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Christians, Mady (1900–1951)

Christians, Mady (1900–1951)

Austrian-born actress who, after a distinguished career in Europe, fled Fascism (1933), and created a strong reputation in the U.S., but fell victim to Cold War McCarthyism. Name variations: Margarete Christians. Born Marguerita or Margarethe Maria Christians in Vienna, Austria, on January 19, 1900; facing the end of her career after being blacklisted, died of a stress-induced stroke in South Norwalk, Connecticut, on October 28, 1951; daughter of Rudolf Christians and Bertha (Klein) Christians; married Sven von Müller (editor of the Hamburger Fremdenblatt).

Selected films—in U.S.:

Audrey (1916); Wicked Woman (1934); Escapade (1935); Come and Get It (1936); Seventh Heaven (1937); The Woman I Love (1937); Heidi (1937); Address Unknown (1944); Tender Comrade (1944); All My Sons (1948); Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948).

In Germany:

Der Mann ohne Namen (1920); Das Weib des Pharao (The Loves of Pharaoh, 1921); Malmaison (1922); Die Budden-brooks (1923); Das Spiel der Königin (Ein Glas Wasser, 1923); Der verlorene Schuh (1923); Der Wetterwart (1923); Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs (The Grand Duke's Finances, 1923); Mensch gegen Mensch (1924); Der Abenteurer (1925); Der Fanner aus Texas (1925); Die Verrufenen (Slums of Berlin, 1925); Ein Walzertraum (The Waltz Dream, 1925); Nanette macht alles (1926); Die Königin vom Moulin Rouge (1926); Grand Hotel (1927); Königin Luise (Queen Luise, 1927); Der Sohn der Hagar (Out of the Mist, 1927); (UK) The Runaway Princess (1928); (Fr.) Duel (1928); Das brennende Herz (The Burning Heart, 1929); Dich hab'ich geliebt (Because I Loved You, 1929); Die Frau von der man spricht (1931); Friederike (1932); Der Schwarze Husar (1932); (portrayed Empress Eugenie ) Ich und die Kaiserin (and in English version, The Only Girl [Heart Song], 1933).

A versatile and strong actress, Mady Christians became well-known and loved in the United States for her portrayal of a Norwegian-American

matriarch in the play I Remember Mama. Highly regarded by critics for her ability to present superb performances even within mediocre plays and films, Christians was a stage veteran long before she came to America.

On January 19, 1900, she was born Marguerita Maria Christians into a theatrical family in Vienna; her father Rudolf Christians was a noted actor and her mother Bertha Klein Christians was an opera singer and recitalist. In 1912, the Christians moved to New York, where Rudolf became manager of the Irving Place Theater, which specialized in German-language repertory.

Bitten by the acting bug, at age 16 Mady was able to persuade her somewhat skeptical father to give her a role as a heroine in one of his productions, a one-act operetta. The role was challenging, calling on her to be both a bride of 17 and an old woman. Her father's response to the first-night performance was by no means supportive when he simply advised her: "Mady, I think you'd better get married." Confident in

her own talents, Mady refused to halt her career, noting that her performance had been praised in a local newspaper. Of greater importance was the fact that her mother, convinced of her daughter's talents, backed Mady's stage ambitions. To advance Mady's future, and also escape from an America on the brink of war and seething with anti-German hysteria, Bertha Christians returned to Vienna with her daughter.

Enrolled in Max Reinhardt's famous acting seminar, Mady Christians was now fully in her element. She had many small parts, but few critics could detect star quality in her. Fortunately, her mother and Max Reinhardt were convinced that her talents were deep and genuine, and that stardom was imminent. She alternated between engagements at Berlin's Deutsches Theater and Vienna's Theater in der Josefstadt. It took several difficult years to turn the corner, but a role in Tolstoy's The Light Shines in Darkness revealed her talents to both Berlin's critics and ordinary theatergoers. Now an unchallenged star, Christians signed a long-term contract with Reinhardt and was able to appear at not only the major theaters of Germany and Austria but throughout the rest of Europe as well. Performing in up to 45 plays a year, Christians led an often hectic life, but her professionalism carried all before it. Whether in plays by Shakespeare, Pirandello, Goethe, or Lessing, her characterizations were strong and well-focused. Before stardom arrived, she had married Dr. Sven von Müller, editor of one of Germany's most respected newspapers, the Hamburger Fremdenblatt. Both were too busy and interested in their respective careers to create a stable marriage, and some years later they were divorced.

Having seen anti-German intolerance in action in the United States in her youth, Mady Christians now witnessed infinitely greater explosions of hatred and brutality as Germany slid into the abyss of Fascism in the early 1930s. Many of her friends and colleagues in the theater were threatened by the rise of Hitlerism, either because they were Jewish or politically on the Left, or often because both elements were combined in the same individual. Always interested in artistic growth, Christians trained her fine soprano voice to the point where she was able to appear in 1932 in two sound films, the Franz Lehár operettas Friederike and The Black Hussar. But these were to be her last European triumphs. With Adolf Hitler and his brown-shirted hordes in control of Germany, artistic freedom was quickly extinguished. For Mady Christians, there was no choice but to emigrate. Her native Austria, also abandoning democracy for Fascism, no longer offered a place of refuge. Despite its economic depression, free America beckoned.

Arriving in New York in 1933, Christians had to face the fact that she was relatively unknown in the United States even though she had toured there and many of her films had received favorable reviews. Although she quickly landed major parts in Broadway plays, most of these turned out to be flops. Fortunately, the brilliance of her acting rose above the mediocrity of the plays in which she found herself cast. Leading New York critic Brooks Atkinson clearly recognized the situation when he wrote that it "would be worth sitting through fifty bad plays to see her perform."

During these often difficult years, Christians remained reasonably solvent by also appearing in films. In one of these, Heidi (1937), which boasted Shirley Temple (Black) as its star, the European refugee attracted the attention of critics with her sharp characterization of Heidi's aunt who sends the little girl to two ogres who eventually sell her to the Roma (gypsies).

Moving from one ill-fated role to the next, Christians managed to persevere and eventually found herself in a stage production matching her talent, a presentation of Hamlet that opened in October 1938. Starring Maurice Evans, this was triumphant Shakespeare, and Christians' portrayal of Hamlet's mother Gertrude was widely acclaimed. Soon, other quality situations were offered her, including a role in Shaw's Heartbreak House as presented by Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, and another fine part, this time in Henry IV.

By the fall of 1939, Europe was engulfed in the opening salvoes of the Second World War. Mady Christians was concerned about the fate of humane values and the survival of democracy itself. She had visited Germany briefly in 1938 to attend her mother's funeral and knew only too well how menacing a force Hitler's Germany had become. Although not interested in the minutiae of world politics, she took a stand, warning all she met about the evils of Fascism, and joining organizations that assisted refugees and combatted Nazism on American soil. In later years, the idealism she displayed during these years would provide an excuse for witchhunters to destroy her career and, with it, her life.

An established star, Mady Christians was now offered excellent scripts of new plays and leading roles in films. She was brilliant as Sara Mueller in Lillian Hellman 's anti-Fascist play Watch on the Rhine, which opened to excellent reviews in April 1941. Brooks Atkinson characterized her acting in the Mueller role as being "full of womanly affection and a crusader's resignation to realities." The anti-Nazi activist Kurt Mueller's wife was seen as being masterfully depicted by a Mady Christians "taut with womanly anxiety in a clearly resolved performance." Atkinson could barely contain his enthusiasm for the quality of Christians' performance, praising it again some months after his initial review. On this occasion, he noted that as "a fine actress with unusual range in the parts she can play," she was now offering New York's theater patrons "a rich, emotional performance."

Christians was able again in 1943 to find in the film Address Unknown a vehicle for her strongly anti-Nazi sentiments. Even more important for her growing reputation as one of America's eminent actresses was her starring role in the play I Remember Mama. Opening on Broadway in October 1944, I Remember Mama boasted several other refugees from Hitlerism in its cast, Adrienne Gessner and Oscar Homolka. Based on an adaptation by John Van Druten of Kathryn Forbes' book Mama's Bank Account, I Remember Mama was a delightful evening of theater, at least in part because its producers were none other than Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Gessner, Adrienne (1896–1987)

Austrian actress. Born Adrienne Geiringer in Maria Schutz am Semmering, Austria, on July 23, 1896; died in Vienna, on June 23, 1987; married Ernst Lothar.

Adrienne Gessner was a distinguished actress and major star on the Vienna stage before Hitler's minions marched into Austria in 1938. That year, Gessner and her husband Ernst Lothar sailed for America where she soon appeared on Broadway. Her U.S. stage credits include Another Sun, Claudia, and Thank You, Svoboda. She also portrayed Aunt Trinka in I Remember Mama. Gessner returned to Austria, where her career continued to even greater heights of acclaim, and she became one of the leading actresses of the Burgtheater and Salzburg Festival.

The central character of this play about a Norwegian-American family in San Francisco, the strong-willed individual who keeps the family stable and happy, is of course Mama. Normally caustic critics gushed words of praise for Mady Christians' portrayal of Mama. "Mama in her hands is warm and honest," wrote Lewis Nichols of The New York Times; "her deceits, such as talk of the bank account which wasn't there, are in the world's best interests." As the key player in a super-hit, Christians did not miss a single day of the show's 720 performances. She then went on tour with it.

The Allied victory over Fascism, and U.S. possession of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the atomic bomb, should have provided a sense of security for Americans. But in fact the onset of the Cold War quickly created an all-pervasive sense of paranoia in all sectors of American society, including the entertainment world. Mady Christians was naïve about politics and proceeded with her career as if nothing had changed. She continued to search for roles that gave her an opportunity to project the deep humanity that was the essence of her being.

Confident that she was suited to the part, Christians co-starred as Edward G. Robinson's wife in Arthur Miller's All My Sons, released in its screen version in early 1948. Some conservatives did not take kindly to the central character of this drama, a manufacturer of defective weapons in wartime who rationalizes his actions as having made him prosperous so that he could benefit his family. Radical, and even anti-capitalist sentiments were seen lurking in Miller's story, and not only Miller but those artists who had appeared in All My Sons were seen as subversives by some politicians who felt that ideological differences threatened Americanism.

