Turnip into Asparagus

Wolfgang Schivelbusch

  • Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya edited and translated by Lys Symonette and Kim Kowalke
    Hamish Hamilton, 555 pp, £30.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 241 13264 9

When they first met and fell in love, in Berlin in 1924, Kurt Weill was 24 years old and already a name in the postwar world of modern music in Germany. Lenya, then still Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer and two years his senior, was a struggling actress-dancer. They met, appropriately enough, at the house of Georg Kaiser, a playwright concerned, like Wedekind, with the bourgeois mind and the temptations of sex. Blamauer-Lenya was the daughter of a Viennese coachman and, in the German Public Health Administration’s terminology, an HWG person. An HWG person (Person mit häufig wechselndem Gesch-lechtsverkehr, ‘with frequently changing sexual partners’) was not necessarily a prostitute – as the editors of these letters suggest the young Blamauer-Lenya was – but any kind of promiscuous female. In this, Blamauer-Lenya was not very unusual – at least not in postwar Berlin, where the male population had been decimated. She was, however, exceptional in the energetic way she went about her sexual adventures – she was certainly not the ‘sweet Viennese girl’ of Schnitzler’s novellas, whom men picked up and dropped at their leisure. A real-life Lulu (as Teresa Stratas once called her), Blamauer-Lenya herself did the picking and dropping, and went on doing so even once married to Weill.

If ever there was a man who fulfilled the popular idea of a German-Jewish Weimar intellectual, it was Weill. Physically delicate, all intellect, ‘modern to the last fibre’, workaholic, this bespectacled son of a cantor was the opposite of Lenya in almost every way. It was an obvious case of Erdgeist attraction, and, as usual in such cases, Lulu-Lenya was more matter-of-fact about it all than her intellectual lover. ‘You learned a lot in living with me,’ she writes on 2 May 1942. ‘You were a thin turnip, and now you are a very intelligent asparagus.’ The statement is illustrated with a sketch of an erect penis. Sixteen years earlier, in July 1926, when they were on their honeymoon, Weill had confided to her: ‘When I feel this longing for you, I think most of all of the sound of your voice, which I love like a very force of nature, like an element. For me all of you is contained within this sound ... I know every nuance, every vibration of your voice.’ Instead of distracting Weill from his work – as one might have expected and as he himself frequently feared – Lenya’s powerful desires were an important condition for it. Remarks like his, if they do not explain the transformation of Eros into Art, or the erotic relationship of artists with their women, at least give an idea of the mechanisms that are at work. After the artists’ deaths, these women most often turn into the dragon widows feared by biographers and historians, and Lenya was no exception.

Weill and Lenya married two years after they met. Seven years later, in 1933, after the Nazis had come to power, they divorced. By then, Weill, denounced by the Nazis as a ‘Jewish Cultural Bolshevik’, had emigrated to France and was living in Paris. Although the circumstances may suggest a political or opportunistic motive, their separation had neither. It took place seemingly in the friendliest of spirits. Lenya, neither racially nor politically threatened, organised the liquidation of his German assets – including his house in Kleinmachnow near Berlin – and then followed him out of Germany. In 1937, in the United States, they remarried, and remained married until Weill’s death in 1950, only occasionally separating when work called one or other of them away.

Their marriage was an open one. Occasionally Weill had affairs – with Erika Neher, for example, the wife of Caspar Neher, one of his closest friends. Later, there was a woman in Los Angeles, apparently also German, who was present at Weill’s funeral as the enigmatic mistress in black. But most of the extra-marital affairs were Lenya’s. The first one serious and lasting enough to come to Weill’s attention was with an Austrian singer, Otto Pasetti. Lenya met him in 1932 and lived, i.e. travelled, with him throughout 1934. Reading the letters Weill wrote during the two years of estrangement, one finds no trace of unhappiness or of jealousy. He talks to Lenya as if Pasetti were a sort of cousin with whom she was travelling in Europe. In fact, Pasetti was more a gambler than a singer, and he and Lenya, like a couple in a Lubitsch comedy, worked the casinos from Baden-Baden to Monte Carlo. Whenever another ‘sure’ system failed and they were in need of financial assistance, Weill helped them out with rabbinical equanimity. In the end Lenya and Pasetti parted much less amicably than Lenya and Weill had done, and after the break-up Lenya spoke about Pasetti in the most acrimonious terms. The fact that the singer-gambler got away with part of the proceeds from the emergency sale of Weill’s German house would have been one of the reasons.

Her many affairs after her remarriage with Weill mostly involved less well-known partners. The one exception was Max Ernst, whose letters to her were the only ones other than Weill’s she preserved. (Far fewer of hers than of his have survived and made it into this volume, and they were obviously salvaged by Lenya.) None of Lenya’s adventures are mentioned in the correspondence, although very occasionally Weill alludes to the general fact, as in a letter of 8 May 1937, when he admonishes her: ‘Please be careful in choosing your acquaintances, so that not just anyone will take advantage of you again.’ Which is immediately followed by an apologetic ‘Don’t be angry that I tell you this.’ A year later he writes: ‘I believe we are the only married couple without problems.’

