Mann v. Mann

Colm Tóibín

  • House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles by Evelyn Juers
    Allen Lane, 400 pp, £25.00, May 2011, ISBN 978 1 84614 461 5

The imposing house on Stockton Street in Princeton where Thomas Mann lived between 1938 and 1941 is these days owned by the Catholic Church. The main room is large enough for a congregation to assemble, and now contains pews and an altar. At either end of this room there are two beautiful smaller rooms with walls of glass, one made for summer light and the other designed for the winter. Mann’s study, where he spent his mornings, is next door. There he kept his desk, the same desk he had taken from Munich to Küsnacht in Switzerland, where he lived between 1933 and 1938. ‘Thus I am determined,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘to continue my life and work with the greatest steadfastness just as before, unchanged by the events that injure me but cannot divert or humble me.’ Upstairs, there are two further floors, one for the main bedrooms and bathrooms, the other to house servants.

In his exile, Mann lived in a state of material comfort and spiritual unease. It was the first of these that his fellow exiled writers noticed more. Many of them, including his brother Heinrich, were impoverished. They had lost not only their homeland but their readers. By the time Thomas Mann’s books were banned in Germany in 1936, on the other hand, he had a large American audience, and was in demand to make speeches and give readings there. After he moved to Princeton he visited the president and stayed in the White House, and, being so reserved and guarded, so conservative and respectable, was mentioned as a possible president for Germany once the war was over.

In Los Angeles, where he moved in 1941 and lived until his return to Switzerland in 1952, Mann built a house on San Remo Drive in Pacific Palisades. It had a large terrace on the first floor and open-plan living quarters. Once more, as in Princeton, Mann’s study was set apart, with a wall of books, and smaller windows. The corridor outside it had a separate staircase to the upper floor. In both his American houses, there was a sense of the study as a shadowy place, away from the opulent living quarters, mirroring the distinction between Mann the public figure – a family man, open and clear in his politics and in his ideals, full of moral probity and authority – and the aspects of him which were uncertain, insecure and secretive: he was a man who wrote in his diaries about homosexual desire, who needed pills to sleep and who was alert to the truth of his brother Heinrich’s statements that fame was seldom more than ‘a widespread misapprehension about our person’ and that ‘there was no genius outside business hours.’ He himself saw ‘public activity’ as ‘prone to take on a character of fantasy, dream and buffoonery’.

Thomas Mann was born in 1875, four years after Heinrich, in Lübeck, near Hamburg, where their father was a prosperous merchant and upstanding citizen. Their mother, Julia, was born in Brazil, the daughter of a German plantation owner and a Portuguese-Creole Brazilian. Their sisters, Lula and Carla, were born in 1877 and 1881, and their younger brother, Viktor, in 1890. A year after their father died at the age of 51 in 1891, Julia Mann moved the family to Munich. Both Heinrich and Thomas began writing in their teens. In 1895 and 1896 they spent time together in Rome and the nearby town of Palestrina. Both of them would write about Palestrina, Heinrich in his novel The Little Town, published in 1909, and Thomas in a section of Doctor Faustus. In 1944, as he worked on it, Thomas wrote to his brother:

The old times are being brought back to me again too, since I’ve moved my musician hero, who, like Nietzsche, suffers from a slowly progressive and highly stimulating paralysis, for a time to our Bernardini’s in Palestrina. A daring enterprise, since the definitive depiction of this little place is The Little Town! But for me it’s only a temporary setting.

While this letter may seem harmless in tone, it is an example of the lifelong rivalry between the brothers, which Thomas felt more keenly than Heinrich. It was a gentle way of twisting the knife, letting Heinrich know that his brother had not merely written the definitive novel about their family in Buddenbrooks, which had initially been planned as a joint venture, but now, when Heinrich was depending on him financially, was moving into the territory Heinrich had made his own in The Little Town and making his claim on that too.

As early as 1904 Thomas had made clear his loathing of his brother’s work. ‘Did you suppose that I liked his things?’ he wrote to a friend. ‘We almost came to blows over his last book. Yet the feeling that his artistic personality arouses in me is a far cry from contempt. It is more like hatred. His books are bad in such an extraordinary way as to provoke passionate antagonism.’ Thirteen years later he wrote to the same friend: ‘My brother problem is the real, in any case the most difficult, problem of my life.’ And in 1944, when he came across some praise for Heinrich’s work, he noted: ‘Can’t help thinking again about the glorification of my brother at my expense by the activist literary crowd that have settled here. Old torment risen from the dead.’

