Mahler, Alma (1879–1964)

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Mahler, Alma (1879–1964)

Cultivated and talented beauty from turn-of-the-century Vienna who, through her romantic involvements, provided both stimulus and emotional shelter to several of the leading figures in the European world of the arts . Name variations: Alma Mahler-Gropius; Alma Mahler-Werfel. Pronunciation: MAH-ler, VER-fel. Born Alma Marie Schindler on August 31, 1879, in Vienna, Austria; died in New York City on December 11, 1964, probably from complications of diabetes; daughter of (Emil) Jakob Schindler (a noted Viennese painter) and Anna Bergen (or von Bergen) Schindler (a former singer who was the daughter of a brewery owner); tutored at home; married Gustav Mahler, on March 9, 1902 (died 1911); married Walter Gropius, on August 18, 1915 (divorced 1920); married Franz Werfel, on July 6, 1929 (died 1945); children: (first marriage) Maria Mahler (1902–1907); Anna Mahler, known as Gucki (b. 1904); (second marriage) Manon Gropius (1916–1935); (with Franz Werfel) Martin (1918–1920).

Death of her father (1892); Carl Moll became her stepfather (1897); met Gustav Klimt (1898); met Gustav Mahler (1901); death of her oldest daughter (1907); with Gustav, made first trip to U.S. (1907); began love affair with Walter Gropius (1910); began love affair with Oscar Kokoschka (1912); Kokoschka painted Die Windsbraut (1914); began love affair with Franz Werfel (1917); went into exile from Austria with Werfel (1938); settled in U.S. (1941); became an American citizen (1946).

Although Alma Mahler had her own set of gifts as a composer, she possessed, as Walter Sorell has put it, "a sort of spell-binding intensity and the effortless ability to fascinate gifted—literally extraordinary—personalities." Thus, she is most prominent for her role as the companion—married and otherwise—of some of the most talented men on the European cultural scene from the close of the 19th through the first half of the 20th century.

The product of an artistic background marked by early family tragedy—her father, a noted landscape painter, died when she was only 13—Alma early departed from the model of the socially and sexually restrained young Viennese woman. She became a consort to genius in the persons of Gustav Mahler, Oscar Kokoschka, Walter Gropius, Franz Werfel, and a number of others. In her autobiography, written in the closing decades of her life, she wrote of realizing "my childhood dream of filling my garden with geniuses." Werfel, her third husband, described her as "one of the very few sorceresses of our time."

Alma Mahler was a product of the vibrant but troubled atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Vienna. One of the great centers of European culture, the city both produced and revered achievements in music, literature, and painting. Its educated elite and much of the rest of the population treated with deadly seriousness such questions as who would win the post of conducting Vienna's leading orchestras. But within this rich cultural world, a variety of ethnic and religious tensions existed. Central among them was anti-Semitism. Sometimes practiced in an illogical fashion—Vienna's anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger had Jewish friends—it nonetheless was a pervasive element in the mental world of much of the population. Alma exemplified both her native's city reverence for art and its murky bigotry.

She was born Alma Schindler in Vienna on August 31, 1879, the daughter of the successful painter Jakob Schindler and Anna Schindler, who had sung opera professionally under her maiden name of Anna Bergen (some authorities give it as Anna von Bergen). After years of struggle Jakob had become a favorite landscape painter for some of Vienna's wealthiest families, and Alma spent her earliest years in a castle estate he had purchased with his substantial earnings. She was educated at home by her parents and by private tutors.

Thirteen-year-old Alma's life was harshly disrupted in the summer of 1892 when Jakob died suddenly of an intestinal ailment during a family vacation on the German island of Sylt in the North Sea. Her mother soon remarried; her new husband was Carl Moll, one of Schindler's former assistants.

Within a few years, Alma entered the world of Viennese high society. Strikingly attractive and endowed with a gift for witty repartee, the young woman found that her family background gave her ready access to the luminaries of the artistic world. Her intense interest in intellectual affairs—she became an avid reader of philosophers ranging from Plato to Friedrich Nietzsche—removed her from the level of most of her girlish contemporaries.

