Alma Mahler, Muse to Many


alma mahlerMy favorite song ever is “Alma” by Tom Lehrer, based on the true story of Alma Mahler from her sensational New York Times obituary in 1965.  Tom Lehrer was a student in the math department at Harvard just before I arrived there, and his satirical songs were popular with college students all over the world in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  His songs were featured regularly on the television show That Was The Week That Was. 

Alma Schindler Mahler was famous for marrying and having affairs with some of the most brilliant and accomplished men of the 20th century. She was a composer, sculptor and writer who wanted to be famous for her own intellectual creations, but she lived at a time when it was extremely difficult for women to be prominent in the arts. She took the next best approach by marrying and loving some of the leading musicians, composers, architects, painters and writers of the era. In spite of her incredible success in the bedroom, every one of her countless dalliances made her miserable and she never really had a happy relationship with anyone in her entire life. Here is the story of a brilliant and talented woman who was distraught because she had to subjugate her own accomplishments to those of her lovers. 


Her Mother Taught Her Well
Alma was born in Vienna in 1879, and had a model for her future lifestyle in her mother, Hamburg singer Anna Sofie Bergen. Soon after her mother married her father, the prominent Viennese landscape painter Emil Schindler, she had an affair with his colleague, Julius Victor Berger, from which Alma’s half-sister Grete was born in 1881. Her mother also had an ongoing affair with Carl Moll, her husband’s student and assistant. When Alma was 13, her father died from appendicitis, and her mother married Carl Moll soon after that. Later her stepfather and another half-sister, Maria, became fervent Nazis who committed suicide in April 1945, just before the German surrender in World War II.

When Alma was 17, her stepfather’s associate and famous painter, 34-year-old Gustav Klimt, seduced her. Her stepfather found out about it and forced Klimt to keep away from his stepdaughter. Alma wanted to be a composer and in her teens she wrote songs, instrumental pieces and an opera while studying under a successful Viennese composer, 25-year old Alexander von Zemlinsky, who also taught composer Arnold Schönberg. At the tender age of 17 she became his lover. Her family disapproved of this relationship because he was Jewish, but Alma continued the affair for two years.

Three Marriages, Many Lovers
Marriage #1: Gustav Mahler, 1902 until his death in 1911.
In 1901, Alma met the conductor of the Vienna Court Opera, Gustav Mahler. He was one of the most famous conductors and composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1897, he converted from Judaism to Catholicism to become the artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera (known today as the Vienna State Opera). The opera company would not hire Jews.

Mahler immediately fell in love with Alma and asked her to marry him three weeks later. Her parents tried to dissuade her from marrying him because he was born Jewish and at 41, he was 19 years older than she was. The marriage was in trouble right from the beginning.

Mahler made it very clear to her that men would make all the music in his house. He wrote, “The role of composer falls to me, yours is that of loving companion…!” Mahler worked all the time and expected utter devotion from his wife. She loved to party, so she spent lots of time with his colleague Hans Pfitzner and her old lover Zemlinsky.

His work habits depressed her so much that she entered a sanitarium to recover from her loneliness. There she met and had an affair with Walter Gropius, an architect who was four years younger than she was. They continued their affair long after they both left the sanitarium. During their affair, Gropius “mistakenly” sent a love letter to Alma, but addressed it to Gustav Mahler. Mahler was hurt and furious. He was so depressed that he consulted Sigmund Freud who told him to stay in the marriage and encourage his wife to return to composing her own music. Mahler responded to her ongoing affairs by reviewing her songs, and editing and publishing them for her. He dedicated his Eighth Symphony to her, and had five of her Lieder compositions published. She responded by promising to stop seeing her lover, but still traveled to Paris to continue her affair with Walter Gropius. Throughout her marriage she continued to have affairs, but never divorced her husband.

The Death of Gustav Mahler
In 1907, Mahler was diagnosed with a bacterial infection of the valves inside his heart. In December 1910 he developed a sore throat while working in New York with the Philharmonic Orchestra. He consulted Dr. Emanuel Libman who drew blood and cultured a streptococcus that was causing his heart infection (Med Clin (Barc), July, 2003;121(5):184-5). Mahler was one of the first people to receive an accurate microbiological diagnosis for his fatal illness and he was given an experimental antistreptococcal immune preparation. The serious strep infection in his heart damaged his heart valves (Br Med J (Clin Res Ed,)1986;293:1628–1631) and there were no antibiotics at that time, so there was no cure.  He died on May 18, 1911, at the young age of 51. 

The Rich Widow
After Gustav Mahler died, Alma was a rich widow thanks to her widow’s pension and inheritance from her husband. She had an affair with composer Franz Schreker and rejected marriage to Joseph Fraenkel, Mahler’s doctor. She also had an affair with biologist Paul Kammerer. When she left him, he threatened to shoot himself at Mahler’s grave.

