Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler by Cate Haste - review by Gillian Moore

Gillian Moore

Not Your Average Muse

Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler


Bloomsbury 469pp £26 order from our bookshop

Alma tell us,
All modern women are jealous,
Which of your magical wands
Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz?

So runs the chorus of Tom Lehrer’s witty 1965 ballad about Alma Mahler, widow of three artistic luminaries (the composer Gustav Mahler, the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel) and the lover of several more. Lehrer’s song was inspired by chancing upon ‘the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read’ not long after Alma’s death in New York in December 1964 at the age of eighty-five. Her Upper East Side apartment was a shrine to a century of Austro-German culture, crammed with books, paintings and manuscript scores given to her by her famous husbands, lovers and friends.

Lehrer’s facetiousness about Alma’s sex life is generous in comparison with much of the writing about her. The Gustav Mahler industry, in particular, is vicious in its representation of Alma as a self-serving narcissist who exaggerated her own role in the life of the great man, massaged the facts and was even, on account of her affair with Gropius, responsible for his death at the age of fifty. She was, the legend goes, an artistic gold-digger in whose eyes a man’s sexual attractiveness increased in proportion to his artistic ‘greatness’. But in this, as in so many other matters, Alma didn’t help: during a three-year affair with Oskar Kokoschka, which became darker and stranger as time went on, she told him that she would marry him only when he had created a masterpiece (she never did). And why at the end of her life, after marrying three well-known artists, did she revert to the name of the first? Was it because she reckoned that Mahler was the most important, the ‘greatest’ of the three?

Against this backdrop, it’s rather welcome, and unexpected, to read Cate Haste admit in the foreword of her new biography, ‘I like Alma’. This book, which she has called Passionate Spirit, presents a more sympathetic portrait than we are used to, but it is, for sure, not a straightforward case for the defence. The evidence is incontrovertible that Alma’s flaws were legion and became more pronounced as she got older, and Haste does not attempt to varnish these. Alma was, undoubtedly, obsessed with her own allure. She was also indiscreet in recording her famous lovers’ sexual performance and proclivities: Mahler’s erectile dysfunction, Kokoschka’s sadomasochism, Werfel’s fantasies about having sex with disabled people – did the world need to know? She was a manipulative and inconsistent parent to her only surviving daughter and she could be ruthless when she wanted to finish a relationship, as was the case with Gropius.

Alma’s most damning flaw was her anti-Semitism, which was sometimes casual and sometimes aimed with devastating precision, and which she harboured despite having two Jewish husbands, several Jewish lovers and many Jewish friends in the intellectual communities around her in Vienna and later in Los Angeles and New York. All the contextualising in the world can’t take away the cold horror of the politically conservative Alma’s 1936 confession in her diary following a disagreement over the Spanish Civil War with Anna, the left-leaning daughter she had with Gustav, that ‘it is such a sorrow for me to have given birth to a 150% Jew.’

But if, as Haste proposes, Alma defined her life through love, this book does a good job in helping us understand why so many people, men and women, found something to love in her, right to the end of her long life. Alma grew up at the heart of the cultural hothouse of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Her father was the painter Emil Schindler and, following his death, her mother married the painter Carl Moll. The Moll household became a meeting place for artists of the newly formed Secession, and young Alma’s startling beauty and sharp intelligence shone brightly in these gatherings.

Alma documented her life at this time in breathless style in her diaries. It included a chaste love affair with Gustav Klimt and a less chaste one with the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. She wrote in her diaries with equal passion about her rich cultural life: going to the opera and the theatre, reading Spinoza, Goethe, Rilke, Byron and Zola and, most of all, making music. Alma was an accomplished pianist, capable of playing through entire Wagner operas. In time, she began to compose music herself. She worked hard and the songs that survive from this period show genuine originality and promise.

When in 1901 Gustav Mahler, nineteen years her senior and director of the Vienna State Opera, proposed marriage, with the added condition that she should give up all ambitions to be a composer in order to be ‘the loving partner, the sympathetic comrade’ to him, the 22-year-old Alma was shocked. But, having slept on it, she agreed. Her most trenchant critics cite the fact that she so readily chose to marry an important man rather than pursue her own musical career as evidence that she had neither the talent nor the commitment to be an artist herself. But Haste reminds us that, without a single other woman to look up to among the eminent artists who surrounded her, even the spirited Alma may have felt that this was her only option. And this sacrifice cost her dearly: ‘I feel as if a cold hand has torn the heart from my breast,’ she wrote in her diary.

And so Alma’s path as wife, lover and muse to a series of male artists, rather than artist herself, was set. She described carrying her own songs around inside her ‘as if in a coffin’. We can’t know for certain if this renunciation of her artistic self contributed to her subsequent bouts of depression and her alcoholism, but there were many more trials to come: Mahler’s illness and early death, the deaths of three of her four children and the deprivations and dangers of two world wars.

In the first part of the book, Haste is clearly intoxicated by Alma’s early diaries, and other voices are crowded out, including her own. But Haste’s writing comes into its own when she zooms out, particularly when dealing with the years leading up to the Second World War, when Alma found herself caught up in world events. Alma,  by then in her sixties, showed stoicism and altruism as she accompanied Werfel and other Jewish and anti-Nazi intellectuals into hiding in the South of France. After a scramble on foot over the Pyrenees into Spain, they eventually reached safety in the United States. Alma and Werfel set up house in Beverly Hills among famous other émigrés, including Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg and Marlene Dietrich.

Passionate Spirit does not answer all of the questions about this complex, flawed and contradictory character. But it is a welcome and engaging narrative of a life that, surely, has not yet been fully explored.

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