By Cate Haste
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ALMA MAHLER WAS a woman of extraordinary complexity. Challenging, difficult, charismatic, generous, passionate, and self-serving, she was the object of veneration and of mocking disdain and the doyen of elite Viennese society for several decades. She inspired ballads, notably the satirist Tom Lehrer’s 1964 classic, “Alma,” which spread her fame to a new generation, as well as several plays and films. Yet none has truly captured this exceptional woman.
In Passionate Spirit, I address her enduring—and controversial—legend and ask why, more than half a century since her death, she still commands the fascination of scholars and readers alike. Alma was a powerful woman, a femme fatale who successfully defined her life through love. Many men fell in love with her, she was widely adored, the muse of geniuses, the generous spirit who intuitively understood the springs of creativity that inspired their work. Alongside this attractive image runs the hostile one of the seductress who used love to gain power over men, the devouring maenad, cold and calculating, who first beguiled men then ruthlessly rejected them. She becomes the self-serving egoist, who invented her own significance as a muse by grossly exaggerating her importance in the creative lives of great men. Her widely recognized musical and compositional talents are belittled and any compositions of value attributed to the influence—if not the pen—of either her teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky, or her husband, Gustav Mahler. She is consistently and damningly accused of anti-Semitism, yet she had two Jewish husbands, one of whom she followed into permanent exile to escape the Nazis, several Jewish lovers, and a social circle composed mostly of Jews.
Clearly there are elements of truth in all these versions. My aim is to weigh the merits of these judgments against the available evidence, to portray the woman I discovered as I read her words and listened to her voice. And in so doing, I aim to reassess her legacy, to view her free from the screen of skepticism and the harshly judgmental tone of previous commentators on her life.
I like Alma Mahler. I particularly like the modern young woman who emerges from the pages of her early diaries, written between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, when she was untrammeled by convention and bent on realizing herself and her talents despite the odds against her as a woman. And I find equally challenging and interesting the later woman who was surrounded in her famous salon by Vienna’s glittering cultural elite but was tormented by longing, afflicted by terrible tragedy, and still breached the boundaries of decorum in pursuit of a passionate life lived to the full.
THE EVIDENCE IN Alma’s case is controversial. She is routinely accused of massaging the facts to serve her own legacy—of suppressing or editing her husband Gustav Mahler’s published letters to remove critical references to her, for instance—acts seen, particularly by Mahler scholars (for whom she was for some time their principal source), as tampering with the archive. In addition she burned all of her own letters to him, which rouses suspicion about her intent among frustrated scholars. These claims have been exaggerated into the prevalent view that anything written by Alma is bound to be inaccurate or self-serving, which in my view considerably undervalues her witness to her own life and the history she lived through.
With this caveat in mind, I have drawn as far as possible on primary sources. I have drawn more extensively than previous commentators on the private diaries Alma wrote in her late adolescence between 1898 and 1902, which were published in 1998.1 I have quoted extensively, often for the first time, from the unpublished typescript of her later diaries covering July 1902–1905, 1911, and 1913–1944, which are preserved in the Mahler-Werfel Papers at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Believed to be an accurate copy of her original diaries, they include some clear alterations in her own bold handwriting that I have acknowledged in the text. This invaluable source is the spine to my narrative of Alma’s life, the voice to which I have listened to penetrate this kaleidoscopic personality.
The diaries are the record of her most intimate feelings, her ambitions, her palpitating self-doubt, her candid comments on people and events. Because I used mainly the entries written on the day or very soon after the events, they have an immediacy that conveys honesty, rather than the structure of recollection. And, because a private diary provides the space to vent feelings and to work through emotions, they are raw and sometimes shocking in their candor.
Her unpublished 614-page typescript memoir, “Der schimmernde Weg” (The shimmering path), also in the Mahler-Werfel Papers, is an interim autobiography based largely on her diaries. It covers the period 1902–1944, and though less immediate—it was begun in 1944 and abandoned in 1947—it remains an important record. I treat her autobiography And the Bridge Is Love, ghostwritten when she was seventy-nine and published in 1958, as a far less reliable source. It reveals a harder, more cynical persona, which lends credence to her hostile legend and has been the principal source for at least two previous biographies of Alma. Recognizing its inaccuracies, I have quoted from it only when absolutely no other source was available.
