Although Alma Mahler has fallen into obscurity today, there was no one in the golden age of Vienna who didn’t know her name—and her salacious reputation. She rose to prominence as “merely” the wife of the famous composer Gustav Mahler, but it wasn’t long before the world found out all the devilish secrets she hid behind her angelic face.
As the daughter of the famous Viennese landscape painter Emil Schindler, Alma Mahler had artistic genius in her blood—she herself composed on the piano from an extremely young age. But from the beginning, there was a dark side to her. Spoiled and privileged, Alma’s family expected big things and advantageous marriages from their little girl. Well, they soon learned to be careful what they wished for.
For all little Alma’s scholarly pursuits, one thing became clear as she grew into a teenager: She was gorgeous. More than that, she had effervescent social skills, and she put them to use night after night in Vienna’s vibrant artistic circles. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before people were calling her “the most beautiful girl in Vienna”—and she started attracting the wrong kind of attention.
At the turn of the 20th century, Alma was just getting out of her teen years and fully coming into her own as one of the belles of Vienna. It was then that she crossed paths with the tormented artist Gustav Klimt. Klimt, despite being over a decade older than her, immediately fell in love with the smart, cultured, elegant 20-year-old. But Alma’s response was extremely telling.
Even at this tender age, Alma knew what she was about, and she jumped headlong into an affair with Klimt. The details were frightening. Klimt loved her with a possession and passion that would soon be the trademark of Alma’s lovers…and Alma hit him right back. As she described one of their kisses: “[it was a] kiss with which he begged me never to love another man and with which I gave him my promise”.
Only, Alma wasn’t a woman who kept her promises.
Although Alma was besotted with Klimt at first, it didn’t take long for the fickleness of youth to cool her affections for the much-older artist. Despite all her promises to never love another man, Alma soon left him—a pattern that would repeat in much more disturbing ways as the years went on. Except, she didn’t just leave Klimt to go find herself. Oh no.
Very shortly after dumping Klimt, Alma took up with another man. But somehow, this affair was more salacious than her last. This time her lover was her own music teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky. With yet another big age gap and now a huge power differential, Alma and her teacher kept their affair secret from her well-to-do family.
But public or not, it didn’t take long for the icy, beautiful Alma to deal Zemlinsky a cruel insult.
Although Zemlinsky and Alma kept their relationship hush-hush so as not to scandalize the extremely proper Viennese society, there might have been another reason for their secrecy—namely, that Alma was ashamed of him. Horrifically enough, the beautiful Alma would “tease” Zemlinsky about his short stature and “ugly” features, among other things.
She also frequently claimed she could find “ten others” to fall in love with her if he weren’t around. Surprise surprise: This relationship crashed and burned. Hard.
Within months, Zemlinsky quite reasonably decided he wanted to see less of Alma and began to pull away. Alma repaid him with a stinging betrayal. While they were still together, she met and began to fall in love with the composer Gustav Mahler. Yet another older man—Mahler was over 20 years her senior—he was also the director of the Vienna Court Opera. And their first meeting was nowhere near innocent.
Showing some restraint for once, Alma was reportedly hesitant to enter into Gustav’s orbit, even though he did attract her. She had good reason to pull back. The talented composer was infamous around Vienna for his diva antics and combative relationship with his singers and staff. At one point, his own stagehands revolted against him, and the common wisdom was that he “treated his musicians the way a lion tamer treated his animals”. And that was far from all.
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Gustav Mahler’s professional life was a doozy, but Alma’s new crush had an even more ominous side. While treating his employees poorly, Mahler nonetheless wasn’t above sleeping with them, in particular taking his viola player Natalie Bauer-Lechner as his companion. Alma apparently knew about this fact; upon meeting him, she referenced "the scandals about him and every young woman who aspired to sing in opera”.
But Alma’s love life never did run smooth, and it was about to jump-start.
Alma may have been reluctant to meet and talk with Gustav Mahler in the beginning, but within just 24 hours of knowing him, she’d done a complete about-face. When they met the next day after their first meeting, they quickly fell into a fiery affair, with Alma almost entirely forgetting about her tutor-turned-lover Zemlinsky. That was cold enough, but Alma wasn’t done yet.
Gustav and Alma’s passion ran incredibly hot—so much so that the illicit pair were secretly engaged just weeks after meeting. Yes, again while she was still ostensibly with Zemlinsky. In fact, it took several days for Alma to inform her boyfriend—via a letter—that she had a new fiancé, and she tied the knot with Gustav in March of 1902, barely before Zemlinsky could reply. The backlash was immediate.