In 1912, her stepfather, Carl Moll, asked the 26-year-old Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka to paint a picture of the 33-year-old Alma. Kokoschka immediately fell in love with her and over the years, sent her more than 400 love letters. They started a world-famous affair in which he painted her whenever they stopped making love. She soon became pregnant and had an abortion. Kokoschka was a crazy masochist. He used to ask her to hit him while he was climaxing. In return, she was incredibly cruel to him and would live apart from him while she was having her many affairs. Kokoschka repeatedly asked Alma to marry him, but she always refused because she had to endure Kokoschka’s insane jealousy of her dead husband, Gustav Mahler. According to Alma, he also dreamed of killing Mahler’s doctor, Fraenkel, because Fraenkel wanted to marry her. A movie based on her life story, “Bride of the Wind” (2003) focuses on her affair with Kokoschka in detail.


Marriage #2 Walter Gropius, 1915-1923
While she was still living with Kokoshka, she wrote to her former lover Walter Gropius, “I long for a will that would wisely guide me away from what I’ve acquired, back to what is inborn.” Gropius was ecstatic and asked her to marry him.

Gropius was a world famous architect who founded The Bauhaus, a design school in Weimar in 1919, and later became a professor and chair of the Department of Architecture at Harvard. They married and they had a little girl. He worked all the time. and he complained bitterly throughout their marriage about her affair with the crazy Kokoshka. He constantly berated her for having an affair with a nut. She responded to his complaints by writing to a famous author, Franz Werfel, who wrote several poems that she adored. She had used his lyrics from his poem “Der Erkennende” for a song she composed. She asked Werfel to supply lyrics for some of her other songs.  In 1917, the 27-year-old Werfel went to Alma’s salon, regular evening meetings of writers and other intellectuals, and fell in love with her. She was 11 years older than Werfel. In 1918, he got her pregnant while she was still married to Gropius. Gropius knew that he was not the father. The baby died from hydrocephalus, water on the brain. In 1920 she divorced Gropius. Alma had already been living with Werfel for more than a year and the news media of the time reported that Gropius was caught with a prostitute in a hotel room.

Marriage #3: Franz Werfel, 1929 to his death in 1945
At age 50, she finally married Franz Werfel because, unlike Gropius, Werfel did not bring up her past affairs, and he knew a lot about classical music. As you would expect, she soon tired of him and wrote in her diary, “I don’t love him anymore.” She did not divorce him, but they lived apart much of the time. She forced Werfel to give up being Jewish as a condition for their marriage. She had supported the Nazis and had a relationship with a theology professor and priest, Johannes Hollnsteiner, who supported Hitler. She was reported to have rented an apartment for that affair, and while still married to Werfel, she spent a lot of time with conductor Bruno Walter.

On to America 
On March 12, 1938, Austria’s Anschluss to the German Reich put Alma and her half-Jewish daughter, Anna, in great danger. She had Nazi leanings and wrote about Franz in her diary: “two people who, after 20 years together, speak two different languages, and whose racial difference could not be overcome.” She was in danger because she had been married to two Jewish men, and Werfel had written several satirical plays lampooning the Nazi totalitarian regime. They escaped to France, but in 1940, the Germans invaded France and they hid in the little town of Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrenees. There Franz and Alma hid in the homes of courageous families whose parents knew Bernadette Soubirous and saw her miraculous healing powers. Franz Werfel promised that if they got out of there alive, he would tell the world about Bernadette. They got to America and settled in Los Angeles, where Werfel wrote his best-selling novel “The Song of Bernadette”, which was made into a prize-winning film in 1943.

The Death of Franz Werfel
On September 13, 1943, Franz Werfel suffered a massive heart attack caused by obesity, complete lack of exercise, and eating too much of all the wrong foods. He never completely recovered and died in August 1945 of a second heart attack which is inevitable in people who do not change the habits that caused their first heart attack. Alma did not attend the funeral in which a Catholic priest gave the eulogy that discussed the baptism rites of the Catholic church, rather than the life of Franz Werfel. It is likely that Alma had arranged an emergency Catholic baptism after his death. He was buried in Los Angeles, but after the war, his body was returned to Vienna.

A Rich Widow Again
In 1951, she moved to New York and published Mahler’s letters and papers. She was a Nazi sympathizer , an anti-Semite and an admirer of Mussolini. She was also a rich widow again with the royalties from Werfel’s many publications. She organized and profited from the extensive writings he left behind.

Alma Mahler-Werfel died on December 11, 1964 at the age of 85. Her obituaries used information from her autobiography and included lurid details of her love affairs and marriages, listing her spouses and many conquests by name. 

Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel
August 31, 1879 – December 11, 1964

Another movie about Alma and Gustave Mahler:


And another fun song by Tom Lehrer: