Everyone in 1930s Vienna seemed to be agreed that Manon Gropius was an angel. Her mother, Alma Mahler Werfel, said so; her father, Walter Gropius, called her an angel in his letters, as did Elias Canetti in his memoirs; to Franz Horch, Manon’s drama teacher, she was “the image of an angel”; the psychologist Martha Brunner-Orne felt she “visited an angel” whenever she came to see her; the musicologist Ludwig Karpath thought that she had “walked like an angel among us”. Max Reinhardt, the legendary theater director, wanted to cast her as First Angel in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s The Great World Theater; and Alban Berg dedicated his violin concerto “to the memory of an angel”.
Manon was the daughter of Alma Mahler – Gustav Mahler’s widow and an accomplished composer in her own right – and Walter Gropius, who went on to found the Bauhaus school. Her stepfather was the poet, playwright and novelist Franz Werfel. She died at eighteen of polio and its complications. And she was not an angel. The figure who emerges in James Reidel’s impressionistic biography is totally less exalted and far more ordinary. As a teenager, for example, she had what is tactfully described as “some difficulty with traditional forms of instruction”: her first piano teacher resigned; a second, specially provided by Berg, complained of his pupil’s refusal to keep her fingernails cut short and pronounced the girl “insufferable”. A disappointed Werfel noted that she spent a lot of time looking at fashion magazines – “one had the impression that she was only interested in clothes”.
Manon Gropius was a marginal figure, one whose life would not have been of wider interest were it not for the more famous writers and artists around her, whose needs and desires she seemed to be uniquely suited to reflect. Reidel describes her influence in almost mystical terms, as that of a small celestial body that perturbs the orbits of larger planets. The life of such a person is hard to capture – something Reidel acknowledges by calling his book a “hauntology”. Alma’s life, by contrast, appears tangible almost to a fault.
Of her two daughters with Gustav Mahler, the elder, Maria, died of scarlet fever. An emergency tracheotomy was carried out on the kitchen table, and Alma had to hold the five-year-old girl steady through the operation, which failed. Mahler thought he was somehow to blame for the death – that he had brought it on by composing Kintertotenlieder (1901-4), his setting for voice and orchestra of poems by Friedrich Rückert on the deaths of his own children. And it is not an entirely preposterous notion. Alma had thought all along that Mahler was tempting fate; she found it “incomprehensible” that he had kept working on the song cycle after their daughters were born.
When Maria died, Mahler threw himself into his work and Alma into her grief, and one can see that this would not have been conducive to their marital happiness. It was during a spa visit to Tobelbad that Alma first set eyes on Gropius, then a young and unknown architect. For the rest of her time there, Alma was so caught up in their affair that she forgot to write to Mahler on his fiftieth birthday – “an incredible omission given its significance”, Reidel writes chidingly. Instead Mahler received a letter from Gropius, asking for his blessing on a future union with Alma, who, when put on the spot, seems to have got cold feet. It took four years, Mahler’s death and an affair with Oskar Kokoschka (resulting in a pregnancy – and an abortion) for Alma to accept Gropius. They married in secret, with an infantryman and a stonemason rustled up from the street as witnesses. Manon was born in October 1916. A year later Alma took up with Franz Werfel, having come across one of his poems in a bookshop just days after her wedding to Gropius.
Reidel is clearly discomfited by Alma’s behaviour, even as he enjoys dispensing salacious details: Alma’s salon at the time included Franz Blei, an “erotologist”, whatever that is. Blei edited a number of what Reidel calls “private magazines”, and turned up at Alma’s with “his lovely lesbian daughter, the actress Sibylla” in tow. Gropius, Reidel reports, “could hardly get a word in edgewise.”
