Part 1: 1879 to 1911 | Part 2: from 1911
After Gustav Mahler's funeral, Alma remained in Vienna and moved to a new apartment. Mahler's pension enabled her and her daughter Anna to live without concern for their financial income and to travel as they wished. Being now unattached, Alma once again became a magnet for suitors.
The Bride of the Wind
One such suitor was Oskar Kokoschka, with whom she started a passionate affair. Kokoschka, an Expressionist artist, had a reputation as a wild-man and was somewhat unstable mentally. Their affair lasted two years but the relationship soon became claustrophobic, his passion turning to jealousy and obsession. She may have become pregnant by him, but if so she either miscarried or, more likely, had an abortion. Kokoschka painted a portrait of himself and Alma in 1913, entitled Die Windsbraut ('The Bride of the Wind'), an allegorical expression of their affair.
On 28 June, 1914, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and Europe descended into the First World War. Kokoschka became an army officer. In early 1915, his unit was ambushed and captured in Russia, during which engagement he suffered a serious bayonet wound. His affair with Alma was over, but, during his recovery, he had an infamous life-sized doll made of her, correct in every detail, which he took with him everywhere as a companion.
Birth of an Angel
At the beginning of 1915, Alma renewed her acquaintance with her former lover Walter Gropius, now a lieutenant, who was in Berlin recuperating from having been buried alive under a pile of rubble and dead bodies. In August, two days before his return to the war, Alma secretly married him, and in October 1916 she gave birth to another daughter, whom the couple named Manon, for Walter's mother. Fortunately for Gropius, an admirer of his work, who was in a position to exert some influence, arranged for him to be transferred to the Army Press Section. Although still at the Front, at least Gropius was no longer a combat soldier. Like many wives of the Great War, Alma saw little of her husband until the end of the war, although he was able to come home on leave fairly regularly.
Musician, Artist, then Writer
It was during this period that Alma first encountered the Czech-born Jewish poet, playwright and novelist Franz Werfel, with whose work she was already familiar, and to whom she was introduced by another writer, Franz Blei. Inevitably with Alma, given the absence of Gropius at war, she now embarked on yet another affair, this time with Werfel. At the turn of the year 1917-18, Alma became pregnant again. In July 1918, seven months pregnant and after a night of wild sex with Werfel, Alma began to haemorrhage. It was touch and go: Alma survived but had to be operated on to deliver the baby prematurely. Without the benefits of modern obstetric care, the baby, a boy she named Martin, stood a poor chance of survival; he was very weak and lost the struggle for life aged only ten months. In August 1918, Walter Gropius learned the truth of his wife's affair with Werfel. After initially trying to get custody of his daughter Manon, Gropius separated from his wife and the two were divorced in 1920.
New Beginnings - The Bauhaus
After the war, with the old German order gone, Gropius was selected to head a new school to help reconstitute the country. This became the world-famous architecture and design studio called the Bauhaus, located initially at Weimar, later at Dessau and finally Berlin. The guiding principal behind all Bauhaus design was that form should follow function, without unnecessary ornament or decoration, and that whether it be a house or a chair, it should be possible to mass-produce the object cheaply. Gropius was able to attract highly creative painters, architects and designers such as Kandinsky and Paul Klee to teach at the Bauhaus. It was disbanded by the Nazis in 1933, but its influence on architecture and design continued for decades afterwards.
Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, Alma witnessed at first hand the events, including street violence, which led to the declaration of the First Austrian Republic by the Social Democrats on 12 November, 1918. Franz Werfel got carried away with the revolutionary fervour of the time and went around Vienna making revolutionary speeches to such an extent that the police spent several days searching for him. Ironically, it was Walter Gropius who managed to trace him first, and advised him to stop being a bloody fool and to make himself scarce for a while.
