Having It All

Alma Mahler: Muse to Genius

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

Alma Mahler
Alma Mahler; drawing by David Levine

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…

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