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The Wanderer


Harry Clément Ulrich Kessler, known in the Weimar Republic as the “Red Count,” was a rich German patron of the arts whose family lived in Paris and sent him at twelve from a bleak French school to St. George’s, a fashionable English prep school (where he missed Winston Churchill by a term), and then to a Gymnasium in Hamburg where he spent some of the most wretched years of his early life. He was a strikingly beautiful boy.

Like Schopenhauer, who had received a similar education in three countries, he refused to go into business with his well-to-do father. He became an art lover, a cosmopolitan wanderer among cultures. In the seemingly stable world of solid bourgeois prosperity before the First World War, he was for years oblivious of current politics. After the war, during the Weimar Republic, he was a leading pacifist and anti-Nazi; after Hitler’s rise to power, a political refugee in France. A passionate collector, Kessler spent several months each year in Paris and London visiting galleries and the studios of his friends. In a well-known portrait of 1906 by Edvard Munch, now in the Munch Museum in Oslo, Kessler contemplates the world with the air of an experienced connoisseur: a good-looking young man wearing a canary yellow wide-brimmed hat, painted full-length against a mauve and orange background. He seems to be leaning backward, as E.M. Forster said about Cavafy, “at a slight angle to the universe.” Many commented on his appearance. “Sometimes he appeared German, sometimes English, sometimes French, so European was his character,” his friend Annette Kolb, a fellow exile in Paris, wrote after his death.

His real home was in the arts and the world of ideas. In this he resembled other outsiders, secular German Jewish, or partly Jewish, artists and intellectuals, to whom he was attracted throughout his life; among them were his friends Albert Einstein, the poet Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (with whom he jointly wrote the scenario for Der Rosenkavalier), Rudolf Hilferding, and Walther Rathenau, respectively finance and foreign minister during the Weimar Republic. He was especially close to Rathenau, who may have been the only man in the social and political elite of Berlin to openly oppose war in 1914, and who broke into tears when he heard the news of Germany’s declaration of war. In 1922, Rathenau was assassinated by a proto-Nazi for favoring reconciliation with Germany’s former enemies and for being a “Judenschwein.”

Kessler wrote a deeply felt biography of his late friend, with whom he strongly identified for both personal and political reasons. Both were outsiders, loners; both could not shake off the influence of overpowering fathers; both were frustrated artists. Kessler was homosexual, and it is likely that Rathenau was as well. Kessler’s book was more than a biography.1 Like most Germans in 1914, he had been enthusiastic about the war (a marvelous “purifying fire”), and he put a lot of his own experience into the book, which can be read as an essay in self-criticism.

Laird M. Easton, a history professor at California State University, has written a thoughtful, well-researched, and fascinating biography of Kessler’s life that is also a contribution to the history of fin de siècle avant-garde art. Kessler’s antecedents were mixed. His father, Adolf, was a Paris banker who, on his mother’s side, descended from an old Hamburg banking family and on his father’s side from a long line of German and Swiss pastors; the family spent only the summer months in Germany, often at a fashionable spa. Adolf Kessler was a committed republican, resentful of the prejudices and social circumstances in imperial Germany. Under his apparent influence, in 1896, Harry decried Wilhelm II’s cheap posturing, his “beastliness,” “brutality,” and his “clownish hairlock,” as though he were already speaking of Hitler.2

Kessler’s mother, Alice Harriet Blossé-Lynch, was born in Bombay. Her mother was said to be a close relative of the shah of Iran; her Anglo-Irish father was well known as a high British naval officer and the founder of a navigation company on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Kessler worshiped his mother. She was, he wrote, “one of the queenly race of Englishwomen with their mixture of matter of factness, soaring passion and imagination and the irrationality of certain Shakespearean heroines.” Her beauty captivated, among many others, the aging German emperor Wilhelm I, who, after meeting her on the promenade at Ems, bestowed the title “von” on Adolf Kessler and his heirs and then induced the head of a minor German principality, Heinrich XIV of Reuss, to raise Adolf Kessler to the rank of count, giving rise to rumors that plagued Harry throughout his life that he was the emperor’s illegitimate son.

When the Kesslers lived in France, “tout Paris” came to Alice’s salon—Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, Maupassant, Ibsen, Zola, the young Rodin, as well as assorted duchesses, Rothschilds, Italian aristocrats, visiting rich Americans, and politicians. The spectacle of “society,” Easton writes, fascinated Kessler from his youth in much the same way as it did Proust. He was at home in “high society” wherever he went. In Berlin he was on the edge of the tightly exclusive “court society.” His curiosity was insatiable. He had a passion for bringing creative people together, arranging for Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and Aristide Maillol to meet in Athens and go on together to Delphi. He hoped that Max Reinhardt, Proust, Nijinsky, and Richard Strauss would somehow produce together a Gesamtkunstwerk.

