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 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.

He died in 1911 leaving his young widow extremely well off. She did not lack for suitors. The scientist Paul Kammerer threatened to shoot himself for her sake until she telephoned Frau Kammerer and told her to get rid of the gun. In early 1912 she found another genius: Oskar Kokoschka, seven years younger than she was. For three years they carried on what he calls “an extremely passionate relationship.” He wanted to marry her, but she could not make up her mind; and she refused to bear him a child, as he wished, because she thought she had been punished by her elder daughter’s death for conceiving her out of wedlock. When she became pregnant nevertheless, she arranged an abortion.

Kokoschka was jealous even of Mahler’s memory, and he accused her of clinging to her social position as his widow. Karen Monson’s chapter on Alma and Kokoschka is somewhat confused, and no wonder, with the way they went on. “Glorious, but, even more glorious is my life,” Alma wrote in her diary (translated by Monson), “which permits me to live my time to its fullest. I am truly fortunate! I can see through everything, and all is clear to me. The work of this man is a riddle to my femininity; with this, I feel at my peak.” All may have been clear to Alma, but her biographer seems puzzled. This may be partly owing to her trouble with German. Here is part of her translation of a poem Kokoschka wrote to Alma:

From the overrun, back,
the earth looks white in the winter sun
and over that which has not yet flowed, in front,
whirls the same sorrow of a threat- ening thunderstorm.

Kokoschka got out of it all in the summer of 1914 by volunteering for the army. Alma’s reaction to the outbreak of war was as follows: “I sometimes imagine that I have caused this whole upheaval, in order to experience some kind of awakening or reconciliation—and that might also mean death.”

The path was now clear for Gropius, although Kokoschka kept writing to Alma, begging her to return to him. “He spoke often about his own death, with the implication that Alma would somehow be responsible for it.” But Alma had already written to Gropius who was in Berlin recovering from an injury received at the front. In August 1915 she married him, but her mind seems never really to have been on this marriage. In any case, it was sporadic, as Gropius was soon back at the front. He was neither a soul in torment like Mahler nor a turbulent enfant terrible like Kokoschka. The son of a well-known German architect, he was one of nature’s gentlemen as well as being well brought up and imbued with the Protestant ethic. None of this really turned Alma on, and she may have missed the fact that he too, in his sedate way, was a genius. But she could see that he was fantastically handsome and she wanted to bear his child. This she did the following year. She called the girl Manon, after Manon Lescaut—hardly an auspicious choice.

Alma’s next great love was Franz Werfel, eleven years her junior, small, fat, and rather dirty. The son of a well-to-do Jewish glove manufacturer in Prague, he had turned himself into a firebrand left-wing writer, and lived in conditions of squalor which, when she saw them, convinced the fastidious Alma that he needed her. If Mahler had been a sort of father figure, now she was to have a sort of son. Throughout their long relationship she was always urging him to get on with his work. Werfel

had a growing reputation as a poet, but he was far from achieving the status of Gustav, Klimt, or even Oskar. Franz had gained popularity in certain circles for his readings of both his own works and great lyrics from German literature. For every person who appreciated his very theatrical manner of recitation, however, there were several others who found it exaggerated to the point of being foolish.

Alma was bowled over and into bed. Gropius behaved with dignity, Werfel with hysterical importunity, Alma with indecision. She was soon pregnant by Werfel, but should she leave Gropius? And if so, why not try going back to Kokoschka? Two months before the expected birth, Werfel paid a clandestine visit to her in the country. In the early hours she had a hemorrhage which endangered her life and the child’s. She was rushed to Vienna. Werfel felt it was all his fault. His diary (quoted by Alma in Mein Leben) reads like soliloquies from an unwritten comedy by Molière called The Egomaniac.

Howling with despair he prays for Alma and the child to survive and makes two numbered vows: 1) always to be faithful to Alma and to give up looking at sexually arousing sights while walking in the streets; 2) to give up smoking. He breaks the second vow quite soon and immediately has an intimation that Alma’s condition is worsening as a result. So he throws away the cigarette: “It was hard for me. But it is the beginning of what I shall call my work on myself, a kind of atonement. Under the same heading comes my decision to keep a diary in which I constantly call myself to account and learn from all my lies, hang-ups, and trivialities, all of which are merely enslavement to the material world.” He adds not looking at himself in the glass to his list of abstinences. Next day he mounts a speak-your-weight machine: “I put in two separate coins; both times the machine returned a blank slip.—My inner voice immediately understood the hint.—I had forgotten that weighing oneself falls into the same category of personal vanity as looking in a mirror.” He tries fasting and is at once seduced into lunching with a friend, “but it was a meatless day. I ate nothing that had once been an animal born of its mother’s pangs.”

In the end the baby was born with Gropius by the bedside, and Alma’s life was spared. The premature child was frail and died within the year. Gropius gave Alma the divorce she now wanted, and they shared Manon quite amicably. She grew into an exceptionally beautiful, gifted, and gentle girl. She was seventeen when she caught polio and slowly died in the course of a year. Her last words to Alma were: ” ‘Mami, you’ll get over it, just as you get over everything’ (then she corrected herself) ‘just as everyone gets over everything.’ ” The inclusion of this passage in Mein Leben seems to support Karen Monson’s theory that Alma did not have much to do with the writing of the book. But one can’t be sure. She prided herself on being brutally outspoken, perhaps even about herself.

