Ivan Hewett reviews Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler by Cate Haste
The term “femme fatale” might have been invented for Alma Mahler. Whenever she made her regal entry into a glittering Viennese artistic salon, there would always be at least one man who would lose his head, kiss her hand furtively and, afterwards, write passionate letters swearing undying adoration.
The list of her husbands and lovers includes some of the great names of the 20th century – Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Gropius, Franz Werfel – and innumerable minor poets, composers and dilettantes. There was even a scientist; one of the odder vignettes in this new biography involves Alma becoming a laboratory assistant to her latest lover, the biologist Paul Kammerer, feeding live mealworms to reptiles.
All these men were very different in talent and temperament, but had one thing in common: Alma could reduce them to utter humiliation simply by acquiring a new lover. Gustav Mahler (who married her in 1902) became so distraught after learning of her affair with Gropius that he had to seek a consultation with Freud. Kokoschka would pace up and down outside her bedroom window after leaving, to make sure no “lad” could take his place, and after they broke up had a life-size doll made of Alma that he would take to the opera with him.
What was her secret? The photographs in Cate Haste’s new biography convey nothing of her fascination. To us, the “most beautiful girl in Vienna” – as she was described when she was 18 – was more handsome than beautiful.
But she certainly cut an impressive figure, her magnificent embonpoint and layers of necklaces inspiring erotic frenzy in men and jealous admiration in women long into her middle age, and long after those things had ceased to be fashionable. Alma constructed her queenly image early in life, and never shifted from it.
Haste’s biography makes clear that this fixity in Alma’s character – her utter refusal to move with the times or develop or mature in any significant way – was bound up with the great tragedy of her life: the early death of her father Emil Schindler, the painter.
She adored him, nurtured his memory and bitterly resented the arrival into the household of another painter, Carl Moll, when he married her mother. For the rest of her life, Alma was in search of a genius to take her father’s place, the Chosen One whom she and only she could nurture.
“It is wonderful to always have contact with intellects, how joyous for me to be touched by them. I thank God on my KNEES. IF ONLY THIS WILL BE PRESERVED FOR ME. ONLY THIS!” she declared, with typical self-dramatisation, shortly after meeting Franz Werfel, the poet and playwright. Yet there was absolutely nothing self-abnegating about Alma. “Nothing pleases me more than to be told I am exceptional,” she said. At 18, she declared, “I want to do something really remarkable. Would like to compose a really good opera – something no woman has ever achieved.”
But though she composed around 100 pieces, none is especially memorable. As a composer, Alma is nowhere near the level of Clara Schumann or Ruth Crawford Seeger. Haste’s claim that Alma’s own music “is her lasting, and living legacy” won’t really wash. Alma’s real legacy is the work of the men to whom she became a muse. Kokoschka’s greatest works were inspired by her, as were the most rapturous lyrical moments in Mahler.
And yet her presence was a mixed blessing, because her feelings were so unstable. Time and again one reads that Alma feels “blissful” in the company of her latest genius, but two pages later she is becoming restive, and feels “empty” inside. One can feel that another affair is only just round the corner. Franz Werfel admitted that he couldn’t decide whether Alma was “his greatest joy or his greatest disaster”. Alma knew her own weaknesses, and was often shocked by them. “I am appalled at my own licentiousness. I long for rape – from whomever it comes,” she confided to her diary.
At the same time, there’s an unconscious ruthlessness about her which justifies the oft-repeated description of her as a magnificent animal. “What is guilt? I don’t know that word,” she once wrote. Haste, who is clearly in awe of Alma, insists that “love was the core of her existence”, repeating a thought constantly expressed by Alma herself. But this seems uncritical to say the least.
One can’t help feeling that someone who really was inspired by love wouldn’t keep announcing the fact so often. The small day-to-day acts that are the bedrock of real love seem to have bored Alma. The phrase of CG Jung – “where love is lacking, power fills the vacuum” – kept coming into my mind as further poets fell under Alma’s spell. Another unattractive feature of Alma’s character was her anti-Semitism, and yet – as with Wagner – a dislike of Jews in theory went hand-in-hand with a huge attraction to Jewish men in practice, a contradiction which Alma herself acknowledged. Germans she simply found less interesting. When she met Walter Gropius, the architect – whom she married after the death of Mahler – she was at first attracted by his upright, military bearing, but soon tired of his “Aryan thoughtlessness”.
It’s perhaps poetic justice that the men Alma attracted were as egotistical as herself. The difference was that their egoism was buttressed by a male pomposity to which Alma couldn’t aspire. When she was upset by Mahler’s failure to mark her birthday with a gift, his response was, “How could I give you more, when I have already given myself?”
It was her inevitable fate that after decades of stormy affairs and the buffeting of world historical events (her escape from war-torn Europe in 1940 makes for gripping reading), she ended up as “La Grande Veuve” (The Great Widow), in Thomas Mann’s resonant phrase, in a gloomy New York apartment, surrounded by mementos of all the men she had entranced. Kokoschka and Gropius continued to declare their undying love on her important birthdays, but from a safe distance, in a card. Once bitten, twice shy.
Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler is published by Bloomsbury at £26, e-book £14.20. To order from the Telegraph for £20.99, call 0844 871 1514