Alma Schindler (1879-1964) was born in Vienna to famous landscape artist Emil Schindler and singer Anna von Bergen. Emil Schindler was known as an anti-Semite while Alma herself became an anti-Semite herself, even after her father died when she was only 12. This was strange, since two of Alma's three husbands were Jews, as were three of her favourite lovers.
After her father's death in 1892, Alma's mother married her late husband's former pupil Carl Moll (1861–1945), painter and co-founder of the Vienna Secession. Moll’s Secessionist connections were important for young Alma; her lively social life expanded as she met the other Vienna Secession artists, including the very attractive Gustav Klimt (1862–1918). Klimt adored her but I am not sure her considerable musical talents were being supported by her cultivated colleagues.
Alma played the piano from childhood and loved composing. She met Jewish composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871—1942) in 1897, and learned composition with him until 1901. Zemlinsky had been a great teacher for the very Jewish Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) and a great contact for Alma. Zemlinsky and Alma fell in love, although Alma teased her lover about his ugly Jewish features. The relationship failed.
Alma and Gustav Mahler, 1902
In 1901 Alma attended Bertha Zuckerkandl’s literary salon, famous in cultured Jewish Vienna, where she began an affair with Austrian Jewish composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Note that Gustav Mahler could only become the director of the prestigious Imperial Vienna State Opera if he converted to Catholicism. So he did.
While still in a relationship with Zemlinsky, Alma started an affair with Mahler, and became engaged. In March 1902 they married and moved into a home near the Opera House where two daughters were born. With her own career nipped in the bud, Alma became the chief supporter of Gustav's music. Probably Mahler had never liked Alma and Zemlinksy being lovers. But it was only when Gustav finally realised his wife had composing talent that he helped her prepare her songs for publication in 1910. Good grief.
Mahler and Alma travelled together to New York, where Gustav worked as a conductor. In 1911 he tragically died, soon after their return to Vienna.
In 1910, Alma met and became very close with the young architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969), my favourite Austrian architect and eventually director of the world’s best art school, Bauhaus School of Art and Design.
Lovers with Cat, 1917
After Mahler's 1911 death, Alma also had a passionate affair with young Czech Christian artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980). Although they later broke up, Kokoschka continued an unrequited love for Alma and painted The Bride of the Wind 1913 and Lovers With Cat 1917 in her honour.
Kokoschka enlisted in the Austrian Army, so Alma resumed contact with Gropius who was a soldier himself. She and Gropius married in 1915 and had a child together, Manon Gropius, who died tragically at 18. Brilliant composer Alban Berg wrote a violin work in Manon’s honour.
With Gropius still in the army, Alma began a very public affair with Jewish Czech poet and writer Franz Werfel (1890–1945) in 1917. Within a year, Gropius and Alma agreed to a divorce which became final in 1920. However Alma and Werfel did not marry until 1929. Gropius, on the other hand, married Ilse Frank in late 1923 and they remained happily together until his death.
In 1938, Werfel’s Jewishness became critical. Soon after the Austrian Anschluss, Werfel was forced to flee to France; so Alma joined him in Southern France from 1938 until 1940. With the German occupation of France, Werfel faced Nazism directly and needed to immigrate to the USA urgently. Luckily Varian Fry, organiser of a private American relief and rescue organisation, was saving intellectuals from Marseilles. Fry arranged for the Werfels to walk across the Pyrenees into Spain and Portugal, and by ship to New York.
I do not understand why Alma went into exile with her Jewish husband since a] she had never liked the Jewish community, b] she was not opposed to Nazism and c] she actively supported Franco in Spain. Perhaps love and sex were more powerful than anti-Semitism.
Mahler and Werfel
In the USA Werfel had great success with his novel which was made into a film in 1943. But sadly Werfel died in the USA in 1945. Nonetheless Alma soon became a USA citizen and remained a major cultural figure in New York where she wrote her two Mahler biographies. It is interesting that when Alma died in 1964 in New York, she chose to be buried back in Vienna, alongside her first husband Gustav Mahler. She had been a core member of Vienna’s cultural elite AND the main authority on Mahler's life and works.
Early in life Alma understood that in male-dominated cultural Vienna, her role was to be a muse for brilliant men, in bed and out. But I wonder if being a famous socialite and active supporter of Alexander Zemlinsky, Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel and others was enough for her. Her own musical talents were never given the same professional support that the men received. Bride of the Wind: life and times of Alma Mahler-Werfel was written by Susanne Keegan