Werfel was Alma’s second Jewish husband, but Karen Monson obviously feels that the charge against her of anti-Semitism has got to be considered. She quotes a number of immemorial, mindless clichés that Alma let fall: Jews can’t hold their liquor as well as non-Jews, for instance. Applied to Werfel and Alma, this happened to be true. It is clear that she was very caught up in the question of Jewishness, as was everyone else in her circle. Against a background of growing anti-Semitism, Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals alike speculated endlessly about the nature of race (often called blood) from every angle, ethnological, philosophical, psychological, and even mystical.

Karen Monson says that in the diaries Alma lays much stress on her Aryan “brightness” as opposed to Jewish “darkness.” One would like to know what German word Alma used. In German literature the terms bright (or light) and dark have designated different types of personality ever since Goethe’s haunted Orestes called his friend Pylades a “brightly colored butterfly” circling a “dark flower”—himself. The light are better at dealing with life; the dark understand more, know more, and suffer more. The types correspond very roughly to extrovert and introvert. Thomas Mann was always juxtaposing them, most overtly in Tonio Kröger where the dark hero actually belongs, through his mother, to a different race from his blond idol Hans. In a milieu so overwhelmingly dark as the Viennese intelligentsia in Alma’s day it was not surprising if both the light and the dark themselves sometimes got impatient with the dark and their brooding and hair-splitting. At its extremes this feeling could turn either into anti-Semitism or Jewish self-hatred. Alma never reached an extreme.

In the Twenties she showed a friendly interest in certain fascist ideas. She had always belonged to upper Bohemia and had a gut terror and hatred of “the masses.” She thought fascism might keep them at bay and bring “world order.” Besides, it was important to her to be at least au fait, if not involved, with “tomorrow’s truth.” She argued amicably with Werfel, who clung to his revolutionary ideas while simultaneously minimizing the danger of fascism to himself, even after Alma had become alarmed by it. As for Alma’s original thoughts (if they were original) about the Jews, they are just plain dotty: “Most Jewish melodies begin with a dissonance, such as the Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann. That’s because they have not yet found their Messiah and they thus still strive toward the ultimate promise! We start with the C-major chord, as in the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, face up to the conflicts and end in Christ, who was and is…! Is he real?”

In Alma’s defense it must also be said that she did not actually marry Werfel until 1929 when many people could already see that the Jews of Central Europe were seriously threatened; and when Hitler marched into Austria she followed her husband into exile, staunch if disgruntled at having to share a fate to which she had not been born. Karen Monson is at her best describing the Werfels’ cliffhanging flight from wartime France across the Spanish border, into Portugal, and on to America. They passed through Lourdes where Werfel, ever theatrical, made yet another vow: he would write a book about Saint Bernadette if they came safely through. But he was not a Catholic and never became one.

Alma did not enjoy being an exile and grumbled a lot. She particularly minded when the American success of The Song of Bernadette threw too much limelight on Werfel, while no one was much interested in the widow of Mahler. Werfel was already suffering from heart disease, so she was soon his widow as well, which enabled her to concentrate on being Mahler’s. He turned out to have been her best investment in genius, his fame growing as Werfel’s waned. She still hankered after Kokoschka, the most exciting of her loves, and the one whose work she admired most. She still did not really care for Mahler’s, or Werfel’s either.

After Werfel’s death her eccentricities began to follow a more conventional path. She had always drunk a good deal; now she drank more, but only Benedictine, starting with a glass for breakfast, and going on steadily “but not usually beyond her level of tolerance. The persons who say she was drunk do not seem to have known about her impaired hearing.” This was due to an attack of childhood measles and turned into an asset when, as a beautiful young girl, she was obliged to close in on her interlocutors to catch what they were saying and, like Miss Prism, to hang with her famously beautiful eyes upon their lips. In her later years she turned herself into a sort of bag lady de luxe wearing shapeless dresses under a brocade bed jacket, a towering montage of yellow hair, and what Karen Monson calls “wedgies” to stop herself from falling about. She sat in her New York apartment receiving tributes to the men in her life until she died in 1964, age eighty-five. Tom Lehrer celebrated her in a song which ends:

Alma, tell us,
How can they help being jealous?
Ducks always envy the swans
Who get Gustav and Walter—you never did falter—
With Gustav and Walter and Franz.

Alma’s story could have made a wonderful comical-romantical biography in the style of Nancy Mitford. But Karen Monson seems both out of sympathy with her subject and overawed; she does not write as well as Nancy Mitford either. In fact, English seems almost as foreign to her as German. According to her, Mahler on one occasion tried “to dispel the blanket of tension.” Alma looked “more expensively presented than she actually was.” A young admirer of Alma’s is described as saying “that he loved her in a manner overpowered only by his devotion to her husband.” Even without benefit of howlers, there are some memorably awful sentences: “Only rarely could [Mahler] initiate a bit of fun”; and when he falls ill, “the irregular nature of his infection gave [Alma] inspiration to retain some optimism and believe he could recover.”

No book could recover from such prose, not even a popular work on the intellectual climate of the years between 1900 and 1940 in Germany and Austria, for which Alma’s career might have served as a peg. Karen Monson anxiously avoids entangling herself with the jungle of ideas luxuriating on either side of Alma’s labyrinthine progress. She clings grimly to the thread of chronology which she is at great pains to establish. It is a simple case of what Alma did and what Alma did next, but it has the effect of making the narrative oddly jumpy, hopping, often in the same paragraph, from musical, to sexual, to financial, to domestic matters in strict accordance with the dates on which they took place. Like an early movie run at the wrong speed, it looks funnier than it was ever meant to be. Alma’s life would be sufficiently amusing even at the right speed.

This Issue

September 29, 1983