If there is nothing in the letters about their extra-marital lives, there is quite a bit about their life together. Indeed there are things we might have wished to be spared – for example, a whole privatissima nomenclature, mainly of the cooing lovers’ kind: Täubchen, Fröschlein, Weibi, Weilli, Schübchen, Glätzchen, Döfchen, Schwämmi, as well as children’s diminutives: niedelich, Pison (for Person), Birühmti (for Berühmt). The editors have catalogued these intimacies in a ‘List of Pet Names and Private Expressions’, perhaps in a first attempt to tackle the ‘childish’ aspect of the generation that created Weimar culture: a generation that grew up in or with the Youth Movement and – like the Sixties generation – never really accepted the adult world.

The first 212 letters here were written in German, and translated into English for this edition. In 1942, Weill switched to English, and Lenya followed soon after, or rather, she tried to. For while Weill writes a fairly correct English and becomes increasingly colloquial, Lenya struggles. There is hardly a line of hers without a misspelling. Reading her letters is like reading those of Goethe’s semi-literate wife, Christiane Vulpius, more painful when one thinks of these two people comfortably and creatively at home in their native language, giving it up and trying to address one another like people in the streets of their host country.

We now know that they succeeded in the desire to shed their émigré status and become citizens of America, at least as compared to other German émigrés, who were never able or willing to give up their mother tongue. Few if any of these had such a large circle of American friends and colleagues as Weill developed over the years. And he was proud of it. ‘I begin to think that we are almost the only ones of all these people who have found American friends and who really live in this country,’ he writes to Lenya in August 1944. He makes frequent allusions to unassimilated German émigrés as a Mumienkeller (‘cellar of mummies’). A German party he has been to in Hollywood is described as ‘one of the worst gatherings of refugees I’ve ever gone through. A German language evening of the worst kind – because it wasn’t even German but that awful mixture of Hungarian and Viennese. The main topic of conversation was gossip about the other refugees.’

Eager though Weill was to get rid of his German past and become an American, his comments on Hollywood indicate the limits of his achievement. They could have been made by Brecht, whom he regarded as one of those most stubbornly resistant to Americanisation. ‘Hollywood won’t get me. A whore never loves the man who pays her. She wants to get rid of him as soon as she has rendered her services. That is my relationship to Hollywood (I am the whore).’ He felt himself a stranger, not only in German émigré circles but in the New York musical and California movie worlds as well. An All-American Hollywood party he calls ‘a gathering of unattractive, jealous, ugly people: the men all Jews of the worst kind; the women “alien girls”, the very essence of whores, but all of them cold and superficial, just lying in ambush.’ Gloria Swanson’s beauty to him is ‘desperate’ because ‘here they mustn’t get old, or they are as good as dead.’ Yet however merciless the culture industry may be, it is also admirably efficient: ‘You know, when you see the work in the studios, you start to learn to respect Hollywood. It’s really fabulous how calmly everyone does his work, and the expert knowledge in every department is fantastic.’

Observations like these are not exactly original; the letters, diaries and memoirs of Thirties German émigrés are full of them. After all, they didn’t arrive in North America totally unprepared. The Modernist culture of Weimar Germany, and especially of Berlin, had inhaled enough of a mythical and aesthetic Americanism to be drugged by it. The imaginary America in Brecht’s Chicago and Brecht/Weill’s Mahagonny had paved the way for the real America they experienced after 1933.

There is plenty in the correspondence to interest a historian of 20th-century musical culture and cinema in Germany and the United States, but it should give most pleasure to the historian of highbrow gossip. Both Lenya and Weill can be quite outspoken. Theodor Wiesengrund (later Adorno) is ‘a pale flaming asshole’ (‘blasses flammendes Arschloch’). To Weill, Sternberg, the director of The Blue Angel, is a ‘megalo-maniacal schmuck’, the composer Hanns Eisler ‘that dried-up herring’, and so on. Lenya hates Brecht because she thinks that Weill has always been exploited by him. ‘This stupid Brecht, this Chinese-Augsburg Hinterwäldler philo-so-pher. It’s too much already, that letters from him soil our mailbox’ – this after Brecht has approached Weill for assistance in Hollywood. Weill seems to share the opinion that he is a victim of Brecht, while at the same time feeling compassion for his former collaborator and being ready to help him when he cannot get a foothold.

Indeed, Weill’s letters show much ambivalence towards Brecht. Given the latter’s notorious treatment of his collaborators, there is reason to assume that Weill was no exception. It was not Brecht who had originally approached Weill, however, in connection with the Threepenny Opera but the other way round. At the time Brecht was the more famous and more of an asset for the young newcomer, Weill. Which does not mean that he collaborated with him out of altruism. More about this resentful working relationship remains in the archive at the Weill-Lenya Research Centre in New York, from which the present letters have come to us. The Weill-Brecht correspondence promises to be less intimate and more revealing. Publication is scheduled for the turn of the millennium.