ALMA Mahler always provoked extreme reactions in those who knew her. Some regarded her as a "monster of egocentricity" while others remembered fondly her generosity, her idiosyncratic ways of expressing herself and her selfless devotion to her third husband, Franz Werfel in his last illness in 1945.
Even if, after reading this fair and vivid portrait, one subscribes to the former view, one must still bow to an extraordinarily powerful character who was "despite her faults, a Grande Dame".
Alma was born in Hapsburg Austria in 1879 to the painter Emil Schindler and his wife Anna. Her passion in life was men of outstanding creative talent, and through her birth, marriages, affairs and friendships she was intimately involved with the most prominent movements of the music, art, architecture and literature of her time.
She married three times to Gustav Mahler, to the architect Walter Gropius and to the novelist Franz Werfel. She had a notorious affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka. It is from Kokoschka's dramatic portrait of himself and Alma, completed at the end of 1913, that the title of this book is taken.
What is that drew men of genius to Alma? What effect, if any, did she have on their work? The author has had a variety of sources to help her answer these questions. Most significant, perhaps, were her conversations with Alma's daughter Anna and with Anna's fifth husband Albrecht Joseph who was Werfel's secretary in America during the Second World War. Alma's insen0-tivity to this daughter, Anna, is one of the least likeable aspects of her character. However, Susanne Keegan who describes her subject as her own worst enemy proclaims it as her task to present her in a way that does justice to her virtues and her considerable artistic talents, and this she succeeded in doing.
The playwright Franz Theodor Csokor described Alma as "an energiser of heroes ... a woman whose companionship stimulates her chosen man to the ultimate heights of his creative capability".
To have a man of genius in her emotional thrall was to Alma a stimulant beyond compare and she devoted much of her life to smoothing the path of her current hero. At Mahler's request she ceased composing and although this caused much loss of satisfaction and confidence, was able to say: "If I know that through my own sorrows I can give him bliss how can I hesitate for one moment".
In 1913 when Alma left for a cure in Bohemia she left her lover Kokoschka with the challenge that if he painted a masterpiece in her absence, she would marry him. The Bride of the Wind was the result, but no marriage.
To Werfel, Alma was "one of the very few magical women there are" and she nourished his artistic gifts even if they took a more prosaic form than they otherwise might if untended by her ambitious hands.
However one judges Alma Mahler-Werfel, a study of her life provides an abundance of xariety and interest. One is taken to the heart of Viennese cultural life, and when one follows her and Werfel into exile in 1938 a journey that eventually led them across the Pyrenees to Lisbon and America in 1940 one gains an insight into the plight of some of Vienna's most talented fugitives.
Alma died in 1964. It was a long life intensely lived, and here thoughtfully conveyed.