Alma’s purported sins mount up. Another pregnancy – by Werfel (though that’s not what Gropius thought) – ended in its seventh month after a night of illicit lovemaking with Werfel at Alma’s country house. Reidel tells us that during the night “the rain poured and a strange bird sang ominously”. Alma, haemorrhaging heavily, was taken back to Vienna by train, where only the mortuary coach was available – never, one feels, a terribly good omen. Her prematurely born son suffered from convulsions, developed hydrocephalus, was subjected to a series of cranial punctures and died in a sanatorium before he was a year old.
The job of demonizing Alma is one that practically does itself, and Reidel does not go out of his way to look for attenuating circumstances. He sides with Gropius in every situation, and does so with a sense of personal grievance, almost as though he was married to Alma himself. Gropius is said to have “endured” a letter from Alma; she has “dated Viennese tastes” and “histrionics”. When Reidel feels she shows insufficient interest in Gropius’s work, the writing fairly bristles with contempt: “that she might have been the real philistine in their relationship was something she was incapable of grasping”. This is not to say that Alma was not a monster: there is every sign that she was selfish, vain and antisemitic, though two of her three husbands were Jews.
Manon first steps out from the shadows at rehearsals in 1921 for Werfel’s Spiegelmensch, where, aged five, she found herself mesmerized by the words, the acting and the expressionistic set. The experience instilled in her a passion for the theatre. As a teenager she would fall in love with the Burgtheater actor Raoul Aslan and aspire to train at the Max Reinhardt Seminar, but for now she made costumes for herself and drifted about the house declaiming the play’s graveyard scenes (“Where’s my child?” “You are standing at its grave”). When Werfel suggested she have a go at one of the lighter exchanges, she told him that she wasn’t interested – “I just like the sad. Sad is much prettier” – and that seems to have been more or less the way her life played out. In 1929, aged twelve, she acted in Werfel’s adaptation of Verdi’s La forza del destino. Werfel thought she performed with “incomparable grace” and that her future would be in the theater, “no matter what”.
Canetti remarked that playing a role was integral to Manon’s nature: she appeared to him to be only “pretending to be a young girl”. But if she wasn’t quite a girl, what was she? There was the incident with the deer, to witness by the composer Bruno Walter, who watched through the glass doors as Manon stood with her hand resting on the neck of a doe, “smiled unshyly, and vanished”. He described it as “an unearthly apparition”. The anecdote circulated after her death; it seemed to confirm the idea that Manon had access to a transcendental realm; that she was otherworldly – an angel.
Alma, meanwhile, quite liked the look of Hitler – “kind, soft, but sweeping eyes” – and threw a steady supply of Austro-fascists in her daughter’s path, among them Anton Rintelen, Austria’s minister for education, whom she encourages to send private notes to the sixteen-year-old Manon. She employed Father Hollnsteiner to prepare them both for conversion into the Roman Catholic faith. Hollnsteiner was a theologian who promoted the idea of a “healthy anti-Semitism”, and was still a virgin at thirty-eight – something Alma promptly put an end to. He rebaptized Manon, breathing three times over her “to remove any unclean spirit”, made the sign of the cross on Manon’s breast and forehead, and put a little of his own saliva into her ears and nostrils to purify her. The last of this unholy trinity was a newly bureaucrat, Erich Cyhlar, rose to the position of paramilitary adviser of the Fatherland Front, who, at Alma’s instigation, entered into an engagement with Manon when she was already gravely ill.
In 1933, Manon, accompanied by Alma and Werfel, traveled to Venice, where the first symptoms of polio began to show. Once the end is in sight, time slows down. Reidel pores over a last photograph, taken at a café, as if willing it to come to life: “The easy give and creak of the wicker furniture can almost be heard, the flap of the awnings, muted conversations, the flutter of the pigeons “. Almost, but not quite. Is this what writing is for? To summon that which is irretrievably gone? In an address to the League of Nations three years after Manon’s death, Werfel said as much: the true purpose of art, he stated, is the “arresting of time”. It is the “killing of death”.
Maren Meinhardt is writing a book on Romanticism and the restoration of the dead
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