Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler by Cate Haste

Chances are, if you have heard the name “Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel,” it is because you know the musical tribute that the mathematician and satiric balladeer Tom Lehrer wrote to her in 1964, after encountering in a newspaper “the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read.”

That obit skimmed the peaks of Alma’s vertiginous, amorous career: her three famous husbands (the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, who died at 50, in 1911, when they’d been married less than a decade; the architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school; and the novelist Franz Werfel) and a handful of her lovers, notably the painter Oskar Kokoschka. Kokoschka was so obsessed with Alma that he had a life-size doll made of her after she broke up with him (by which point she was married to Gropius and dating Werfel), padded with sawdust at the hips and bust to replicate her lush embonpoint. In his 60s (when Alma was in her 70s), Kokoschka offered to send her a life-size figure of himself—anatomically correct, “so you can remember me better” and “acquire a lust for the real thing again.” She passed.