Serious musical interests also made Alma different from most of the other Viennese girls of her generation. Recognizing her daughter's musical gifts, Anna sent Alma to study counterpoint with Josef Labor, a noted Vienna organist. With evident talent, she composed serious music and pursued a career in the musical world. In later years, she noted: "I have had a wonderful life for which I sacrificed my becoming the first great woman composer." Whatever her musical gifts, her beauty and social skills attracted men early on. Even as a teenager, she had a close, almost amorous, relationship with Max Burckhart, a prominent jurist, friend of her late father, and luminary in the world of the theater. At age 19, she became romantically involved with Gustav Klimt, then a rising painter almost two decades older than she. Her mother and stepfather stood effectively between the two of them, but, as an amorous interest, Klimt was soon followed by the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, her latest music teacher.

Thus, it was as a stunning young woman, already the object of attention from several notables in the art world, that she met the distinguished conductor and budding composer Gustav Mahler in November 1901. Like her previous flames, Gustav was substantially older than Alma, 20 years in fact. Following a series of successful engagements in a number of major cities like Leipzig and Hamburg, he had arrived in Vienna in 1897, to become director of the renowned Vienna Imperial Opera, and he thus stood at the peak of the European musical world.

Within a matter of weeks after their first encounter, Gustav began to discuss marriage with Alma. He had made a strong impression on her. "I must say I liked him enormously," she recorded in her diary, but she also noted the dangerous energy he seemed to project. "He paced the room like a wild animal. He's pure oxygen. You get burnt if you go too near." A fanatically devoted musician and a bundle of personal quirks, Gustav accompanied his courtship of Alma with a long letter insisting that she give up her work as a composer. She was to devote herself entirely to her role as his wife, comforter, and supporter. In order to be happy together, Gustav insisted, she must be "my wife, not my colleague."

Alma had already written nine musical pieces based on poems by leading German authors like Heinrich Heine. Nonetheless, faced with the prospect of becoming Gustav's wife, she agreed, perhaps reluctantly, to put her own career aside. (In the final year of his life, Gustav would finally take her music seriously. He insisted for example that the songs she had written before their marriage had great musical merit. She must go back to her work, he urged, and her musical writings to date had to be published.)

Gustav apparently lacked confidence in his sexual ability, and Alma decided to reassure him on that score in January 1902. She was pregnant well before the wedding which took place on March 9, 1902. It was followed by a honeymoon in Russia, where Gustav was scheduled to conduct concerts in St. Petersburg. Their first child Maria was born in November 1902, and a second daughter, Anna Mahler (called Gucki), followed in 1904.

The marriage was a troubled one due largely to the way Gustav devoted himself totally to his career. Although in their early years together Alma could express some contentment, writing, "I am filled to the brim with my mission of smoothing the path of his genius," she soon complained of her limited role as wife, mother, and personal companion. Some authors suggest she began to find solace in excessive drinking. Nonetheless, biographers of Gustav Mahler like

Edward Seckerson and Michael Kennedy give her substantial credit for the spectacular development of his creativity in the years following the marriage. Still primarily known as a conductor at the time of their wedding, in the years after it he produced five completed symphonies along with his unfinished tenth symphony and his Song of the Earth to establish himself as one of the great composers of the 20th century. In Seckerson's words, Alma "became his motivation and his anchor."

The tragic loss of Maria, their firstborn daughter, to diphtheria in 1907 was accompanied by bad news about Gustav. Doctors discovered that his frantic lifestyle had weakened his heart and placed his life in danger. Earlier that same year, they received another jolt when Gustav was impelled to resign his position as director of the Vienna Opera. He had been a controversial figure from his arrival, partly because of his Jewish background, partly because of his insistence on a high level of behavior from both his performers and his audiences. Singers who did not measure up to his standards were dismissed regardless of their previous tenure in the opera company. Gustav also revised older classical scores to reflect the new instruments now available, much to the dismay of traditionalists in his audiences. In a deeply resented policy, he refused to have latecomers admitted to performances when he conducted. A decline in box-office receipts gave his many enemies their opportunity to oust him. Following his resignation in March 1907, the Mahlers escaped the envenomed atmosphere in Vienna with a series of American tours.

A serious blow to the stability of the Mahlers' marriage was Alma's set of involvements with other men. Sometimes this took a relatively innocent form, such as her infatuation with a talented young pianist, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, whom Gustav himself brought home as a guest. More threatening to the marriage was her intimate relationship with Walter Gropius. A rising young architect, Gropius met Alma in the summer of 1910 at a spa where she had gone to recover from exhaustion. At first only her dancing partner, he fell in love with her, a fact that became known to Gustav when Gropius inadvertently addressed to Gustav a letter he had written to Alma. The composer consulted Sigmund Freud, whom he reached through the good offices of one of Alma's cousins, a neurologist, for advice on handling this personal crisis. Unbeknownst to him, however, Alma's relations with Gropius went on secretly and became physical.