Alma’s Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters first published in 1940, and Gustav Mahler: Letters to His Wife, edited by Mahler’s respected biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange and published in 1995, are valuable sources. Additionally several archive collections, in particular the Mahler-Werfel Papers at the University of Pennsylvania, include Alma’s correspondence with the numerous personalities in her life.
Few firsthand witnesses remain, so I am extremely grateful to Marina Mahler, Alma’s granddaughter, for several long and entirely enjoyable interviews, for her insights, for her hospitality, and for the invaluable help she has given me throughout.
I have used in evidence the voice of Anna Mahler, Alma’s daughter, recorded in interviews with Peter Stephan Jungk, the biographer of Alma’s third husband, Franz Werfel. Anna called her “Tiger-Mammy”: “She was a big animal. And sometimes she was magnificent, and sometimes she was abominable,” Anna recalled, neatly encapsulating the complexity of this remarkable and controversial woman.
London, November 2018
When Alma Mahler walked into a room, heads turned. Her magnetic presence and charismatic allure were like “an electric charge” in any gathering. She was a femme fatale who commanded fascination, adoration, and love and could enchant people in seconds. At the age of nineteen, with clear skin, an enigmatic smile, lustrous, flowing hair, and piercing, watchful blue eyes, Alma was called “the most beautiful girl in Vienna.” Her personality was mercurial; one minute she was the grande dame—imposing, regal, exuding authority—the next she was jolly and good humored, revealing “the Viennese soft femininity [which] even in her most awful moments, made it difficult to really dislike her.”1 Some likened her to a demigoddess to whom her admirers and devotees brought gifts. Others loathed her.
Alma was a modern woman who lived out of her time. With an independent will, an intelligent mind of her own, and a strong sense of her own worth, she harbored ambitions that were completely at odds with the behavior expected of young women in late nineteenth-century Viennese society. Her freedom mattered as she challenged the constraints imposed on her.
Alma was deeply romantic. She needed to be loved fiercely and also to feel love with a passion that fired her being. Only superior creative talents inspired her love. She was irresistibly and erotically attracted to a series of extraordinary men of glittering talent and genius, each of whom would make his distinctive mark on the European cultural landscape. Her first infatuation was with the painter Gustav Klimt, though he never made a golden portrait of her and did not become her lover. Composer Gustav Mahler was her first husband, and, after he died in 1911, the wild expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka openly became her lover. Her second husband, the architect Walter Gropius (with whom she had had an affair while married to Mahler) founded the modernist Bauhaus movement, her third was the then widely read novelist and poet Franz Werfel. Several other writers, composers, and artists who worshipped her praised her for her “unique gift,” her “profound, uncanny understanding of what creative men tried to achieve, and her capacity to persuade them that they could do what they aimed at, and that she, Alma, understood what it was,” as one associate described it.2
Alma had not anticipated this. At eighteen, music was her passion. Her consuming aspiration was to be a composer, an extremely ambitious goal for a young woman. Nothing moved her as much as her usual twice-weekly visits to the opera, which left her enraptured and her imagination overwhelmed by its beauty and grandeur. But women composers were almost nonexistent. Girls were taught the piano not to encourage their creativity but to burnish their accomplishments as elegant and cultured wives. Women were still barred from studying at the music and art academies. Their capacity for creativity was deemed, then and later, to be limited, parochial, “domestic,” and their creative vision, by their very nature, far inferior to that of men. If, as happened to Alma, a work revealed remarkable talent, its merits were belittled or attributed to the influence or direct intervention of another—male—composer.
The adverse climate did not dim Alma’s ambition. For she was compelled to create music, driven by the spirit that flows from mysterious sources. Her belief in her innately superior pedigree, descended as she was from a painter father, Emil Jakob Schindler, whom she was convinced was a genius, gave her an unshakeable confidence in her own worth. From him came her profound conviction that the pursuit of artistic excellence was the only truly worthwhile goal and that only a person of exceptional creative talent was worthy of eliciting her love or capturing her soul.
