We gave it a B+
Turn-of-the-century Vienna manufactured and exported modern civilization and its discontents-psychoanalysis, dissonant music, despairing literature, unadorned architecture, tremulous art. A large work force of neurotic geniuses was kept busy day and night producing the stuff, and seducing and spurring them on was Alma Maria Schindler. Looking at the earlier photographs in the British writer Susanne Keegan’s intriguing biography, you see why. She had piercing eyes, a voluptuous figure, and a terrific profile. She also had, Keegan tells us, a gift for music and a restlessly independent spirit. Small wonder that the emblematic Viennese artist Gustav Klimt fell in love with her when she was 18; or that the brooding Gustav Mahler married her when she was 22; or that while she was married to Mahler, the future Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius fell in love with her and had an affair with her; or that after Mahler’s untimely death she had a fierce three-year affair with the Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka; or that she then married Gropius, had an affair with the writer Franz Werfel, married Werfel, and had an affair with a Catholic theologian.
According to Keegan, the death of her adored father, a devoted, melancholy painter, when she was 13, ”marked the beginning of her determination to find a heroic model to replace him.” For the rest of her life she divided men into the ”erotic” and the ”unerotic,” the erotic being distinguished not by their beauty but by their ability to create it. Creativity was the altar on which she willingly sacrificed her own ambitions. When Mahler, before their marriage, wrote her an anguished letter asking her to give up composing songs for the sake of his own music, she acquiesced. She didn’t think much of her own or any other woman’s creative potential, and she threw herself into the role of muse. Among other things, she inspired Kokoschka’s most famous painting, The Bride of the Wind (also called The Tempest, it depicts him with her naked and entwined), and she prodded Werfel into writing the novel The Song of Bernadette.
Her most puzzling contradiction was her tendency to spout anti-Semitic nonsense, though she deeply loved two Jews (Mahler and Werfel) and befriended many others. Even after she and Werfel fled the Nazis for America (he died in California in 1945; she died in New York in 1964 at the age of 86), she would go on about the defects of the Jews. She overcame the stereotypes of her youth only in the presence of creative genius, having absorbed from her favorite philosopher, Nietzsche, the belief that creativity alone redeems humanity. Creativity, at least, redeemed Vienna. Keegan, often pushing the historical background into the foreground, tacitly admits that Alma’s story in The Bride of the Wind: The Life of Alma Mahler is the story of Vienna’s brilliant, lurid twilight. B+