In the movie Forrest Gump, one man finds himself at the center of historical events, encountering famous people over the course of decades.
While Forrest Gump was fictitious, there have been people who have served as a nexus at certain places and times in history.
One such person existed in the early 20th century, and her life intersected with several important figures in the world of art in Central Europe…. three of them she married.
Learn more about the incredible life of Alma Margaretha Marie Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The story of the woman born Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler is a fascinating one. However, I don’t think she should be considered the heroine of the story, and I don’t think she should be upheld as a role model.
The men in her life, and there were many, aren’t really heroes either.
Nonetheless, the story of Alma is one that seems to at least touch on the lives of so many famous people from that era.
The story of Alma begins with her birth on August 31, 1879, in Vienna, Austria.
Vienna, at the time, and for decades before, was a center of music and art. Anna was born into an artistic family in one of the world’s great artistic cities.
Alma’s father was Emil Jakob Schindler, a noted landscape painter in Vienna. Her mother, Anna Sophie, had a short career as an opera singer.
Alma adored her father, and many psychologists think that her attachment to her father may have influenced her later relationships with the men in her life.
Emil Schindler eventually found a patron in the Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf, who commissioned him to paint landscapes of the prince’s vacation to the Adriatic in 1886. Schindler took his entire family with him on the trip, including seven-year-old Alma.
In 1892, when accompanying the Prince on another trip to the North Sea, Emil Schindler died at the age of 50 when Alma was only 13.
Alma had been tutored her whole life, but after the death of her father, she threw herself into music. She played piano and studied composition under the tutelage of the composer and organist Josef Labor.
She was also later mentored by Max Burckhard, a friend of her deceased father and the director of Vienna’s Burgtheater. On her 17th birthday, he gave Alma two laundry baskets full of books.
Her mother remarried three years after the death of her father, marrying one of her deceased husband’s former students, Carl Moll. Moll became a noted painter in his own right….and later became a supporter of the Nazi party in Austria. Carl and Alma’s mother, Anna, had a child by the name of Maria in 1899.
Side note, Carl Moll and Alama’s half-sister Maria were such devoted Nazis that they killed themselves at the end of the war when the Soviets were about to enter Vienna.
By this time, Alma had become a sensation in artistic social circles in Vienna. She was a young woman who was stunningly beautiful, as well as incredibly talented and intelligent.
By all accounts, she was considered to be an enchanting dinner guest to have. A childhood case of measles left her partially deaf in one ear, which required her to lean into any conversation, giving the impression that she was deeply engrossed in the discussion.
Through her stepfather, she met the famed artist Gustav Klimt who was 15 years her senior.
Klimit fell in love with Alma, the first of many talented artists to do so, and Klimit was the first man she ever kissed.
She joined the Vienna Secession movement, which Klimit co-founded in 1897. The Vienna Secession movement was a group of artists who rejected traditional art styles.
Alma soon grew disinterested in Klimit but remained friends with him until his death in 1918.
In 1900 she began studying composition under the Austrian composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky. Zemlinsky fell in love with Alma, and the two began a relationship, although kept it quiet, telling only close friends and family.
By all accounts, Alma was very cruel to Zemlinsky, constantly berating him about his looks, saying that she could have ten other suitors to replace him. It was also claimed she said that marrying Zemlinsky would mean “bring(ing) short, degenerate Jew-children into the world.”
….I told you, Alma is not the heroine of this story.
Alma eventually gradually broke off the relationship due to pressure from her friends, who didn’t think that Zemlinsky was accomplished enough and wasn’t very good-looking.
In the autumn of 1901, she began a relationship with the famed composer Gustav Mahler who was 19 years her senior. It was a whirlwind affair, and the pair were engaged in December 1901. She wrote a letter to Zemlinsky notifying him that she was engaged to Mahler, which is a heck of a Dear John letter.
If Zemlinsky wasn’t accomplished enough, Mahler certainly was. Mahler was arguably the greatest composer of the era and remains one of the greatest symphonic composers of all time.
The two were married in March 1902. Together they had two daughters. Maria, who died at the age of 5, and Anna, who went on to become an accomplished sculptor.
Alma, at the time of her marriage to Gustav Mahler, was begging her own career as a composer. She had several compositions completed by the time of her marriage.
However, Mahler didn’t want Alma to continue composing. In fact, he wrote her a lengthy letter while they were still engaged, indicating that he wanted her to be a loving wife who supported her husband’s music career.
He said, “The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner … I’m asking a very great deal – and I can and may do so because I know what I have to give and will give in exchange.”
Also, in this letter, he told her that if she were ugly, men wouldn’t really care about her intellect or talent.
….like I said, there are no heroes in this story.
The relationship was rocky. Alma had a great deal of respect for Mahler but didn’t particularly like his music. Life with Mahler was very regimented and difficult.
After the death of her daughter, Alma became depressed and began an affair with the noted architect Walter Gropius. More on him in a bit.
In a fit of despair, in 1910, Mahler sought the advice of none other than Sigmund Freud about what to do about his marriage. It is believed that Freud told Mahler that much of his wife’s depression may have stemmed from her being discouraged from writing music.