But, when she was twenty-one, Alma was faced with a dreadful dilemma. She had to choose between her passion for a genius nearly twice her age, Gustav Mahler, and the pursuit of her own precious goal, her music. She chose the genius. Why? She had become persuaded of the nobility of giving herself entirely to a superior being who would “give my life meaning,” she explained. It was a capitulation of her inner being to the prevailing view of the role of the wife, and it happened, despite her stubborn nature and her modern ideas, because of the overwhelming intensity of her love.
Although the loss of her own music left a lasting wound, music would remain her source of strength during a life of passion and high drama, shadowed by tragedy with the premature loss of her first husband and the deaths of three of her four children. Love was the core of her existence and the wellspring of the power that this restless and irrepressible woman would from then on exercise over those in her orbit.
BORN IN 1879, Alma Schindler was brought up as a child in the bohemian artistic circles to which her parents, Emil and Anna Schindler, belonged, and, as an adolescent at the busy hub of the influential Viennese avant-garde, the Secession movement cofounded by her stepfather, the artist Carl Moll. She was a young woman of exceptional vitality and intellectual curiosity, eager and open, like a flower to the sun, to life and new experience.
The milieu of her self-discovery was fin-de-siècle Vienna, the magnet for talent and enterprise from across the sprawling Austro-Hungarian (or Habsburg) empire and the crucible for innovation and new ideas in every sphere of culture and intellectual thought. Artists, composers, writers, dramatists, architects, and scientists of the psyche all sought to express the new soul and spirit of modern man and woman, their condition of uncertainty and nervous anxiety, their rejection of ossified principles, and their search for inner truth through emotional and psychological introspection. In so doing they shaped the intellectual currents that defined the twentieth century.
Yet underlying the city’s buoyant cultural energy was an ominous sense of unease. The multinational empire of Austria-Hungary, which for three centuries had held together a kaleidoscope of nationalities and ethnic minorities covering much of central Europe, had begun to fragment. Demands by minorities for greater autonomy and increased rights to control their own languages and territory were opening up fissures that threatened the empire’s cohesion and stability. Faced with these intractable problems, the Viennese zeitgeist turned increasingly toward the unifying and exuberant balms of art and culture, in which pursuit the city could still lay claim to be the capital of Europe.
Within this atmosphere of cultural ferment, the guide, mentor, and polestar of the young Alma’s existence was her father, the painter Emil Jakob Schindler. She would spend many hours in his studio, watching him paint, “standing and staring at the revelations of the hand that led the brush,” and through this she acquired an intuitive sense of the process and struggle of artistic creation. Such intense involvement with the artist she loved unreservedly nurtured in her young imagination fantasies of patronage: “I dreamed of wealth merely in order to smooth the paths of creative personalities. I wished for a great Italian garden filled by many white studios; I wished to invite many outstanding men there—to live for their art alone, without mundane worries—and never to show myself,” she wrote.3
Alma’s love of music dated back to her childhood when her “profoundly musical” father sang beautifully his favorite Schumann lieder and her mother, Anna, a trained singer, joined in. Emil Schindler took his intelligent, growing daughter seriously. His conversation was “fascinating and never commonplace,” she recalled.4 When she was eight, he led Alma and her sister, Gretl, into his studio to tell them the story of Goethe’s Faust: “We wept, not knowing why. When we were all enraptured, he gave us the book. ‘This is the most beautiful book in the world,’ he said. ‘Read it. Keep it.’” Her furious mother thought it unsuitable reading for small children and removed it. As her parents argued, Alma and Gretl listened behind closed doors with bated breath. Their mother won: “But in my mind a fixed idea remained: I had to get the Faust back!” Alma wrote.5
Her unwavering devotion to Goethe spawned a burgeoning interest in literature and, later, philosophy. But her education was otherwise patchy. Though Alma appears to have attended school for a short period, she and Gretl, in common with other bourgeois Viennese girls, were taught at home by tutors. Alma’s tutors were either “nasty” and were dismissed, or they were nice and taught them nothing. Girls had been admitted to secondary school in Vienna since 1868, but until 1892, when Alma was thirteen, they were still barred from the gymnasium—the grammar school—and access to universities was still impossible. The education of girls, including Alma, tended to focus on social skills—French, dress making, and piano, rather than the philosophy and literature that inspired her.
