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In addition to her own rather fanciful version of events, there have been several biographies of Alma Mahler, one of the most recent being by Oliver Hilmes, originally published in German in 2005; the English translation, Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler, only in 2015. (No translator given in Haste’s three-page bibliography, but it was Donald Arthur.) Another biography is this one by Cate Haste, who stresses her ‘discovery’ of an apparently only recently unearthed collection of typed copies of letters by Alma, now in the archives of the University of Pennsylvania. But Hilmes also used the same source and chronology surely favours Hilmes as discoverer. (Hilmes’ book is in Haste’s bibliography and is even quoted from a few times.)

The only really new material in Haste’s book consists of some interviews with Marina Mahler, Gustav Mahler’s granddaughter, the rest relying almost exclusively on already published material, except for the above collection. The colossal problem when dealing with Alma Mahler is that you can’t unreservedly believe what she is telling you: here again, the above-mentioned typed copies of letters were ‘corrected’ by Alma. The most well-known account of her life with Mahler is Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters by Alma Mahler, which is outrageous in many ways, both in recounting very intimate details and in doctoring the facts. Alma’s second husband, the architect Walter Gropius, was apoplectic when he read her often salacious account of their relationship in print in another of her published memoirs, as were many others. Her reputation as a voracious man-eater and fantasist even inspired Tom Lehrer to write a song about her.

But somehow she attracts attention even now. (My own copy of her Mahler book is the third edition, with added material, published in 1973 when she was safely underground.) Her life seems to consist of an intertwining of one highly sexual and melodramatic encounter after another, often with more than one going on at the same time. Her main aim was to bag as many famous men as possible, and here she pulled offa triple whammy in husbands, with Mahler (music), Gropius (art) and Werfel (literature) – the greatest star being Mahler, which is why she kept his name. Miraculously, she kept her virginity until Mahler, whom she married when she was 21 (he was 41), in spite of the spirited efforts of Gustav Klimt and Alexander von Zemlinsky, among others, before him.

Haste’s account of Alma’s early life is muddled and careless. Just one example: she says that Alma’s parents sang together in ‘the comic opera Lenardo und Blandine’. No composer given (it was Peter Winter) and it was definitely not a comic opera. She also writes that Alma’s father liked singing ‘his favourite Schumann Lieder’; in fact, Schubert Lieder, too, as expected for a Viennese. This all points to a pretty skimpy musical knowledge – not to mention lack of conscientious copy-editing.

Cate Haste’s problem here is that, not being a German speaker, she recounts events rather from the outside. Her well-described account of the flight of Alma, Werfel, and Golo, Heinrich and Nelly Mann on foot into Spain in 1940 is marred by describing Golo as Nelly and Heinrich’s son ‘and Thomas Mann’s nephew’ – a blunder, I couldn’t help imagining, that would have caused a bit of a stir in the Mann clan (Golo was of course the second son of Heinrich’s somewhat more famous brother Thomas).

Haste can tell a story with verve, and although admitting that she likes and admires Alma, as indicated by the very title of this book, cannot avoid recording Alma’s dogged and outrageous anti-Semitism (in spite of two Jewish husbands) and her esteem for Hitler and Mussolini. The early chapters, of society in fin de siècle Vienna – hedonistic, oversexed and angst- ridden – do help provide a background for Alma’s behaviour, motives and values. For Sigmund Freud, sitting there in his studio, through which many of them passed, it must have seemed like shooting fish in a barrel.

DELLA COULING Read the full review on Agora Classica

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