Mahler took an interest in Alma’s compositions and helped her edit and publish five of them with his publisher. At this point, he did seem genuinely remorseful for having discouraged Alma’s career as a composer.
However, it all soon ended after Mahler died in May 1911.
After his death, Alma didn’t take up musical composition. In fact, as far as we know, she never created anything musical again for the rest of her life.
Despite her affair with Walter Gropius, she didn’t rush into a relationship with him.
From 1912 to 1914, she had an affair with the artist Oskar Kokoschka. During their relationship, Kokoschka painted one of his greatest works, The Bride of the Wind, which depicts himself and Alma. The painting is currently on display at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland.
The relationship ended with the onset of the first world war. After Kokoschka enlisted in the Austrian Army, she renewed her relationship with Gropius.
The two married in August 1915 while he was on leave from the army.
Gropius founded the Bauhaus School in 1919 in the city of Weimar. Bauhaus became one of the most influential design movements of the 20th century. It can be argued that modern 20th-century design really stemmed from Bauhaus—everything from furniture to architecture to typography.
One of the defining principles of Bauhaus is that form should follow function. Even if you aren’t familiar with the term Bauhaus, do a search for Bauhaus, and you will instantly recognize Bauhaus designs.
Bauhauas is worth its own future episode.
Gropius and Alma had two children….maybe. Manon was born in 1916 and later died at the age of 18, and Martin, born in 1918, died as an infant.
Gropius and Alma officially divorced in 1920; however, she had been having an affair with the writer and poet Franz Werfel since 1917. It is widely suspected that her son Martin was, in fact, Werfel’s.
…and I realize I’ve been using Alma’s first name and the men in her life’s last name, but she changed her last name so often it is sort of necessary,
Alam and Werfel openly lived together and didn’t formally get married until 1929.
The marriage with Werfel was Alma’s longest. She probably did more to encourage Werfel’s career than any of her previous husbands. Their time together was the high point of Werfel’s career as a writer.
He published the novel Verdi – Roman der Oper, or the Novel of the Opera, in 1924. His play Juarez and Maximilian, about 1860s Mexico, was performed in 1926, and he wrote The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in 1930 about the Armenian genocide.
Werfel was Jewish, and when Germany annexed Austria in 1938, the couple had to flee. The first went to live in France, but when France was invaded in 1940, they fled over the Pyrenees to Spain and then eventually to Portugal, where they got on a ship to New York, where they arrived in October 1940.
They moved to Los Angeles, where Alma again became the center of a community of artists, mostly consisting of Europeans who fled the war. Her circle included the likes of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, Russian Igor Stravinsky, and the German Nobel laureate in literature, Thomas Mann.
Werfel published perhaps his best-known novel, The Song of Bernadette, which was made into a Hollywood film in 1943.
Franz Werfel died in 1945.
After the death of her husband, she moved to New York City and became an American citizen in 1946. There she continued to be the center of a community of artists which included the conductor Leonard Burnstein, who was an advocate of the works of Gustav Mahler.
It was in this last period of her life that she began to publish books and letters, in particular about her first husband, Gustav Mahler.
For years she was considered to be the primary authority on Mahler, but eventually, biographers began to notice a problem. There were glaring factual errors in her writing. She only published a fraction of the hundreds of letters that Mahler wrote to her and only a single letter that she wrote to Mahler.
Of the letters she published, many were edited, and some were merged with other letters. She even edited her own diary entries to make herself look good.
Mahler’s biographers dubbed this the “Alma Problem” as research has found her to be a very unreliable witness.
In interviews she conducted when she was older, she displayed the antisemitism which she carried her entire life, despite having married and had relationships with several Jewish men.
In one interview, she described Walter Gropius as “the true Aryan type. The only man who was racially suited to me. All the others who fell in love with me were little Jews. Like Mahler. I go for both kinds.”
After abusing alcohol late in her life, she passed away in 1964 at the age of 85 in New York.
After her death, the New York Times ran what the satirist songwriter Tom Lehrer described as the “juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read.”
There have been seventeen musical compositions of Alma’s which were published, fourteen during her life, and three which were published posthumously.
The relationships I’ve mentioned aren’t even the full accounting of the famous men she was involved with. She claimed other relationships of various degrees with the German dramatist and poet Gerhart Hauptmann, the biologist Dr. Paul Krammerer, and the Russian pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch.
Many people who knew Alma said she wasn’t necessarily the nicest person. She could be extremely cold and cruel in addition to her antisemitism. Yet, she always seemed to be in the middle of social circles with famous artists.
Nonetheless, despite her many flaws, Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfer led one of the most interesting lives of anyone in the 20th century.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Aimee1066, from Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
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This is a great podcast for the whole family! The episodes are entertaining but not too complicated. My daughter Rebecca is ten and listens to the backlog constantly, and it prompts so many interesting conversations! I love that my kid talks about Polonium-210 at the dinner table. :) Thanks, Gary.
Thank you, Aimee! I just want to give you a reminder that discussions of Polonium-210 are perfectly acceptable at the dinner table.
However, Polonium-210 itself should not be allowed at the dinner table. If any of your kids bring highly toxic and radioactive isotopes to the table, ask them to put it away before dinner.
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