Alma remembered herself as “a nervous child, fairly bright, with the typical hop-skip-and jump brains of precocity.… I could not think anything through, and was never able to keep a date in mind, and took no interest in anything but music.”6 Later she railed loudly against this neglect of girls’ education: “Why are boys taught to use their brains, but not girls? I can see it in my own case. My mind has not been schooled, which is why I have such frightful difficulty with everything. Sometimes I really try, force myself to think, but my thoughts vanish into thin air. And I really want to use my mind. I really do. Why do they make everything so terribly difficult for girls?”7
However, she had acquired through her father a deep appreciation of painting and of the arts. Schindler, though influenced by plein air painters like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau, and Charles-François Daubigny, had developed his own vision of landscape known as poetic realism—atmospheric paintings saturated with feeling, which convey a strong sense of transience in images that are both aesthetic and subjective. He focused not on the heroic panorama of landscape but on the mundane and everyday—the vegetable garden, the mill and stream near their house, the poplar tree avenue—which he transformed with fluent brushstrokes in different light and atmospheric conditions into statements of poetic truth. Although rooted in the Viennese tradition, his style reflected the new understanding of nature that was spreading across Europe. In Alma’s eyes, he was the true prophet of the Austrian landscape.
In complete contrast, Alma’s expansive imagination was also fired by the opulent spectacles of her father’s friend and associate, Hans Makart, the most fashionable artist of the era. His dramatic, ornate representations of allegorical, historical, and classical motifs decorated Vienna’s public buildings and private neo-Renaissance palaces, and he was the dominant influence on painting, fashion, and interior design: Makart hats and Makart red were all the rage, along with the Makart bouquets—bunches of dried flowers, ostrich feathers, and grasses that decorated the salons of the bourgeoisie. Alma fell under Makart’s spell for a time: “I loved trailing velvet gowns, and I wanted to be rowed in gondolas with velvet draperies floating astern,” she wrote.8 She was entranced by stories of his legendary parties, when “the loveliest women were dressed in genuine Renaissance costumes, rose garlands trailed from ballroom ceilings, Franz Liszt played through the nights, the choicest wines flowed, velvet-clad pages stood behind every chair, and so forth to the limits of splendor and imagination.”9
Alongside this romantic extravagance there was in Alma a practical young woman with a sense of the difficulties and hardships of life. For her family’s comparatively comfortable existence had been only recently earned.
WHEN ALMA MARIA Schindler was born on August 31, 1879, her father was a struggling artist, saturated with guilt and self-doubt and prone to melancholy. He and Alma’s mother, Anna Sofie (née Bergen), were living in penury in a cramped rented flat on the Meyerhofgasse in a poor district of the city. They had met two years earlier in 1877 when they sang together in a semiprofessional production at the Künstlerhaus of the comic opera Lenardo und Blandine. Anna had just been offered a contract with the Stadttheater in Leipzig, which she did not take up, for in December 1878 they announced their engagement. Anna was pregnant with Alma when they married on February 2, 1879.
Money worries plagued Schindler. Still only slowly making his name as an artist, he earned little from his work, despite having won the prestigious Karl Ludwig medal for his painting Moonrise in the Prater the previous year. “What wouldn’t I do for forty gulden,” he opined on March 14, 1879. His anxiety mounted to despair as he received a notice to quit his apartment: “I tremble each time the bell rings.… Unlucky man!” he wrote in his diary.10 Later Alma reflected on her mother’s struggles with “the debts—and Papa, who, when things were at their worst, would simply roll over on his stomach and sleep round the clock.”11 With no money to buy paints or canvas, Schindler despaired: “Death desirable… my life has only deficits of money, satisfaction and honour.”12 Even worse, he feared he had sacrificed his artistic core, his vision: he had stopped dreaming of grandeur, honesty, and immortality. “My brain doesn’t work in form and colours any more, but merely in worry about bread.” Schindler’s consolation was his wife, Anna, for without her, “my existence would be pure agony or I would be dead by now.”13
The birth of their first child was overshadowed for Schindler by guilt at his poverty: “Only those should marry who can lie down and die the very next day, without leaving their nearest and dearest to die of starvation,” he wrote, convinced that his marrying was a reprehensible act. “All that counts is whether there is money in the house. And there isn’t even enough to pay for my funeral.”14 Anna’s confinement had horrified him—“a most shameful and despicable act of nature,” which had made his beloved Anna a martyr. For some time, he felt only indifference toward the child whose existence had meant a partial separation from his wife. He was so tormented by his inadequacy that he even contemplated giving them both away, out of love, so he would know they were well cared for.
