Alma Mahler: The Anti-Semitic Woman Who Loved Talented Jewish Men

November 2, 2015 | Bee Wilson
About the author:

Alma Mahler (1879 – 1964), herself a composer of no mean ability, spent her life pursuing relationships—both romantic and platonic—with talented men. Many of these men were Jews—including her first husband, the composer Gustav Mahler, and her third, the writer Franz Werfel, as well as several of her many lovers. The daughter of a Christian Viennese painter, Alma also held fiercely anti-Semitic attitudes, which receive attention in a biography by Oliver Hilmes, recently translated into English. Bee Wilson writes in her review:

Hilmes is the first of Alma’s biographers to treat her anti-Semitism and belief in her own godliness as driving forces in her life, rather than as a form of unthinking prejudice. . . . In the diaries that Hilmes has uncovered, Alma is far more unguarded in her frequent expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment. She calls [the writer Elias] Canetti a “half-crippled, nihilistic Jew” and writes warmly of a meeting with Hitler, when, under the influence of a bottle of champagne, she admired his “kindly, soft eyes.” As Hilmes sees it, Alma deliberately sought out relationships with talented but ugly Jewish men so that she could lord it over them. She would try to improve them, even sanctify them with her love, and when this failed she would feel contempt for them. When the initial glow of feeling for Werfel wore off, in 1924, she wrote that he “has shrunk back down to the short, ugly, fat Jew” that he was when they first met.

Her anti-Semitism was so deep-rooted that it applied even to her own children. She favored Manon, the “Aryan” child of [her second husband, the architect Walter] Gropius, over Anna, the surviving child from her marriage to Mahler.

Many women have aspired to “conquer” men. Some have sought to be muses, under the impression that enabling a man’s creative work is itself a form of genius. It takes a strange personality indeed . . . to see it as her mission to inspire powerful Jewish men to worship her in order that she could then liberate them from their Jewishness.

Read more on at London Review of Books: