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.

Madame Giroux’s book is more superficial. She does not give references to her sources, and one can’t help feeling that she rather lost interest once Mahler was dead (he died out of love for Alma, she implies) and the extensive collection of facts in Henry-Louis de la Grange’s huge biography of the composer was exhausted. The years with Werfel, certainly a less charismatic figure than either Mahler or Kokoschka, are not treated in detail, though these are the years when she was creating her own legend. But Madame Giroux’s book (first published in France in 1988) is lively and readable, as one would expect from a successful journalist, and better than the books that most former cabinet ministers in other countries write.

Gustav Klimt, the painter who expresses so much of Viennese taste in the years before 1914, was doubtless fortunate that Alma’s hopes of marrying him were cut short by her family. In fact he never married; but in the twenty years before his death in 1918 had as his companion a woman in many ways much more admirable than Alma, Emilie Flöge, who became a successful and gifted couturière; the firm Geschwister Flöge which she ran with her two sisters became one of the most prominent fashion houses in Vienna right down to 1938. Wolfgang G. Fischer, a specialist in the Viennese art of the period, whose gallery in London founded by his father (and recently, alas, closed) introduced much of it to England, and whose novels Wohnungen and Mobilierte Zimmer give a vivid picture of Viennese society from the end of the Empire to the Anschluss, has used the recently discovered archives of the Flöge firm to produce a book which is a fascinating piece of social history as well as giving an account of two remarkable Viennese figures and insights into Klimt’s work. Klimt indeed lived up to the picture of Viennese erotic life to be found in the writings of Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig. He had a number of illegitimate children (at least three and probably more: on his death fourteen claimed a share of his estate). These were the product of a series of affairs with girls—artists’ models, seam-stresses, and others—the “sweet little things” (süsse Mädel) who seem to have been so readily available to the respectable members of the Viennese bourgeoisie.

Klimt’s relations with Emilie Flöge were different. She was a skilled dressmaker from a family of artisans. Her sister married Klimt’s brother and the Klimts came from a similar background. Emilie built up a prosperous business which at one time employed eighty workers, and her success came partly from her connection with the Wiener Werkstätte, the craft movement with which Klimt had close ties and for which Kokoschka at one time worked. The members of the Werkstätte were pioneering new designs and new handmade materials. Wolfgang Fischer’s beautifully illustrated and well-produced book contains several photographs of the rooms and furniture in the Geschwister Flöge premises that epitomized the aesthetics of the advanced design of the period. The firm’s archives as interpreted by Dr. Fischer also throw light on social conditions in Vienna: the contrast between the price of the clothes made by the Flöge salon and the wages paid to the seamstresses who made them suggest that the girls who became mistresses of the better-off had good reasons to do so, and also perhaps helps to explain the success of the Social Democratic Party in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge was running a business constantly under threat from the new ready-to-wear clothes sold by the department stores, and she held her own against the competition of the Paris fashion houses, who did not cater, it was claimed, for the difference between the Viennese and Parisian versions of the female figure: “[The Viennese] cannot wear a foreign model as it is, because she is not so small and slim, not so mercurial and not as hipless as a Parisienne.” Indeed one can see from the photo of Alma Mahler in 1909 reproduced in this book the importance of an ample bust for a women wanting to be an acknowledged beauty in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge, a hard-working woman managing her firm, designing and cutting her clothes, working, as one of her assistants described, “like an artist, like a sculptor, at the dummy” produced clothes that the photos in Fischer’s book show to have been beautiful and also that the aesthetic ideals of the Wiener Werkstätte could combine the opulence of these dresses with the simplicity of the furniture and decorations of the rooms in which they were shown to customers.

Klimt’s relations with Emilie were extremely close: although they did not live together and Klimt remained in his mother’s apartment until his death, they saw each other every day, and when apart Klimt sent Emilie sometimes as many as eight postcards a day. (An appendix to this books prints many of these, though as Wolfgang Fischer remarks, Klimt was “far from being a born letter-writer.”)

