Was she Julia?

Stephen Spender

  • Code Name ‘Mary’: Memoirs of an American Woman in the Austrian Underground by Muriel Gardiner
    Yale, 200 pp, £10.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 300 02940 3

I suppose I should ‘declare an interest’. In 1934 I had a love affair, which is briefly related here, with the author, who has remained to this day one of my closest friends. I have written about this in World within World, where Muriel is called ‘Elizabeth’.

Many people think that Muriel Gardiner is the model for Julia in the story bearing that name by Lillian Hellman, published in Hellman’s second volume of ‘memoirs’, Pentimento. ‘Julia’ was made into a highly successful movie, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Julia is portrayed as a wealthy young American woman, who has been to Oxford, and during the 1930s is living in Vienna, where she is studying medicine. She is also being psychoanalysed and looking after her child. At the time of the bombardment of the Karl Marx Hof, a block of workers’ tenements, by police and soldiers of Chancellor Dollfuss’s Fascist government, she becomes a very active member of the anti-Fascist resistance in Austria. Apart from the fact that Julia comes to a tragic end, the circumstances of her life in Vienna in the Thirties are almost identical with those of Muriel Gardiner, who, like Julia, was a young American of considerable wealth, living in Vienna, studying medicine, being psychoanalysed, and looking after her child, a daughter. Like Julia, Muriel became involved in the Austrian underground after the bombing of the Karl Marx Hof: she was known as ‘Mary’. Muriel has never met Lillian Hellman, but they had a friend in common, Wolf Schwabacher. He knew Muriel’s family, and also visited her in Vienna. Schwabacher told her a lot about his friendships ‘with many actors, actresses, producers and playwrights’. After the appearance of Pentimento, and, still more, of the movie Julia, so many people asked Muriel whether she was Hellman’s heroine that finally she wrote to Lillian Hellman drawing attention to the many parallels between her and Julia. She received no answer to this letter. She then approached the leading authority on the Austrian Socialist underground, Dr Herbert Steiner, Director of the Documentation Archives of the Austrian Resistance, inquiring whether he knew of any American women other than herself who had been deeply involved in the Austrian anti-Fascist or anti-Nazi underground: ‘He knew of none. Some months later Dr Steiner wrote me that since our talk he had renewed contact with many resistance workers to ask them about American women they had known or heard of who were deeply involved in the resistance. Their answer was always: “Only Mary.” ’

When this book appeared in America, Edwin McDowell published an article in the New York Times, in which he quotes Hellman as saying, when questioned about Julia’s identity: ‘Who would keep archives of an underground movement? That’s comedy stuff. A real underground movement would have been in hiding and would have had almost no records.’ This is no answer at all. Obviously archives were not kept at the time, but compiled afterwards when survivors could be questioned, illegal literature collected, and so on. Many of these survivors had been saved by the efforts and the funds of Muriel Gardiner. It seems odd that, as far as we know, there are no survivors who have any recollection of Julia. Miss Hellman could contribute to the archives herself by explaining who Julia was and how it came about that after Julia had been murdered by the Nazis she, Lillian Hellman, brought her body back to America, had it cremated, and the ashes put somewhere known only to herself. But it is not only in the archives of the Austrian resistance that there should be evidence about Julia, for Lillian Hellman tells us that her heroine was accepted for analysis by Freud. If Freud had Julia for a patient, someone must surely know about it. Freud was unable to accept Muriel as a patient, but wrote to her recommending his pupil and colleague Ruth Mack (later, Ruth Brunswick), who did analyse her. Anna Freud, in the introduction to Code Name ‘Mary’, makes it clear that she thought Muriel Gardiner’s activities were unique, almost incredible: ‘Those of us who, at this period, were forced to share the experience of lying sleepless in bed in the early-morning hours, waiting for the dreaded knock of the Gestapo at our doors, find it difficult, even impossible, to imagine that anybody could choose voluntarily to face the same anxieties.’

However, Muriel Gardiner did not write this book in order to assert a claim to be Julia. (‘I don’t make any claims of being Julia, because I can’t possibly prove it,’ she told Edwin McDowell.) The book originated with an idea of her husband’s, Joseph Buttinger, known to his comrades as Wieser, whom she met when he was in hiding. His idea was that they should write a joint autobiography with chapters written by each alternately, showing that while she came from a background of extreme wealth in Chicago and he from one of great poverty in Austria, they came to share all their ideas and aims. Muriel made several attempts to write her side of the joint confession, but found herself inhibited by what she calls ‘my feelings of privacy and by my training as a psychoanalyst, physician and educator – in keeping confidences. I was simply unable to write openly about important aspects of my life.’ She finally decided, however, that for a period of a few years her life was of sufficient general interest for her to write about it.

Something of Joe’s original idea is retained in the first part of the book, where she describes her childhood, spent among a small army of servants in a ‘castle-like house’ and, later on, an even more grandiose ‘Tudor’ one, on Chicago’s South Side. When her nurse Mollie, whom she loved more than she did her mother, told her, ‘You’re rich, but we’re poor people,’ she began to develop a sense of social injustice. She went as a student to Wellesley College, where she became the head of a committee for sending packages of food and clothing to people who were starving in Central Europe. One letter she received was from a student at Vienna University asking her to appeal to American students to help starving fellow students in Austria. She began to feel guilty about her possessions and to give away what she regarded as ‘dispensable luxuries’. She became interested in politics, although this interest lapsed rather during her first months in Vienna when she was occupied with being psychoanalysed, studying medicine and looking after her young daughter by her English husband, Julian Gardiner, from whom she was separated. There were also the concerts and art galleries of Vienna, as well as the opera, to take in. Dollfuss’s attack on the Karl Marx Hof altered all this.