Almost no one in either Gustav or Alma’s circle thought that their marriage was a good idea. Leaning hard into the Antisemitism of the time—Gustav Mahler was Jewish—some of Alma’s old friends sniffed that he wasn’t good enough for her. Then again, Gustav’s own family bit back with some classic misogyny, pillorying Alma as a brainless fool who craved male attention.
Still, the haters were right about one thing: This marriage was hellish.
Falling in love with and marrying Gustav Mahler, one of the musical geniuses of his day, might have seemed like a fantasy come true. But it was really the beginning of a nightmare. Alma should have probably heeded the warnings of Gustav’s employees, because—much like his underlings—he expected her to be his housewife and servant first and foremost. And it gets more bitter.
In the end, the worst part wasn’t that Gustav expected Alma to cook, clean, and wait on him hand and foot. No, the real worst part was that he was jealous of any time Alma took for herself to work on her own piano compositions. In Gustav’s eyes, it was a waste of time for mere trifles—plus it took too much of the attention away from him, naturally.
For someone as intelligent and active as Alma, this was a crushing blow; she wrote in her diary, "How hard it is to be so mercilessly deprived of ... things closest to one's heart”. There was, however, one saving grace.
Shortly after tying the knot with Gustav, Alma gave birth to her first child, a daughter the couple named Maria Anna, and had another daughter, Anna, a couple of years later. For a time, the girls kept Alma occupied and busy despite the hollow and slowly growing feeling that she was more than just a mother. Then one day, her quiet life got turned upside down.
In 1907, the Mahlers were nearing the end of their ropes, and Gustav took Alma and the girls to a summer vacation at his small cabin for some rest and relaxation. It couldn’t have gone more disastrously. Within days of arriving, both Maria Anna and Anna fell ill with scarlet fever and diphtheria. And while Alma nursed them incessantly, she couldn’t stop fate from crashing down.
Although the younger girl, Anna, managed to pull through from the illness, Maria Anna struggled for a breathless two weeks before succumbing to her sickness, perishing at the raw age of five. Both Gustav and Alma were beside themselves with grief for their little girl…but sadly for everyone involved, this cruel twist of fate had more turns in store.
While still reeling from the loss of Maria Anna, Alma made a chilling discovery about her husband. After a bout of bad health just weeks after Maria Anna’s passing, doctors diagnosed Gustav with a heart condition that forced him to stop any kind of vigorous exercise or work. While the composer himself downplayed it, Alma treated it as “a virtual death sentence”.
The Mahlers were coming more apart at the seams than ever before, and it led Alma into dangerous territory.
By 1910, Alma had been stuck in her stifling marriage for almost a decade, and nothing seemed to be able to drag her out of mourning for the loss of her eldest child. Indeed, Alma only slipped further into depression, and Gustav eventually sent her to a rest spa to try to recuperate her mental health. As it turned out, it was the worst thing they could have done.
While at the spa, Alma met architect and future founder of the Bauhaus School, Walter Gropius—in short, yet another bad boy artist and intellectual. Considering this was Alma Mahler’s catnip even in her best state of mind, it didn’t take her long to strike up an engrossing, passionate affair with Gropius. But it had a dramatic end.
In September of 1910, Alma’s husband Gustav gave a triumphant and famous performance of his Eighth Symphony in Munich—except right before the performance, he discovered the extent of her affair with Walter Gropius, and it came out in the worst way possible. Perhaps intentionally or perhaps accidentally, Gropius had sent one of his love letters meant for Alma to Gustav.
The situation only blew up from there.
Rather than break things off immediately with Gropius, Alma initially refused to give up her lover, citing her perceived lack of freedom and consideration in her marriage. Her husband reacted with a furious ultimatum. He actually brought Gropius to their house and, with both men in front of her, asked her to choose once and for all.
Pushed to the crisis, Alma broke down and decided to stay with Gustav. But it would be an uphill battle, and Gustav turned to a surprising figure for help.
Gustav was so upset at Alma’s straying, he actually underwent a brief but intense psychotherapy session with none other than Sigmund Freud to get to the bottom of their problems. It resulted in a breakthrough. Although we don’t know exactly what went on during the four-hour conversation, Gustav came out of it with a radical new idea for his marriage.
Following his Freudian session, Gustav did a complete about-face and decided to encourage Alma’s music composition. He not only helped promote some of her works, but he also edited a handful of her songs and prepared them for publication. Alma, meanwhile, successfully broke off contact with Gropius, and the pair seemed to finally be on good footing again.