In the summer Klimt spent long periods with Emilie and her family and friends on the Attersee in the Salzkammergut. Fischer suggests however that for all the closeness of the relationship, they may not actually have been lovers. Klimt certainly loved Emilie; but his association with her was oddly respectable and middle class, while his erotic fantasies seem to have been acted out elsewhere. Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge throws light not just on the arts in Vienna but on morals and society at many levels, even if, as far as Klimt himself is concerned, the author concludes that “the complexities of his motivations will forever remain an enigma.”

When Klimt died in February 1918 Oskar Kokoschka wrote to his mother that he had “cried for poor Klimt, the only Austrian artist who had talent and character. Now I am the successor.”3 Although very different as artists, they both came from the same world of the Wiener Werkstätte, which in 1908 commissioned Kokoschka’s first illustrated book, Dreaming Boys. John Neubauer in his analysis of the culture of adolescence writes that it runs the gamut of adolescent moods, “self-assertion, violence, fear, and sexual yearning.” These were indeed to be the characteristics of much of Kokoschka’s art over the next two decades. Like Alma Mahler, Kokoschka made the task of writing his life a hard one because he wrote it himself at the age of eighty-five in a book of great vitality but with the lapses of memory and retouching of some episodes that one would expect. Fortunately however he was an indefatigable correspondent and, unlike Klimt, a born letter writer, so that in his published letters one can follow in detail the development of his artistic, emotional, and financial life. The German edition of Kokoschka’s letters consists of four volumes; and the English edition (in a good translation by Mary Whittall, even if some of her attempts to find English equivalents for Viennese slang—an almost impossible task—do not always come off) is a selection made by the artist’s widow Olda and his friend Fred Marnau. It must of necessity leave out many of the letters in the German edition, though it includes a few not printed there.

The most serious omissions are the letters to Kokoschka’s family, because these show a side of his character that does not always come out in his other correspondence. All their lives he was concerned for his parents, his brother, and his sister, and his anxiety about their welfare as well as his financial generosity provide a contrast to the violence and passion of much of his painting and writing. Another notable omission is the letters concerning the most notorious episode of his career—his commissioning of a life-size doll of Alma Mahler in 1918–1919, after his breach with her, and his correspondence with the skilled doll-maker about every detail which ends by expressing his disgust that the result was not sufficiently lifelike. One can see something of his distress in his paintings if one compares, for example, the strong erotic painting of him and Alma, Two Nudes (The Lovers), of 1913 with the harrowing Self-Portrait with Doll of 1920–1921.

Kokoschka was just beginning to make his way as an artist, especially as a portrait painter, when he met Alma in 1912, and for the next few years he was wholly obsessed by her, an obsession that lasted, as the doll episode showed, after she had resumed her relationship with Gropius. Kokoschka’s letters for this period are poignant and passionate: he was aware of his own comparatively humble origins and, for all the notoriety that the Bohemian daring of some of his youthful escapades and the originality of his paintings and his short Expressionist drama Murderer Hope of Womankind had brought him, he was still surprisingly inexperienced; no doubt Alma was infatuated with him, but she treated him with characteristic capriciousness, and their parting was a bitter one. The passion of their relationship is reflected in his pictures, such as the famous The Tempest, or to give it its German title suggested by the painter’s friend the poet Georg Trakl, Die Windsbraut. Kokoschka, although freeing himself from her spell, never forgot her: he wrote to her during the crisis in Austria in 1937–1938, and in 1960, in a letter printed in the German edition, was telling a friend traveling to New York to call her: “She is still very fond of me, writing now (after forty years or so) nearly every week to me the hottest letters…. I promise you it will be fun for you as she is eighty years old by now and publishing my letters in best-sellers.”