In his public statements and letters to strangers, however, Thomas could be more circumspect (and indeed was capable of effusive praise). In May 1955, three months before he died, he wrote to an Italian critic:

I was especially moved by your remark: ‘The figure of Heinrich Mann, obscured by the great shadow of his brother for such a long time, is today appearing more and more in its true light and greatness.’ May that be true! His status is officially very high in the Communist part of Germany; but with few exceptions … the West is silent about him. Even his beloved Italy and his still more beloved France show little receptivity to his life work.

At the age of 80, despite his effort to sound sorrowful at the decline in his brother’s reputation, Thomas Mann could not disguise a vague undertone of satisfaction. At the end of the letter he noted that ‘it was an indescribable shock to me, and seemed like a dream, when shortly before his death Heinrich dedicated one of his books to me with the words: “To my great brother, who wrote Doctor Faustus.”’ The term Heinrich had used was ‘Grosser Bruder’, which means both ‘big brother’ and ‘great brother’: the tables had been turned, and Thomas saw a need to let his correspondent know this. The turning of the tables had taken him a lifetime to achieve.

In Thomas Mann and His Family (1989), Marcel Reich-Ranicki wrote about the roots of the antagonism between the brothers: ‘The divergence in their sexual leanings contributed to the antagonism that has often been attributed preponderantly to political and historical factors … Unlike his brother, [Heinrich] did not suffer from his sexual leanings; he had no need to hide.’ Heinrich’s open and unquestioning heterosexuality seemed to make Thomas insecure: ‘he envied him for being able to live as he pleased.’

Thomas Mann lived with the sense that he came from an unusual family. He was often proud of this, but at other times he was aware of the cost of this strange legacy, which had nourished his work but damaged those around him. In March 1950, after Heinrich died, he wrote in his diary that his wife, Katia, had found ‘a pile of obscene drawings in the desk of the deceased. The nurse knew that he sketched every day – fat, naked women. Sex was a problem for all of us brothers and sisters, Lula, Carla, Heinrich and me.’ Death was a problem too. In July 1948, after his son Klaus attempted suicide, Mann wrote to Theodor Adorno: ‘The situation remains dangerous. My two sisters committed suicide’ – Carla in 1910, Lula in 1927 – ‘and Klaus has much of the elder sister in him.’ Klaus finally killed himself in 1949, as did his brother Michael in 1977.

It was perhaps some consolation for Mann, as he tried to deal with Heinrich, that he could move the problems between them away from the merely personal into the public realm. In 1919, he wrote to a friend that it was ‘an opposition of principles … In me the Nordic-Protestant element is uppermost, in my brother the Roman Catholic element … I am an ethical individualist, he is a socialist.’ But there was a sense in the correspondence between Thomas and Heinrich that such differences, while real enough, also operated as a form of disguise, an alibi for the more abiding and elemental hatred Mann felt for his brother. This may explain the extraordinary tone of some of the letters. In 1903, for example, when Buddenbrooks was winning fame and approval, he wrote a long, savage letter to Heinrich: ‘It is, in my view, a greediness for effect that is corrupting you, if, indeed, after this book corruption must really be spoken of … All of this goes over into the style. It is indiscriminate, flashy, international … I find no trace of discipline, of resolution, of a bearing towards language.’

He followed this up a month later with another long letter in which he tried to recover ground:

You don’t know how highly I regard you, don’t know that when I grumble about you I always do it only on the unspoken assumption that next to you, there’s nobody else really in the running! It is an old prejudice of a Lübeck senator’s son that I share, an arrogant Hanseatic instinct with which I think I have sometimes made a joke of myself; that in comparison to us everybody else really is inferior.

Within a month, he wrote to tell his brother about the sales of Buddenbrooks, and said he had ‘to get used to the role of a famous man; it is very thrilling.’ He was invited out in Munich: ‘People circled around me, looked me over, had themselves introduced, listened to what I had to say. I believe I didn’t do too badly. I have a certain princely talent for making an impression when I’m feeling reasonably alert.’

Among the houses where Thomas was invited was that of the Pringsheims, whose daughter Katia he had read about in a magazine. Her father was a wealthy mathematics professor; he had been a friend of Wagner’s and parties in the house were attended by Mahler and Richard Strauss. ‘One has no thought of Jewishness in regard to these people,’ Thomas wrote to his brother, ‘one senses only culture.’ Once married, Thomas and Katia Mann lived in splendour in Munich. ‘The Manns,’ Reich-Ranicki wrote, ‘would go to concerts in the company of their neighbour the conductor Bruno Walter in a court equipage with a coachman and groom, both in blue livery.’ When their first child, Erika, was born in 1905, Thomas wrote to Heinrich to say that while he would have preferred a boy, ‘perhaps the daughter will offer me a closer relationship to the “other” sex, of which I still, though now a husband, actually know nothing.’