Yet just as they got their lives together, it was all about to fall apart once more.
In late 1910, more tragedy came for Alma. That Christmas, Gustav’s heart condition flared up, and by the next spring, his health had deteriorated so much that he slipped into a coma while staying in a hospital. Alma watched helplessly as doctors tried to save her husband with a series of desperate procedures, but he passed on May 18, 1911 anyway. Her reaction was heartbreaking.
Nothing about Alma’s relationship with Gustav, from their courtship to their marriage, had been perfect, but she loved him deeply and his death hit her incredibly hard. Indeed, she was so bereft at his loss that her doctors banned her from attending the funeral, lest it affect her precarious health. And while in this fragile state, she got a devastating note in the mail.
Gustav Mahler left an enormous hole in his wake, and many across Austria and the world mourned his passing. One man, however, didn’t seem to get the memo: Very shortly after hearing that Gustav had died, Sigmund Freud had the audacity to send the grieving Alma his bill for the short session Gustav had with him. Not that Alma’s own conduct in the coming years was much better.
In the years immediately following Gustav Mahler’s death, the sociable, headstrong Alma did a surprising thing: She somewhat receded into the background, regrouping and healing from her tumultuous union. But when she re-emerged, she came out swinging. Scandalously, by 1915 she had re-ignited her correspondence and then her affair with Walter Gropius.
But this time she took it one step further.
Walter Gropius and Alma truly did have something together: In August 1915, at the height of WWI, they married in Berlin. Like so many of Alma’s romances, this Romeo-and-Juliet reunion seemed passionate and ideal at the start, with Alma giving birth to another daughter, Manon, just a year later. Only, it wasn’t long before the wheels came off—more dramatically than ever before.
In 1918, just a couple of years after marrying Gropius, Alma got pregnant again. But this time she was hiding a ruinous secret. In the past months, Gropius had been away on long military trips, and in the meantime, a restless Alma had taken up with yet another lover, the writer Franz Werfel. The naughty pair were even living together at the time—so no one in Vienna was fooled about the pregnancy.
Everyone in high society knew the upcoming bundle of joy was very likely the product of adultery. Everyone, that is, except Gropius himself. But a cruel karma was coming to the love triangle.
As if Alma’s extramarital activities weren’t messy enough, the birth of her son Martin set off a scandalous and heartbreaking chain of events. First, the boy was born prematurely and only survived for 10 months before succumbing to congenital health issues. Meanwhile, Gropius quickly caught on to the fact that the boy wasn’t his, pushing the couple to divorce that same year.
Alma was once again starting from zero, all while carrying around some major emotional baggage. And once more, she didn’t handle it well.
Every action has consequences, and Alma’s choices began to catch up with her in a big way. Her daughter with Gustav, Anna, had grown up watching her parents’ stormy relationship and Alma’s many affairs and indiscretions. Unsurprisingly, then, Anna herself was becoming quite the handful for her mother. In 1920, the 16-year-old even had her own impulsive marriage to an up-and-coming composer, which then fell apart within weeks.
Perhaps sensing her own role in her daughter’s torment, Alma tried to change tack—for a bit, anyway.
Every time she got too close to the flame, Alma did try to slow down her passions and reassess her life. So even after she divorced Gropius and moved in with Franz Werfel, she waited a decade to actually marry him, only making him her third husband in 1929 and taking on the name Alma Werfel-Mahler. Yet even in this cooling-off period, she still managed to stir up controversy.
While living with Werfel, Alma couldn’t help but get up to her old tricks again. She was still beautiful, intelligent, and captivating, and the day’s biggest artistic geniuses couldn’t help but pursue her…whether they were married or not. Her most dedicated suitor was the German dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann—and his methods of wooing her were the definition of uncomfortable.
Alma had never been shy about wielding her sensuality, and she and Hauptmann often had flirtatious conversations that took place barely out of earshot of his wife. In an exchange that Alma recorded in her diary, Hauptmann promised, “In another life we two must be lovers, I make my reservation now”. His wife, who had heard this, then sneered: “I’m sure Alma will be booked up there, too”.
The next stage of Alma’s life, however, was far from carefree.
In 1935, Alma lost yet another of her children suddenly and tragically. That year, her daughter with Walter Gropius, Manon, died of polio at the age of 18. Although Alma had given birth to four children over the course of her life, she was now left with only poor, tormented Anna to care for her and comfort her. And she would need much comfort in the coming years.
