Mahler; her autobiography is notoriously unreliable and is a master-piece of self-aggrandizement and self-justification but more consistently interesting than any of the other books about her. The Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania holds a number of letters to and from Alma, some early manuscript diaries, and fragments (retyped) of a later one. Susanne Keegan in her biography—much the better of the two new ones—has used these with discretion and has managed to keep her balance in dealing with the various phases of Alma’s life and Alma’s own version of them. She writes interestingly about Alma’s songs and intelligently about the musical and social background of her life.

  1. 1

    Karen Monson, Alma Mahler: Muse to Genius (Houghton Mifflin, 1983).

  2. 2

    Reginald Isaacs, Gropius: An Illustrated Biography of the Creator of the Bauhaus (Little, Brown/Bulfinch Press, 1991), p. 51.

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