Alma Mahler Werfel (née Schindler; 1879-1964)

A muse for many

Alma Mahler Werfel

Adinner with Alma was a dangerous undertaking. It didn’t take more than that for the conductor Gustav Mahler to propose to her – although, to be fair, not without first pointing out that it would not be simple being married to him. Two days after having dinner with her, the painter Oskar Kokoschka sent her the first of what would be four hundred love letters. She later described their relationship as a three year “love-battle”: “Never before have I tasted so much strain, so much hell, so much paradise.”

“The loveliest girl in Vienna was Alma, the smartest as well. Once you picked her up on your antenna, you’d never be free of her spell.” American musician Tom Lehrer wrote a song about Alma in the 1960s, about other women’s envy at her unique ability to seduce rich men.

The name of Vienna’s singular femme fatale points to two of her famous husbands: her first husband Gustav Mahler, one of the most famous composers and conductors of his time, and her last, the great writer Franz Werfel. What her name doesn’t tell us is that there were many more men in her life. As well as her third husband, the no less significant founder of the Bauhaus movement, Walter Gropius, the painter Gustav Klimt and the composers Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker were also among her suitors, to name just a few.

Alma didn’t only surround herself with artists, she herself was also a composer. Despite her musical gifts, however, she had doubts as to whether she as a woman was entitled to be a composer. Of the more than 100 songs she composed only 17 have survived.

 Roses Karlskirche

Drawing dedication

Gustav Mahler

Wherein lay the magic of this woman

who was a divine muse for some and for others a diabolical temptress? The couple Friedrich and Marietta Torberg, friends of Alma, had two different answers; Friedrich wrote: “When she was convinced of someone’s talent, she left for that person no other path open than that of fulfillment – often with an almost brutal energy. Her enthusiasm, her dedication, her capacity for self-sacrifice knew no bounds.” Marietta on the other commented drily: “She was a great lady – and also a cesspit.”

Text: Agnes Hamberger, Fotos: Christine Wurnig