Any possibility of a new stage in the Mahlers' marriage was cut short in any case by Gustav's declining health. During a tour of the United States in the winter of 1910–11, he became seriously ill with a heart ailment compounded by a streptococcal infection. Alma threw her formidable energies into caring for her husband, and the two of them returned to Europe in the spring of 1911. Gustav never recovered his health, and he died in Vienna on May 18, at the age of 51. After ten years of marriage to this musical genius, Alma was now an attractive widow of 31.

Gustav's death left Alma financially secure. In 1912, she met the spectacularly talented young Viennese painter Oscar Kokoschka, who had been commissioned to paint the portrait of her stepfather, Carl Moll. The day following their introduction, at a lunch at Moll's home, Kokoschka sent Alma a letter asking her to become his wife. They soon became lovers, and their tempestuous love affair lasted for three years as he repeatedly urged her to consent to marriage and she resisted. According to biographer Susanne Keegan , Alma was partly motivated by a practical reason: "to give up all her hard-earned comforts and live a life of spartan aestheticism as the wife of a struggling young artist … was asking too much."

A glorious product of their troubled time together was Kokoschka's brilliant 1914 painting Die Windsbraut (The Tempest or The Bride of the Wind). The work shows the two of them on a shattered boat atop a stormy sea. Painted at Alma's instigation—she had suggested that she would consent to marry him if he produced a masterpiece—in fact it came as their relationship was nearing its end. That same year, Alma faced a crisis in her affair with Kokoschka when she discovered she was pregnant. Her abortion in 1914—she may have had one a year earlier as well—was a decisive step in separating her life from his.

Like all Europeans, the young widow found her personal world shaken by the calamity of World War I. Kokoschka enlisted shortly after war broke out and was seriously wounded on the eastern front. When Alma tried to resume contact with Gropius, whose growing reputation as an architect had reminded her of their time together, she found that he too had fought on the Russian front and had returned to Berlin following a nervous breakdown. Their renewed relationship led, on August 18, 1915, to Alma's second marriage. Kokoschka now faded from her life, giving up any hope of winning Alma over.

Alma Mahler-Gropius, as she was now named, gave birth to a daughter Manon Gropius in October 1916. In the fall of 1917, after Gropius had gone back to the front, she met the writer Franz Werfel. Werfel had also served in the war against Russia and, thanks to an influential patron of the artistic world, Count Harry Kessler, had been reassigned to a safe job in the Army Press Section at Vienna. By the end of 1917, she and Werfel were deep in a romantic liaison. Despite the fact that she was still Gropius' wife, in August 1918 she and Werfel had a child together, a boy named Martin who died only a year and a half after his birth.

Alma ended her marriage to Gropius formally in 1920. Their relationship had disintegrated partly from physical separation, partly from the gap between her musical interests and his immersion in another part of the cultural world. Walter Gropius went on to become one of the century's most eminent architects in the period after World War I.

The talented young poet and novelist Franz Werfel was the last and also the greatest love of Alma's life. Although they married only in July 1929, they were romantic companions by the closing days of World War I. The two were widely separated by age, with Werfel 11 years younger than Alma. One of the oddities of their attachment—and of Alma's personality in general—was the stream of anti-Semitic rhetoric that she produced. She had twice married men of Jewish background—although Gustav Mahler had converted to Catholicism in 1897 in order to promote his chances of becoming director of the Imperial Opera in Vienna—but she remained a ceaseless source of crude and often cruel remarks about the Jews. Alma and her new love were equally separated by politics. Werfel took an enthusiastic part in the revolution in Austria that helped bring down the old Habsburg dynasty in the closing days of the war. As a result, he was for a time wanted by the police. Alma's political interests were minimal, but her natural conservatism and love for the old order put her at odds with him.

Men of substance and talent continued to be drawn to Alma despite her tie with Werfel. A particularly tangled relationship developed between her and the young Catholic priest Johannes Hollnsteiner, an Austrian professor of theology, in the 1930s. (Werfel apparently decided to tolerate this intense friendship.) Meanwhile, her life was struck by personal tragedy: Manon, her daughter with Gropius, died of poliomyelitis in the spring of 1935, the third child Alma lost.

Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938 forced Alma and Franz to become exiles, first in Switzerland and England, and finally in France. The outbreak of World War II and, in the spring of 1940, the Nazi invasion of France, made Werfel a likely victim of Hitler's anti-Semitism. Franz and Alma were fortunate in being able to leave Europe via Spain and Portugal, even though they went through dreadful months in southern France before being able to make their escape. They were particularly lucky, as others were not, in finding a sympathetic official manning Spain's border with France who was willing to let them cross over and proceed to Barcelona. They were greeted by friends upon their arrival in the United States in November 1940; it was in the comfort and security of that country that they spent the rest of the war years.

Alma Mahler never learned to speak any language fluently other than her native German. Thus, she and her husband were inclined to spend their time in America largely within the confines of the large German emigré colony in Los Angeles. Clustered in Hollywood and the coastal suburb of Pacific Palisades, it was a remarkably distinguished group of refugees from Nazi Germany, including Thomas Mann, Max Reinhardt, and Erich Maria Remarque.

Alma's influence on Werfel has been blamed by many critics for the shift in his career that moved him away from his immense promise as a poet to become the widely published and highly prosperous author of such novels as The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in 1933 and The Song of Bernadette in 1941. It can be argued, however, that life experiences turned Werfel in this direction. For example, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, describing the resistance of an Armenian community to persecution by the Turks during World War I, did not only reflect the couple's trip to the Middle East in 1931; it was also Werfel's response to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the first years of the 1930s. The Song of Bernadette, recounting the story of a 19th-century French girl, Bernadette of Lourdes , who sees visions of Mary the Virgin , was inspired by the couple's harrowing stay in southern France as they tried to elude capture by the Germans in 1940. Werfel's novel The Song of Bernadette brought him literary acclaim and the book's substantial financial success was augmented by the subsequent movie adaptation, starring Jennifer Jones .

Werfel suffered a series of heart attacks dating back to the couple's stay in southern France in the summer of 1940. His condition worsened after 1943, and he died of heart failure on August 25,1945. In the aftermath of her last husband's death, Alma began work on her autobiography. She became an American citizen in 1946 and in 1952 moved to New York, where she spent the remainder of her life. She traveled extensively in Europe and completed her autobiography, which was published in English in 1958 under the title And the Bridge is Love. It appeared in German the following year. She also served as a living link with Gustav Mahler, since leading conductors made her the guest of honor at concerts where her first husband's music was performed. For many observers, Alma remained a beautiful woman into her 80s. She died in New York on December 11, 1964, probably from complications of diabetes.

Aged 85 at her death, Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel had outlived most of the men for whom she had been a companion and perhaps an essential stimulus. As Sorell put it, "She played the driving motor for the genius of other people…. Her lot was to be needed by menabout to unfold their own genius." Her fellow Viennese, the critic Friedrich Torberg, seconded that view: "She was a catalyst of incredible intensity."


Giroud, Françoise. Translated by R. M. Stock. Alma Mahler or the Art of Being Loved. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Keegan, Susanne. The Bride of the Wind: The Life and Times of Alma Mahler-Werfel. London: Secker and Warburg, 1991, Penguin, 1992.

Kennedy, Michael. Mahler. London: J.M. Dent, 1990.

Monson, Karen. Alma Mahler: Muse to Genius: From Fin-de-Siècle Vienna to Hollywood's Heyday. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

Seckerson, Edward. Mahler: His Life and Times. NY: Hippocrene Books, 1982.

Sorell, Walter. Three Women: Lives of Sex and Genius. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975.

suggested reading:

Isaacs, Reginald. Gropius: An Illustrated Biography of the Creator of the Bauhaus. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1991.

Joll, James. "Tales from the Vienna Woods," in The New >York Review of Books. October 8, 1992.

Mahler, Alma. And the Bridge is Love. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.

——. Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters. Edited by Donald Mitchell. Translated by Basil Creighton. NY: Viking, 1969.

Mahler-Werfel, Alma. The Diaries: 1898–1902. Edited by Antony Beaumont and Susanne Rode-Breymann. Translated by Antony Beaumont. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1998.

Steiman, Lionel B. Franz Werfel: The Faith of an Exile: From Prague to Beverly Hills. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1985.

Wagener, Hans. Understanding Franz Werfel. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Weidinger, Alfred. Kokoschka and Alma Mahler. Translated by Fiona Elliott. Munich: Prestel, 1996.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California