Life with Franz Werfel
For the next few years, Alma enjoyed a full social life, her circle of friends and acquaintances including many of the leading figures of European culture at that time: in the field of music, people like Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, Giacomo Puccini and Maurice Ravel. The cultured atmosphere of the family home must have been claustrophobic, however, and in 1920, aged only 16, her daughter Anna met and married a young man, Rupert Koller. It was a disastrous marriage and they were divorced after only a year, after which Anna moved to Berlin. After another brief marriage to the composer Ernst Krenek, Anna eventually found her true artistic medium, sculpture, of which she became a leading exponent over the course of the rest of her life. She died in London in 1988.
In 1920, Franz Werfel wrote probably the best of his Expressionist plays, Spiegelmensch ('Mirror Man'), a work that bears some threads in common with Goethe's Faust. After its successful first opening in Leipzig, it was performed across Germany to critical acclaim, but failed in Vienna.
In 1924, Alma published a volume of Mahler's letters, Briefe, 1879-1911. As his widow, these might have been expected to provide an insight into the composer's private life, and therefore stand as an important resource for biographers. The previous year, a book of memoirs by Mahler's close musical friend and companion, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Errinerungen an Mahler, had been published after her death, documenting the years from 1893 to early 1902, those immediately before Alma's marriage to Mahler. It soon became apparent how great the contrast between the two volumes was. Bauer-Lechner meticulously records in her journal - from which the memoirs are formed - almost verbatim details of her conversations with Mahler, many of which took place during their long walks together; she frequently stayed with Mahler and his sisters during their summer holidays. Her book gives a window onto the composer's thinking while he was actually writing his symphonies. By contrast, Mahler researchers soon began to notice inconsistencies and errors in Alma's collection of letters. Mahler was a prolific letter writer, sometimes writing two or three times a day to Alma if he was away conducting, but rarely dated them. Many in the collection were dated retrospectively by Alma, either from memory or by reference to her journal. Often she would assign letters to the wrong events, sometimes misdating them by years. Also, the letters had been edited, and in some cases heavily censored, so as to display Alma in a favourable light.
In July 1927, Alma again witnessed violence erupting on the streets of Vienna. Earlier in the year, two rival political groups had clashed in the town of Schattendorf, during the course of which an invalid old man and a child were shot and killed. At the ensuing murder trial in Vienna, the accused were found not guilty. An immediate general strike was called; supporters of the Social Democrats marched on the city centre in protest and burned down the Palace of Justice. The police reaction was uncompromising and the riot was put down by force, at a cost of 90 people killed and over a thousand injured.
Alma married for the third time on 6 July, 1929. She and Franz Werfel had been partners for almost a decade. In contrast to her marriage to Mahler, in which she was the junior in age, now Alma was almost 50 while Werfel was just 39. Alma owned an apartment in Vienna, a small house in Venice and a place for the summer at Semmering, a village - now a ski resort - below the Alpine pass linking lower Austria to Styria, a house she had bought during the time of her affair with Oskar Kokoschka. In 1931, she and Werfel were persuaded to buy a large house on Vienna's Hohe Warte, not far from her mother's house, to which Alma had only recently moved at the time she first met Gustav Mahler.
Werfel was frequently away, preferring to write in solitude, often in hotel rooms. It was in Italy, at the Hotel Imperial, Santa Margherita, in 1933, that Werfel wrote one of his greatest novels, Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh ('The Forty Days of Musa Dagh'). This historical novel describes the attempt in 1915 by the Turks to displace a community of Armenian villagers from their mountain stronghold at Musa Dagh. At that time, the Turks had engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Armenians and the novel was instrumental in bringing the world's attention to their plight.
The Nazi party was growing in power in Germany during the early 1930s. As the widow of one Jew - Mahler - and the wife of another - Werfel - perhaps Alma thought it was time to establish some credentials in the interests of safety. For whatever reason, she decided to reassert her faith and in 1932 returned to the Catholic Church. It was through this act that she came into contact with a 37-year-old priest and professor of theology, Johannes Hollnsteiner, and embarked on certainly the most controversial of her affairs. Needing to keep it secret - for obvious reasons - Alma went so far as to rent somewhere where they could meet. It is now clear from Anna Mahler's papers that both Anna and Werfel were aware of the affair, Anna being totally horrified by it whereas Werfel chose simply to ignore it. The Nazi party's persecution of the Jews, and in particular the attacks on the 'degenerate' work of musicians, artists and writers, including both Gustav Mahler and Franz Werfel, made Alma's, and certainly her husband's current position increasingly precarious.
Death of an Angel
In April 1934, tragedy struck at Alma once again. Manon, the beautiful daughter she bore Walter Gropius, was taken ill while they were all in Venice. Initially she had severe headaches, but doctors soon diagnosed poliomyelitis, a debilitating disease that causes inflammation of the spinal cord leading to paralysis. The inevitable paralysis set in, affecting her entire body in the space of a few days. She was just 17 years old. Alma took her home to Vienna to care for her. For the next 12 months, Manon was confined to either her bed or a wheelchair. During this time she studied acting and loved either to read parts, or to have plays read to her. On Easter Monday, 1935, almost exactly 12 months since she had first been taken ill, Manon Gropius died. She had had an extraordinary personality and seems to have captivated everyone who met her. The composer Alban Berg, a close friend of Alma's, immediately composed a violin concerto that he dedicated to Manon - it bears the subtitle 'To the Memory of an Angel'. Berg himself died on Christmas Eve that same year; to write the concerto, he had interrupted work on his unfinished opera, Lulu, a work he would otherwise probably have completed. Once again in Alma's life, a location held painful associations with a dead child, and so the house in Venice was sold, as was, two years later, the mansion on the Hohe Warte.
Departure from Vienna
Despite Alma's impossibly optimistic view that the 'old Vienna' would be protected by the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg and the Italian dictator Mussolini, in February, 1938, while Alma and Werfel were in Naples, the Anschluss united Austria and Germany. Realising too late what the inevitable outcome would be, Alma returned immediately to Vienna, cleared out her bank account - intending to smuggle her money out of the country - and prepared to leave the city of her birth, probably for ever. In the event, she and Anna left by train for Prague without her money - all travellers were searched at the border - and with only the few clothes and possessions she was able to carry. Her journey to Milan, where Werfel was waiting - as a Jew, he could not possibly return to Vienna - had to be taken via Prague, Budapest, Zagreb and Trieste. From there they went briefly to Werfel's sister in Zürich, and then on to Paris.
Alma handed the manuscript of her memoirs of Gustav Mahler to a publisher in Amsterdam. It was published there in 1940 as Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe, subsequently appearing in English in 1946. Like the earlier volume of letters, the memoirs are flawed, giving Alma's portrayal of herself as she would like to be seen.
Franz Werfel suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1939, undoubtedly the result of high blood pressure caused by his habit of chain-smoking cigars, cigarettes and a pipe. In November of the same year, Alma's mother died without Alma being able to go to her.
Escape to America
The Second World War in Europe began in earnest in the spring and summer of 1940, and on 14 June, the Nazis occupied Paris. Alma and Werfel headed for Bordeaux, expecting naively to be able to cross into Spain via Biarritz. For three months the couple went round in circles, being ferried from one place to another - Marseilles, Avignon, Narbonne, Carcassonne, Bordeaux, Biarritz, Pau, Lourdes (a location that was to have great significance later) and back to Marseilles - taking with them only what they could carry and trying in vain to get exit permits and visas. Finally, courtesy of the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private American relief organization that attempted to help rescue people who were in danger of persecution by Nazi Germany, a US visa was arranged for them - all they had to do was to get to Lisbon to catch the ship! With no exit permits from France, they had to attempt the crossing into Spain on foot over the Pyrenees. Not without some physical difficulties and moments of high tension, they made it to Spain, then continued by train to Barcelona and Madrid, where they caught a flight to Lisbon. On 13 October, 1940, on board the last regular ship to make the trip, Alma and Werfel arrived in New York.