In his diary he recalled what he saw and heard as if he were quite conscious that no one else of his time had his range of acquaintance and insight into different worlds. In London he dined with George Bernard Shaw, Herbert Asquith, and Edward Grey, in Paris with Raymond Poincaré, Proust, Cocteau, and Bernard Berenson, who wondered why Kessler did not write his books in French: “I answered, ‘Because I am a German.’” He became close as well to struggling avant-garde artists whom he supported financially, and to other penniless bohemians, poets, dancers, male and female models, wrestlers, cabaret performers, trapeze artists, boxers, cyclists, and other athletes. In Berlin, during the brief “Golden Twenties,” he rarely went to bed before 2 or 3 AM.

Early on, as James Fenton wrote in these pages a few years ago, Kessler “identified the one disappointing defect” in the art of his close friend Aristide Maillol, “his utter lack of interest in the male nude,” and took it upon himself to remedy it.3 He took Maillol to boxing matches in the East End of London, offered to hire some of the boxers as models, and commissioned Maillol to do a statue of his own current lover, a young man named Gaston Colin, a cyclist who raced in the Tour de France. The statue stood for years in Kessler’s study, while Maillol’s magnificent statue of a crouching young woman, La Méditerranée, was in his library. Kessler toured the French countryside with Colin and recommended him to his sister Wilma—“splendid young fellow, extremely courageous, adroit in all sports and manly“—as a fitting companion to her son. The affair with Colin lasted until at least the First World War, when the two men found themselves in opposing armies.

Kessler had a splendid apartment in Berlin and a house on the Cranachstrasse in Weimar. Both were designed by the Belgian art nouveau architect Henry van de Velde, whom he helped make considerably popular at the time. The house in Weimar was close to Nietzsche’s sister’s house, where he once stayed overnight and remembered hearing the sick Nietzsche moaning and screaming “into the dark with all his might.” Kessler’s two houses were variously described as “temples of art.” The walls were hung with paintings by Seurat, Re-noir, and Cézanne. The Cranachstrasse house was described by his close friend Helene von Nostitz, Field Marshal Hindenburg’s niece and the only woman Kessler may have wanted to marry:

The fire burned in the hearth and threw its light upon the festive rider of the Parthenon frieze. Light yellow books stood in white bookcases. In the glass vitrines… lovely, small figures of women by Maillol stared in the mirror which reflected their pure, restrained forms. Over a matted violet divan the nymphs of Maurice Denis ran through a fantastic forest. Before the window stood an ancient bronze Chinese vessel.

His father died in 1895, leaving Harry and his sister a sizable fortune. He moved about Europe restlessly, usually in grand luxury, accompanied by a valet (who later turned out to have been a Nazi spy). Traveling to Brussels in 1921 with Einstein to attend a pacifist congress, he observed that Einstein had apparently never been in a first-class wagon-lit compartment before and examined its amenities “with the greatest of interest.” In the cosmopolitan European social world before the great war, Kessler had a more than passing acquaintance with Thomas Mann, D’Annunzio, Rilke, Serge Diaghilev, Proust, Max Reinhardt, Cocteau, Richard Strauss, Isadora Duncan, and George Bernard Shaw. After the war he was also in touch with Kokoschka, Brecht, Harold Nicolson, Hermann Hesse, Aristide Briand, Gustav Stresemann, André Gide, and Georg Grosz. As the Nazis rose to power, Grosz called Kessler the last great gentleman he had encountered.

Kessler was forty-six when World War I broke out; he volunteered immediately and served as a captain in an elite Prussian guards regiment. He saw action first in neutral Belgium, which the Germans devastated in a few days, shooting hostages and burning down villages. On his way there, he traveled comfortably in a private first-class compartment; his horse, his valet, and the lower ranks under his command stretched out on hay in cattle cars. In Namur, a town the Germans had partially leveled, he was under orders to take prisoner the Duchess of Sutherland, at whose house in London he had dined only a few weeks earlier and discussed modern art. He felt, he noted, “somewhat uncomfortable.”

He expected German troops to march into Paris within weeks but already knew that he would not be among them. His army corps had just received orders to proceed to the Eastern Front and push the Russian army out of East Prussia. He spent the next sixteen months in the plains and swamps of Poland and Carpathian Russia, where he kept himself regularly supplied with French and English newspapers, English turtle soup in violet tin buckets, pâté de foie gras, and other delicacies sent to him through neutral Switzerland by English friends and his French brother-in-law. In October 1915, still enthusiastic about the war, Kessler wrote that he could accept peace only if it included large German territo-rial gains in Europe and a German-controlled land bridge all the way down to South Africa. Early in 1916, he was sent back to the West to a command post outside Verdun, a landscape of mass slaughter where hundreds of thousands of men died in the mud and clouds of gas hovered over the battlefield.

  1. 1

    Walter Rathenau: His Life and Work (AMS Press, 1970).

  2. 2

    Peter Grupp, Kessler’s German biographer, cited in Claudia Schmölders, Hitlers Gesicht (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2000), p. 27.

  3. 3

    The Secrets of Maillol,” The New York Review, May 9, 1996.

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