Soon after Alma officially married Franz Werfel, their lives plunged into unimaginable danger. Werfel was Jewish, and with the rise of WWII in the 1930s, the couple had a terrifying target on their back. They had to take desperate measures to avoid death. Although they stayed in France for as long as they could, eventually they knew they had to escape.
It ended up being more harrowing than they could have ever imagined.
Alma and Werfel had left it so long that German forces were already occupying France as they tried to flee. Helped by an international rescue operation, they had to trek by foot across the Pyrenees into Spain, all in a bid to evade German-run border officials in Vichy, France. Luckily, they made it, quite likely saving Werfel’s life.
Even so, Alma didn’t let this dark period slow her down. Instead, she completely reinvented herself.
Although Alma was in her 60s when she and Werfel settled in California, she took full advantage of the Golden Age of Hollywood, setting up salons with luminaries and fellow refugees like Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. Perhaps more than any other period of her life, these were her glory days. And it was good that she enjoyed them, because they were coming to an end.
In 1945, Alma suffered one of the last tragedies of her life. In an ironic twist, Werfel suffered from much the same weak heart that Gustav Mahler had, and he had been struggling with health issues ever since they had arrived in America. That year, Werfel had a massive heart attack in California, perishing soon after. From then on, Alma’s reputation took on a much different cast.
At this point, Alma was something of a relic of a bygone age. After WWII, America and Europe were moving beyond the old-world traditions and empires that Alma grew up in, and many saw her increasingly only as a “living link” to the past and to Gustav Mahler. Her friend Thomas Mann even dubbed her “la grande veuve” or “the great widow”.
Nonetheless, there are black spots on her reputation that no moniker can erase.
Alma’s romantic preferences had long been controversial, but there is one particularly disturbing detail about her bedroom life. With the exception of Walter Gropius, all of her husbands had been Jewish—yet Alma herself harbored Antisemitic beliefs alongside her preference for Jewish men, and she would frequently belittle her beaux for traits she saw as Jewish and ugly.
Time after time, she would reference anything from their short frame to their features while praising herself for her height and her beauty. And there is one more part of her legacy that historians can’t wrap their heads around.
Alma Mahler kept a meticulous and copious diary throughout her life, and in addition published two works on her late husband Gustav, helping to popularize his reputation around the world. There’s just one thing wrong: Increasingly, experts have begun to realize that her texts are fundamentally unreliable, with Alma telling fibs and distorting the truth, usually for her own benefit.
Nonetheless, her writing remains crucial to an understanding of Gustav Mahler’s work, leading historians to coin the term “The Alma Problem” when it comes to discerning fact from fiction in the composer’s life.
The love affairs of Alma Mahler were the stuff of legend even during her lifetime, but there was one tryst that was far more sinister than the others. Just after Gustav Mahler’s death, Alma took up with the notoriously volatile artist Oskar Kokoschka, who became immediately obsessed with his new lover, plunging himself into creating artworks about her.
Yeah, this was going nowhere good.
Eventually, Alma hit a breaking point with Oskar, growing exhausted from his constant need to possess her wholly and completely. Characterizing it as a “violent struggle of love”, she broke it off with him, citing her fears of her own passion and the intense nature of their relationship. Kokoschka, who continued to love her until the day he died, was shattered. But that doesn’t excuse his next move.
Oskar Kokoschka was a man of deep and wild emotions, so he didn’t just take the breakup lying down. Instead, he went right off the deep end. To help cope with the loss of his one true love, Kokoschka commissioned a life-sized “Alma Doll” in 1918, which he wanted to help him work through the pain the affair had caused him. That’s…not what it did.
Kokoschka learned that there was no way to replace Alma in his life. (And in any case, that the path to getting over her was not a creepy life-sized doll). However, when the artist did realize this, his actions were typically…quirky. At a party one night, he got angry with the doll and destroyed it in front of his friends and relations.
After Franz Werfel’s passing, Alma entered her true twilight years. She became a US citizen, then moved from Los Angeles to New York City, where she continued to rub elbows with influential artists and impresarios like Leonard Bernstein and continued to promote Gustav Mahler as one of the preeminent composers of his day.
But time comes for us all, even for the great widow Alma Mahler.
In December 1964, Alma Mahler passed at the ripe old age of 85, having outlived all her husbands and most of her copious lovers. For many, it was the end of an era, but for Alma, it might have been a bit like returning home. Her family buried her in Vienna in the same grave as her daughter Manon, close to Gustav Mahler’s final resting place.
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