Joe Buttinger’s side of the story appears here as he told it to Muriel when he first stayed with her in the small house she had built in the Vienna Woods, near a place called Sulz. Joe was the first of three children of a very poor family. During the war his father fought on the Austrian front. Mother and children shared a single room in the house of his father’s sister. In March 1917, the father died as a result of war wounds compounded with near-starvation. His family, too, nearly starved. In 1922, when Joe was 15, he found a job in a glass factory where, as he said, he was no longer ‘the lowest of the low’ but socially the equal of the six hundred workers employed in the factory. ‘And,’ he went on, ‘I really began to study, I joined the cultural organisations of the Socialist movement and the trade unions and almost every evening I attended some lecture or other.’ It was at the age of 15 that he read a book – the first in his life. It was Friedrich Engels’s The Origins of the Family, of Private Property and the State.

Joe’s self-education raised him from his peasant origins to a sense of himself as an intellectually aware member of the industrial proletariat. Muriel’s education was a process of unlearning the attitudes of the Middle-American plutocracy into which she was born. Although Muriel continued her studies, she became more and more occupied with committee meetings, with carrying out the decisions of the underground leaders, keeping in touch with comrades driven underground and with others gone abroad, with sheltering those in hiding. The situation grew steadily worse, especially after the Anschluss, and altogether desperate with the outbreak of war in September 1939. The Resistance became the Exile.

Muriel was never a strongly ideological Marxist. Her first wish after the attack on the Karl Marx Hof was to help the wounded. She was drawn into politics because the socialists showed her the means whereby she could give practical aid to those whose need was greatest. In 1934, she had very few friends in Vienna who could give her advice when strangers kept on telephoning her for assistance. In order to deal with them effectively, she had to make political contacts. Among the first people she met were Poldi and Ilse Kulczar, former Communists who had left the party and become left-wing socialists. They struck her as having great political insight, and seemed to know how the underground should be organised. All the same, she retained her critical sense about the people with whom she was working. Poldi Kulczar took her to one underground cell which became the centre of her activities. He spoke of there being many more – 75 in all. But she soon came to the conclusion that 74 of his 75 cells were only a dream.

One day Poldi spoke to her about a comrade whom he suspected of being disloyal:

‘If it is true,’ he concluded, ‘we shall have to put him out of the way.’ My blood ran cold, partly because of the words Poldi used, partly because of the expression on his face and in his voice as he spoke them – a mixture of cruelty and pleasure ... Was my instant revulsion justified? Was Poldi’s conclusion a logical necessity in a violent, dictatorial world? I thought a great deal about this and I still do. My feeling of revulsion remains. But does this feeling get in the way of clear thinking? Can we rely on universal moral laws, or must each case be judged individually?

On first meeting Joe Buttinger (Wieser) she ‘tried to judge him by his face: open, energetic, receptive, uncomplicated, and above all honest’. After studying Wieser’s face, she continues, ‘I looked again at the others’ faces and realised that not one of them struck me as appearing equally honest. Even at this first meeting it occurred to me to wonder whether it was rare for honest people to go into illegal work.’ Thoughts like these, in their modest way, touch on fundamental questions about the nature of political conspiracy, and of the kind of regimes that result from such activities. These are questions which, almost by definition, the Communists did not think about. Perhaps not many socialists did either: ‘I wondered how my face looked to the others. Would they describe it as honest? I suspected no one would even think of the question, except possibly Hertha.’ Muriel and Joe did have ‘honest faces’, and that they did explains a lot about their love and power of endurance. Compassion was the source of Muriel’s political involvement, and she had the intelligence, courage and determination – as well as the money, which was very important – to act on it. Joe’s compassion certainly stemmed from his political self-education – his reading of Marx and Engels. Nevertheless it remained stronger in him than ideology. Even when I first met him he had a shrewd idea that Communism sacrificed compassion to ideology. At the same time he had an extremely clear analytical intelligence. He never forgot for one moment that he was living in what he called ‘the situation’, whatever it might be at any particular time. Thus, while sharing Muriel’s deepest feelings, he was in a strong position to show her how to translate them into political action. Their work did not end with the war, which drove them out of Austria. Both in France and, later, in America they continued to work for refugees, and not only European refugees. Joe was to go on to write the two-volume history, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled.

The greater part of Muriel’s book is taken up with stories showing the heroism of many individuals. In retrospect, the Austrian Fascists of Dollfuss’s Fatherland Front seem more wrong-headed than wicked. In 1934 they asked for help from Mussolini in order to maintain Austrian independence from Hitler. In the course of doing so, they abandoned democracy and, ultimately, that very independence they were seeking to protect, but they were not really that much worse than the governments of Western European democratic countries which tried to appease Hitler. When the Nazis came to power in Austria the socialist underground was, as nearly as seems possible, in the position of defending the good against the very worst, and we should feel encouraged by the account Muriel gives. It is only in the last section of her book, when she is describing the behaviour of the American and of the French authorities who were in a position to save thousands of victims, that her story becomes deeply depressing. At one point, recording her difficulties in getting an American visa for an Austrian fellow student, she exclaims: ‘Whenever I think back I get angry at the absolutely unnecessary bureaucratic meannesses that cause so much individual misery.’ Far worse was to happen. When war broke out, the French authorities rounded up anti-Fascist political exiles in their country – Joe among them – and herded them into camps. The English were to do the same after the fall of France.