Alma Schindler Mahler (1879 – 1964) was to be wed to three of the great creative geniuses of the late 19th and early 20th century – Gustav Mahler (composer/conductor), Walter Gropius (architect), and Franz Werfel (writer). Beyond these three marriages, she also had relationships or affairs with many other men, taking pride in identifying men of promise and inspiring, urging, or taunting them to greatness - at least her diaries reflect this intent. Her life was beyond fascinating, attracting admiration from some and disdain from others but there is no question, she was constantly evolving and searching for her own place in the world.
The author of this biography (2015), Donald Arthur, does not spin a polite story. Characterized variously as superficial, narcissistic, impetuous, sexualized, and anti-Simetic, one might not expect Alma to attract a wide circle of friends; somehow these qualities were overlooked or may even have enticed many men who would be prominent artists. Alma was a survivor, having lost a beloved father, tolerating a disinterested step father (Carl Moll, one of the founders of the Secession movement in Vienna), romanced as a teen by Gustav Klimt (painter), and struggling throughout her life to be satisfied with any lover, no matter how dedicated they were to her.
I was left wondering if Alma’s life might have been different had her ambition been directed at her own creations rather than wrapped up in those she loved. I also wonder if her criticism and abuse of others might have been subdued had the times in which she grew up not been so tolerant of classicism and discrimination. Arthur described Alma as imperious, prone to jealousy, and haughty, all feigned to obscure her own insecurity.
Although Alma was only married to Gustav Mahler from 1901 to his death in 1911, she returned throughout her life to his name in order to command the social position she believed she warranted. Even in her final days in New York City, Leonard Bernstein would invite Alma to performances of Mahler’s symphonic works. Exploiting Mahler’s name and growing prestige while he was still alive, she complained that he did not recognize her musical talent, which by most accounts was modest. Although Mahler is now one of the most widely performed composers in the modern day, he had ups and downs during his years conducting the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan (NYC), and eventually the newly formed New York Philharmonic. The pinnacle - Mahler’s eventual reputation would command an astounding 1.5 million dollars for his last three years in New York City. Gustav Mahler left Alma a rich and prominent widow who would immediately pursue Walter Gropius with whom she had an affair while Gustav was still alive.
Oskar Kokoschka, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Wassily Kandinsky, Arnold Schonberg, Bruno Walter, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Eugene Ormandy, and others were all to encounter Alma Mahler. Their association with this complicated muse would aid some of their careers and others would only brush with the flame that had consumed others. Upon her death in 1964 the Washington Post would publish:
Alma Mahler-Werfel, 85, who was married to, or, by her own admission had love affairs with many of Europe’s great men in the early 1900s, was the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, and was called “the most beautiful woman in Vienna” at the turn of the century.
To have known so many, and influenced them through her social networks, must be counted for better or worse as a peculiar, and sometimes sinister, form of leadership. Alma Schindler Mahler rose to the top of elite circles and was intimate with giants of arts and culture most of us could only fantasize the chance to encounter.