Anna Sofie endured his melancholy with forbearance. Her modest background had equipped her for adversity. The second of nine children, she was born in Hamburg on November 20, 1857. Her father, Claus Jakob Bergen, had owned a small brewery, but he went bankrupt in 1871, and the children had to rely on their talents and financial support from friends to survive. She told Alma of her grim youth, “how one night she [and the whole Bergen family] had to flee from the island of Veddel,… and they didn’t even have enough money for the rent.… At eleven years of age, [she] became a ballet dancer,… she played walk-on parts for a whole year and became the breadwinner for the whole family.… [L]ater she became a nanny, had to wash nappies and sleep in the cooks’ room.… [S]he became an au-pair girl, then a cashier at the baths and finally a singer.”15 Anna had a good soprano voice and was sent to Vienna in 1876 to take voice lessons with the respected teacher Adele Passy-Cornet. But then she fell in love with Emil, and her career prospects ended.
In February 1880, Schindler contracted diphtheria and blood poisoning and spent six months at the North Sea resort of Borkum. On his return he found Anna was again pregnant. The father was almost certainly his painter colleague Julius Berger, who had shared the flat with Emil since before his marriage. Margarethe (Gretl, or Greta), was born on August 16, 1880, and treated as Schindler’s own child.
After his initial indifference, Schindler’s attachment to his daughters strengthened into love as his circumstances improved. In February 1881 he was awarded the Reichel Artist’s Prize, which carried an endowment of 1,500 gulden and enabled him to start paying off his debts and move into a larger flat. A sympathetic patron, the Viennese banker Moritz Mayer, commissioned paintings for his new apartment and, unusually, agreed to pay him a monthly sum of 200 gulden until they were finished. The following spring another Austrian financier bought the prize-winning Moonrise in the Prater.
Schindler took up teaching and soon gathered around him a loyal circle of talented women artists who, because they were barred from entry to the art academies, were reliant on private tuition. Marie Begas-Parmentier, Tina Blau, Maria Egner, and Olga Wisinger-Florian each later made her name in the art world. In 1882, they were joined by twenty-year-old Carl Moll, who became Schindler’s assistant and a fixture in the household. He rented an apartment in the same block and accompanied Schindler, “the Master,” on family holidays to Bad Goisern in the Salzkammergut and on summer study trips with his pupils to Weissenkirchen and Lundunberg. Moll’s devotion extended to Anna, and with utmost discretion they became lovers. If the sensitive and intelligent young Alma ever noticed this, she did not mention it either in her diaries or her autobiography. But her aversion to Carl Moll was, and remained, potent.