During the war Kokoschka served in the Austrian cavalry and was seriously wounded. The results affected his health all his life and especially contributed to his restlessness and eccentricity during the immediate postwar months when he was teaching in Dresden. Between the wars his reputation as a painter grew steadily, at least in the German-speaking world, though he seems always to have been short of money, partly because of his generosity to his family and, later in his life, his donations to charity, especially to orphaned children after World War II. In the Twenties he had a long relationship with Anna Kallin, a Russian music student and herself a woman of great distinction, who moved to London and whose work with the British Broadcasting Corporation in the 1940s and 1950s did much to restore cultural life in Britain after the war.

In the 1930s Kokoschka went to Prague and became a Czech citizen, and there he met Olda Palkovská with whom he was to go into exile and whom he finally married in 1941. Olda, considerably younger than Kokoschka, provided him with the kind of stability he had hitherto lacked. With her support he survived the years of exile, leaving Prague for London in 1938 and struggling to keep his painting going in an England where there was not much sympathy with German expressionism and where Kokoschka was little known. Only after World War II did he come into his own, at last recognized as one of Europe’s great painters, doing portraits of the famous—President Heuss, Chancellor Adenauer, Agatha Christie—running his summer “School of Seeing” in Salzburg, and finally settling happily on the shore of Lake Geneva, where he died in 1980 at the age of ninety-four.

The letters reflect all aspects of his life: his emotional turmoil, his professional problems, his passionate commitment to radical causes (had he been alive now he would have been a passionate supporter of the Greens), his prejudices, against Parisian art, for instance, and his contemptuous rejection of what he called bric-à-Braque. What is clear is his total commitment to his art: “I painted for eight hours today, and am ready to drop, but I’ve done it and need have no doubts about it,” he wrote.

On another occasion when he was already an old man he reported, “I traveled without a break [from Salzburg to Geneva] all through the night, about eighteen hours in the train, washed, shaved and painted again.” He must also have been one of the last painters to travel widely, specifically to search for motifs for his landscape painting, so that his letters give vivid accounts of journeys in Europe and North Africa. The letters from London in the 1940s also illustrate the capacity of the Viennese for creating in exile a microcosm of the world they had lost. While Kokoschka established good relations with a few British artists and writers and found a few supportive British patrons, he complained in a letter to Schoenberg, “Art has absolutely no soil or roots in England.” He did indeed experience examples of English insensitivity, as when the then director of the Tate Gallery suggested to the penniless refugee that he might present a painting to the gallery without charge. In these circumstances much of his life was spent with fellow Austrians, including the art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich, who has written an introduction to this volume of letters.

Kokoschka remains a painter and writer whom it is hard to assess: on the one hand he was uncompromisingly rebellious, committed to modernism in some of its aspects, the music of Schoenberg and Webern, for example; but at the same time, as Gombrich writes, “he could see in most twentieth century movements nothing but the manifestation of everything he shrank from, cold theorizing and soulless manipulation.” And he himself wrote: “I simply wanted to create around me a world of my own in which I could survive the progressive disruption going on all over the world.” However the last emotion that Kokoschka wanted to express was a sentimental nostalgia for old Vienna; and he was reluctant to accept invitations to return to Austria and give up the British citizenship he had acquired in 1947, so that it needed a special act of the Austrian Parliament in 1974 to restore his Austrian nationality without his applying for it. Yet he never lost his sense of belonging to an Austrian cultural world. In a moving letter to an American student in 1949 he wrote (in English):

As you may know my own origin is in Austria, where the Baroque culture was still a tradition alive in my boyhood. Baroque art impressed me deeply because it was typical for my country…. [Baroque painters and architects] instilled into me the sadness of Memento Mori as soon as the first wonders of modern Technology appeared, advertised by Neon Lights. In harmony with the visual arts, the galaxy of the great Austrian composers, culminating in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, encircled the heavens of my youth. This Baroque culture…has saturated me with the same mystic vein as you and your friends find in El Greco: the desire to survive the running out of time and the disappearance of space into a world catastrophe.

It is a reminder that there was more to Austrian culture than the nostalgia for fin-de-siècle Vienna.

This Issue

October 8, 1992