In 1948, Mady Christians appeared in what would be her last film, A Letter from an Unknown Woman, turning in another excellent performance. The next year, she unwittingly made her last stage appearance, in Strindberg's The Father. In 1950, catastrophe struck. The notorious Hollywood blacklist, which effectively made it impossible for artists to find employment in the entertainment industry, appeared in its final and most comprehensive form as a "subversive dictionary" entitled Red Channels.

Professional red-hunters, determined to root out assorted doctrinaire "reds" and leftists as well as liberals who were "soft on Communism," were indifferent to the impact their lists might have on the careers and lives of the individuals they stigmatized. For an artist, the price of once having briefly belonged to the Communist Party, or having been too vehement in opposing Fascism by supporting refugees from Europe, was professional annihilation. In 1950, witch-hunting was both popular and profitable in a country made ever more fearful by a world in which the Soviets now had nuclear weapons, China had been "lost" to Communists, and an inconclusive war was raging in Korea. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin seized the opportunity to become a national figure at this time by asserting that the government and the country in general were in dire peril, riddled with subversive traitors and their various allies and dupes. The American mood was that of a witch-hunt.

Along with hundreds of other artists, Mady Christians was now branded for her "un-American activities" in years past. Her alleged transgressions included having shown too much compassion for the anti-Franco veterans of the Spanish Civil War as well as far too much sympathy for leftist German writers who had fled for their lives from Hitler's wrath. Furthermore, she had joined organizations such as the American Committee for the Protection of Foreign Born, now stigmatized as Communist fronts by the attorney general of the United States in his well-known and much-feared list.

The frightened actress was visited by investigators, anonymous men working for vast and essentially secret organs of state like the FBI. At the same time, her phone ceased to ring with job offers, and some who had once been her friends or colleagues were suddenly cool and distant. Her health suffered as a result of growing anxiety and uncertainty, and her blood pressure skyrocketed to dangerous levels.

A brief respite from her travails took place when Christians was offered a television role in "The Mother" on the "Somerset Maugham Theatre." But a week before rehearsals were to begin, the producer informed her that it had all been "a mistake" and while she would be paid her salary she could not appear in the role. A recurrence of hypertension put the actress into a New York hospital. Upon her release, she wrote one of her remaining friends: "I cannot bear yet to think of the things which led to my breakdown. One day I shall put them down in a record of something unbelievable." A few days later, on October 28, 1951, Mady Christians collapsed at the home of a friend in Connecticut. She died that same day of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in Norwalk Hospital.

Defying the blacklist that had hastened her death, 300 of Christians' friends and colleagues attended her funeral services in Manhattan. A moving eulogy noting both the dead artist's professional brilliance and private humanity was delivered by her close friend, producer-director Margaret Webster . Christians was buried in a private service at Ferncliff Cemetery, Ardsley, New York, but the issues raised by her tragic death were by no means gone and forgotten. In a moving, angry letter to The New York Times, her good friend the playwright Elmer Rice asserted that "a fine, vital, liberal, warm-hearted human being" had both her life and career snuffed out by "relentless, sadistic persecution." Rice singled out as the men responsible for his friend's death the "small-souled witch-hunters who make a fine art of character assassination." Bitterly, the playwright concluded by noting that it would useless to appeal "to the consciences of the McCarthyites: obviously they have none. But perhaps the martyrdom of Mady Christians will set freedom-loving citizens thinking about what is happening to art and to democracy in America."

In response to the Rice letter, others appeared in the same newspaper in succeeding weeks, including one from John Van Druten, who praised Rice for what he had written earlier and described Christians as having been to him "a true and deeply valued friend" whose death was triggered by persecution that was known to the theater world but very likely not by the public at large. More letters followed in succeeding weeks, the sometimes acidic exchange being ended in late November by a moving letter from Margaret Webster, who dismissed the notion that Christians had ever behaved in a disloyal fashion. Defending the reputation of a woman no longer able to speak for herself, Webster described her close friend as having been "deeply in love with her country, conscious of her responsibilities toward it and concerned for its welfare. She was a fine actress of great gifts which she devoted to the service of her profession and its members. She was a warm-hearted human being who always held out a helping hand to anyone who needed it. It is thus that she would want to be, and should be, and will be remembered."

sources:

Ceplair, Larry, and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–1960. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980.

"Drama Mailbag," in The New York Times. November 4, 11, 18, 25, 1951, section II, p. 3.

Kanfer, Stefan. A Journal of the Plague Years. NY: Atheneum, 1973.

"Mady Christians, Actress, Is Dead," in The New York Times. October 29, 1951, p. 23.

Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names. NY: Penguin Books, 1981.

Red Channels. NY: American Business Consultants, 1950.

Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. Boston and NY: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1994.

"300 at Christians Rites," in The New York Times. November 1, 1951, p. 29.

Vaughn, Robert. Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. NY: Putnam, 1972.

John Haag , University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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