When Alma was five, Schindler rented Plankenberg Manor. Situated in the countryside near the Vienna Woods, it was the “fulfilment of his most secret… wishes,” according to Moll.16 For Alma, it was “full of beauty, legends and dread.… It was said to be haunted and we children lay trembling through many a night.”17 On the stairs was a flower-covered altar on which stood a wood-carved figure and a glistening chandelier that made the girls shudder every night as they passed it. The fifteenth-century building, part of the estate of Prince Karl Liechstenstein, was two stories high and topped by a gabled roof with a baroque onion-tip clock tower adorning the façade. It was set in a largely neglected three-acre park in which “traces of planning remained visible.” Surrounding the manor were “rolling hills, broad vistas, forests and fields, poplar-lined country lanes, a quiet brook.”18
Here Alma “lived like a princess, separated from the world” amid the beauties of nature while her father, “the true prophet of this nature,” painted. Carl Moll described Schindler living “like a feudal lord on practically nothing” and propagated the myth that he was “a born aristocrat, lived as a youth with his uncle in Schloss Leopoldskron—and has now been returned to another castle.”19 Alma imbibed the legend, describing herself as “the daughter of an artistic tradition” and her father as “always in debt, as befits a person of genius. He came from old patrician stock and was my shining idol.”20
The Schindler stock was not, in fact, patrician. Emil Schindler’s paternal great-grandfather was a scythe-smith from the Steyr Valley in Upper Austria. His grandfather became the owner of a textile factory and had two sons, Julius, Emil Jakob’s father, who was born in 1842, and Alexander, who became a liberal member of Parliament and published novels under the aristocratic pseudonym Julius von der Traun. A natural spendthrift, Alexander lived in the heavily mortgaged Schloss Leopoldskron, and, when his creditors forced him to flee in the night, his ignominious departure was turned into a pageant “with his many servants escorting him out in a torchlight parade.”21
- "Like the stories of most notorious women, Alma Mahler's is one of sex and power...Was she an artist stunted by society's restrictions on women who channeled her genius to become the inspiration for the men she consorted with? Or was she a grandiose groupie, expropriating the fame of her husbands and lovers? In a new biography, Passionate Spirit, Cate Haste leans toward the former view."— New York Review of Books
"In this sympathetic, engrossing biography of Viennese socialite and composer Alma Mahler, Haste traces Mahler's struggle to find equilibrium among her men (all creative geniuses), her erotic desires, and her own musical ambition."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "Haste portrays Alma Mahler in all her whirring and feverish complexity, and the result is as engrossing as it is jaw-dropping."—The Paris Review
- "A well-rounded portrait of an imperious woman and her eventful life."—Kirkus Reviews
- "In this meticulously researched and absorbing biography... Mahler is depicted as a woman who not only facilitated the creative pursuits of her husbands and lovers, but was an intellectual and creative force in her own right."—Hannah Beckerman, The Guardian
- "Considering the sexism of the 19th and 20th centuries, Alma Mahler's status as a 'muse' can be understood as a strategic attempt to signal her own talents to the world. Haste presents a necessary update and reframing of Mahler's life and legacy."—Library Journal
- "Haste... gives Alma room to romp, drawing on unpublished diary entries and memoirs (along with a trove of previous accounts) to reveal the full Alma in all her maddening, intoxicating, intimidating variety.... This delectable biography assembles the awesome elements of Alma's breathtaking life's work; it answers the questions of who, where, and when; yet the question of how this one woman succeeded in filling her canvas so magisterially remains as tantalizing and mysterious as Alma herself."—Liesl Schillinger, Airmail
"What does it mean to be a muse who is looking for her own? That is the question Alma (whose first husband is the composer Gustav Mahler) attempts to answer over the course of her life, marked by bouts of happiness and tragedy... Haste uses previously unpublished letters and diaries to restore Alma Mahler's place among the central figures of the Viennese fin de siècle."
- "Fascinating... Haste paints a portrait of a woman who was born to triumph, not surrender."—Harper's Bazaar
- "Seductively accessible...Written in elegant, lucid prose, [Passionate Spirit] is a treasure trove of European cultural riches and scandalous intrigue."—The Economist
- "The Alma of Passionate Spirit is a more sympathetic creature than the monster of previous biographies... Cate Haste has wisely forsaken the harsh judgmental tone so often used about Alma, and corrected significant errors."—The Spectator
- "[Alma Mahler] does burst forth here with appealing force... Haste make a strong case for us to view her subject with more compassion."—TheTimes
- "Lively, well illustrated, and enjoyably juicy."—Financial Times
- "For the fiercest of fierce women on your gift list, look for Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler, by Cate Haste. It's the story of Mahler, wife of the artist, who was also the first woman to write an opera at a time when women were supposed to be shadows of their husbands."—Terri Schlichenmeyer
- On Sale
- Sep 10, 2019
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Basic Books