Just before the end of the year, they moved to Los Angeles, where Werfel started work on a new novel, inspired by the miracle at Lourdes, entitled The Song of Bernadette. The book was published in 1941, when it was acclaimed as a great literary masterpiece, and two years later made into a very successful Hollywood film, winning four Oscars at the 1943 Academy Awards. Shortly afterwards Werfel wrote his final play, Jacobowsky und der Oberst ('Jacobowsky and the Colonel'). Franz Werfel suffered the first of a series of heart attacks, from which he would never recover properly, in September 1943 and he died in August 1945.
Alma took a trip back to Vienna in 1947, but the old city had been ruined by the war and there was nothing left for her there. She moved from southern California to New York in 1952, where she lived and took an active part in the cultural life of the city. Her memoirs entitled And the Bridge is Love were published in 1958. She died on 11 December, 1964, aged 85 years, of heart failure and lung disease. Her final resting place is in her native Vienna, at the Grinzing cemetery, in a grave not far from that shared by her first husband, Gustav Mahler and their first daughter, Maria.
Muse or Monster?
What is to be made of this complex woman, Alma Mahler-Werfel? There is no doubt that in her youth she was a woman of outstanding beauty and natural intelligence. In her choice of men of course, Alma was always trying to replace the father that she lost at such an important time in her adolescence. She was a person who needed always to be at the centre of attention.
An irony of her life, and one completely lost on her, was her anti-semitism. This was rife in conservative Vienna at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, Mahler himself being constantly subjected to attacks in the press on this basis. There can be little doubt that something similar prevailed in the Schindler household in which Alma grew up. By the time of her marriage to Mahler, a man of Jewish origins, Mahler had already converted to Catholicism - otherwise his appointment as Director of the Vienna Court Opera would not have been possible. Alma regarded her daughter Manon as a just product of herself and the pure Aryan Walter Gropius, whereas the affliction of the poor boy Martin, whom she more or less abandoned, she regarded as a consequence of Franz Werfel's 'degenerate seed', as she put it. Indeed it was Gropius's knowledge of his wife's anti-Jewish tendencies that made him suspect nothing of her affair with Werfel. Although her support for Werfel as a man of the arts outweighed her anti-Semitism, she frequently made tactless statements in public, to the embarrassment of both Werfel and their friends. Throughout their time together, she attempted to convert him to Catholicism, which he resisted. It has even been suggested that she tried to arrange an 'emergency baptism' for him immediately after his death.
Of over 100 songs that she wrote, mainly in the period 1899-1901 before her vow to Mahler to give up composing, only 14 survive; the remainder are believed to have been lost during the destruction of Vienna. They are only now becoming recognised as worthy pieces in their own right.
Since her death, Alma Mahler-Werfel's reputation as a biographical source for the life of her first husband has diminished, as the extent to which she manipulated the record for her own ends has become apparent. Nevertheless, interest in her has continued unabated. One of the first jibes at her occurred in 1965, when Tom Lehrer, having read her obituary in the New York Times, wrote and performed a satirical song entitled simply Alma. The first verse was:
The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well.
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You'd never be free of her spell.
The remaining verses were less complimentary.
Alma Lives On
In 1996, a quite extraordinary piece of theatre opened in Vienna. Described as a 'polydrama', the three-hour action is staged concurrently in several 'rooms' on several 'floors' of the theatre, the audience being invited, and indeed expected, to move from room to room as scenes from Alma's life unfold in each of these 'rooms'. Each member of the audience therefore creates their own storyline. At the midpoint interval, which occurs after the death of Gustav Mahler, the audience are invited to a buffet-dinner at which Austrian specialities from Alma's time are served, together with Austrian wines. After 140 performances in Vienna, the piece moved in 2002 to Venice, then in subsequent years to Lisbon, Los Angeles and back to Vienna - in all, a total of 258 performances.
A film portraying Alma's life, entitled The Bride of the Wind, after Kokoschka's picture, was released in 2001.