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.

“The juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read.”

Clearly, an obituary (or a song) is far too narrow a frame to contain Alma’s gallery of conquests, or to give a fair sense of her musical talent (she had composed scores of lieder before she met Mahler), her outsize magnetism, and her untrammeled drives. A new biography by Cate Haste, Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler, gives Alma room to romp, drawing on unpublished diary entries and memoirs (along with a trove of previous accounts) to reveal the full Alma in all her maddening, intoxicating, intimidating variety.

First Klimt

At the fin de siècle, Alma was widely recognized as the “most beautiful girl in Vienna.” Lovely and tall, with luminous blue eyes, baby-soft skin, and “ample curves” (her own assessment), she had an eye for male genius, and male geniuses had an eye for her. Indeed, she was hard for them to miss. As the well-connected daughter of the painter Emil Schindler (who died when she was 12), and the stepdaughter of the painter Carl Moll, she was a visible and omnipresent gem in Vienna’s sparkling cultural milieu, her company and conversation courted at every salon, her fingers sought at every drawing-room piano. But Alma was more than an ornament; she was an avid and opinionated habitué of concerts, plays, art exhibitions, and operas, and could play most of Wagner’s operas by heart, not to mention her own “complex, intense, and emotional” lieder, which her mother, Anna, sang at soirées and public performances. She was also “madly flirtatious” and “basked in the attention she found she could command.” Her first kiss came from the painter Gustav Klimt, in 1899, during a holiday in Italy, when she was 19 and he was 36. Klimt’s lunge would be followed by a torrent of embraces from the greatest creative minds in German-speaking Europe.

Oskar Kokoschka’s doll of Alma as Venus, 1919.

Back in Vienna, still unmarried at 20, Alma scandalized polite luncheon guests by declaring that she could respect a man of “unscrupulous character” if he was “otherwise brilliant.” She felt “the urge,” she wrote, “to fall at someone’s feet and give myself to them, body and soul.” Soon, she got that chance, succumbing to a torrid demi-vierge passion with her music teacher, the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. “Let me be his vassal. Let him take possession of me,” she beseeched her diary, nearly a year into the slow burn. “I would like to kneel before him & kiss his loins … ” However, two days before recording that thought, Alma had met Mahler at a dinner party, and she soon discovered that her devotion was fungible.

“I would like to kneel before him & kiss his loins.”

When Alma met Mahler, at 22 (he was 41), it was a coup de foudre for both of them; he spoke of marriage before the first kiss. Yet, despite his ardor, Mahler made it a condition of their engagement that Alma abandon her vocation for composing. “The role of ‘composer,’ the ‘bread-winner,’ is mine; yours is that of the loving partner, the sympathetic comrade,” he wrote in a 20-page screed. “You must surrender yourself to me unconditionally, make every detail of your future life completely dependent in my needs, in return you must wish for nothing except my love.” Alma was “dumbfounded,” but accepted his conditions. Her highest purpose, she believed, was “to give my creative gifts another life in minds greater than my own.” They married in March of 1902, and over the next nine years Alma gave birth to two daughters, Maria and Anna (Maria died of scarlet fever before she was five), and midwifed Mahler’s Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies, and his song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, among “other light classics,” as Tom Lehrer put it.

Early on, though, she warned Mahler that her subjection would always be conditional. “All I love in a man is his achievement,” she told him during a stroll, at the same time she was contemplating a flirtation with the playwright and novelist Gerhart Hauptmann, whose play Der Arme Heinrich made her feel “as though God had touched me with a finger.” Sniffing danger, Mahler said, “You mean if anyone came along who could do more than I—”; she finished his thought: “I’d have to love him.” Mahler, unperturbed, said, “I won’t worry for the time being. I don’t know anybody who can do more than I can.”

Gustav and Walter

But as Mahler neglected Alma, caught up in “his fanatical concentration on his own life,” the “extraordinarily handsome” young German architect Gropius popped up on Alma’s dance card and laid siege. Terrified lest Alma leave him, Mahler inscribed the score of his Tenth Symphony to his wife, “To live for you! / To die for you!,” and begged her to start composing again, bewailing, “How blind and selfish I was.” When Mahler died of a heart condition, less than a year after his egalitarian conversion, Gropius ghosted, and other suitors swiftly appeared. Alma now was able to “realize my childhood dream of filling my garden with geniuses.” Among her blooms were the composer Franz Schreker, founder of the Vienna Philharmonic Choir; the neurologist Joseph Fraenkel (Mahler’s last doctor); and the besotted (and married) biologist Paul Kammerer, who, at drawing-room gatherings, would rush to a chair whenever Alma rose, “kneel down and sniff and stroke the spot where I had been sitting.”

“All I love in a man is his achievement.”

And then, a month before the first anniversary of Mahler’s death, Alma met Kokoschka. “How seductive behind her mourning veil!” he enthused. In a letter to Alma, written three days after their first meeting, he wrote, “I believe in you as I have never believed in anyone but myself.” Alma “glowed in the knowledge that she had power over genius,” Haste writes, but before long, Kokoschka’s perverse sexual fantasies and “unbridled” jealousy convinced Alma that he was a fiendish “EVIL SPIRIT.” When World War I conveniently removed Kokoschka from her orbit, other swains succumbed to her gravitational pull, including, again, Gropius—who stirred her with “wild passion—which perhaps was depravity, but which was so divinely beautiful.” They married and had a child, Manon (who died tragically in her teens), but the war kept Gropius on the Western Front, far from Alma’s Viennese salon, transforming her former ardor to “a bored hatred.” The coup de grâce was the arrival on the Viennese scene of a 27-year-old poet named Franz Werfel, whose war duty consisted of writing newspaper propaganda alongside fellow pen soldiers Robert Musil, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. Upon meeting Werfel, Alma said, “This man is a wondrous miracle!” Following their first tryst, after a furtive flight from a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, Alma wrote, “Franz Werfel embraced me that first time and immediately I KNEW—HERE is my joy … ” This time, she was right.

And Franz

Gropius had yet to exit the scene, and Kokoschka was still awaiting the arrival of his Alma mannequin, but no matter. Werfel would stay at Alma’s side for the rest of his life. “We have a frighteningly powerful love for each other, and hate each other with a passion,” Alma wrote contentedly in her journal. Together they would make it through the Weimar era, then the Second World War, emigrating in 1940 (as bombs fell) to California, where Alma would inspire Werfel’s best-selling novel The Song of Bernadette, prompted by their wartime flight through Lourdes. “She gets her insight from sibylline core, by leaps of instinctive association that are pure genius,” Werfel rhapsodized. Werfel’s secretary, Albrecht Joseph, who later married Alma’s daughter Anna Mahler, credited Alma with a “profound, uncanny understanding of what it was that [creative] men tried to achieve, an enthusiastic, orgiastic persuasion that they could do what they aimed at, and that she, Alma, fully understood what it was.” But did any of the men who loved Alma understand what she had aimed at? After Werfel’s death, in 1945, she spent her final decades in New York and Europe, burnishing the reputations she had stoked.

Back in Vienna in 1907, frustrated by Mahler’s self-absorption, Alma had asked her confidante Berta Zuckerkandl, “Please, tell me honestly: is there a genius for us genius-women?” Alma, Haste’s piquant portrait proves, found one for herself through an exhaustive, erotic process of trial and error. 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 is a literary critic and translator and teaches at the New School