Katia Mann, it seems, was never in any doubt about her husband’s sexuality. If she had married an unsuitable man, he at least did her the favour of fathering six children. He never once looked at another woman during the 50 years they were married. He also remained reasonably discreet about his interest in young men. She was stable, steadfast and intelligent. While she liked being married to a famous novelist, she had little interest in dealing with his brother, and no intention of tolerating either of Heinrich Mann’s wives.

When Heinrich announced his intention to marry in 1908, Thomas inquired archly: ‘So your fiancée sings? In public?’ Six years later, after Heinrich met another woman, this time an actress, whom he really would marry, Thomas made a feeble excuse not to attend the ceremony. Although Heinrich and his wife, Mimi, settled in Munich, ‘she was not really accepted by the rest of his family,’ Evelyn Juers writes in House of Exile. ‘Like Katia she was Jewish, though from a very different milieu.’ Their daughter, Goschi, Heinrich’s only child, was born in 1916.

Just as the brothers had disagreements on literary matters in the early years of the century, the outbreak of the First World War found them on different political sides. ‘Thomas defended the Reich,’ Juers writes. ‘He believed the war was an expression of national honour … He wrote newspaper articles about the heroic potential of Germany’s militarism. Heinrich was appalled, both by the nation’s and his brother’s delirium. He stood out against it, a fairly lonely figure.’ Both were exempted from military service. On 7 August 1914, Thomas wrote to Heinrich about the war: ‘Shouldn’t we be grateful for the totally unexpected chance to experience such mighty things? My chief feeling is a tremendous curiosity.’ Soon he was asking his brother to return money he had lent him and for the next eight years they lived in a sort of mortal combat, making their differences clear in articles and in rancorous letters to each other.

Thomas Mann believed that the war would purify Europe, teach it, as he wrote in a newspaper article in 1917, to

renounce lascivious aestheticism and exoticism, the self-betraying tendency to barbarism it pandered to in an unbridled way, taboo crazes in clothes styles and foolish infantilisms in its art, and adopt an attitude of noble rejection of anthropophagic sculpture and South American harbour-saloon dances … Yes, let us imagine it to be filled with disgust for its former negrolike craving for pleasure and the ostentatiousness of civilisation, let us think of it as simple and graceful.

Heinrich wrote to Thomas about this article to say that he believed ‘individual passages to have been addressed to me, nearly like a letter’. Thomas replied insisting that an essay Heinrich had written about Zola had been directed at him personally too. ‘It is not true that my conduct during the war has been “extreme”,’ he wrote. ‘Yours was, and moreover to the point of being wholly detestable.’ In January 1918, Heinrich predicted – in ways both accurate and ironic – what would happen: ‘You, who approved of the war and continue to approve of it … you, God willing, will have 40 more years to examine yourself … The time is coming, I only hope, in which you will learn to see people, not shadows, and, then, that you will see me.’

In the 1920s Heinrich and his wife began to drift apart. They divorced in 1929, and Mimi returned to Czechoslovakia, where she had been born, with their daughter. Until House of Exile, it had been generally accepted that his second wife, Nelly Kröger, was an unfortunate addition to the family, someone who lacked the dignity of Katia Mann and tended to cause trouble in public and in private but had no obvious compensatory virtues. Juers, however, has ingeniously set about rescuing her in this double portrait of Heinrich and Nelly in exile. She emerges as loyal, loving and a lot of fun, someone who did her best under the most difficult circumstances, a woman whose spirit was slowly destroyed under the pressure of poverty and exile. Heinrich met her in 1929, a year before the opening of the film The Blue Angel, based on one of his novels, when he was at the height of his fame, and the year Thomas won the Nobel Prize. Nelly was 31; Heinrich was 58. She worked as a hostess at a bar in Berlin. She ‘moved from table to table, sat with customers or danced with them, all to ensure a steady sale of alcohol, understood political gossip, personal woes, and when to exchange whispers for another round of drinks’.

In the years that followed, as Hitler rose to power, Heinrich Mann was viewed by some as a significant figure from the left who was above politics, who, as late as 1932 in a letter to Thomas had emphasised his support for ‘a French-German federal state’, and had no time for German nationalism. In 1932, the activist Kurt Hiller suggested that he run for president to challenge Hindenburg and Hitler. Years later Heinrich said to Thomas that this might not have been a bad idea. As soon as Hitler came to power, he left for France. As he crossed the border, his apartment in Berlin was being searched and looted by the police. Soon his books were being publicly burned. On 16 May 1933, when libraries and bookshops in Germany received a list of authors to remove from the shelves, 12 ‘were marked with a cross and identified as especially dangerous’. One of them was Heinrich Mann.

Thomas Mann’s books were not banned until three years later, but by then he too was in exile. In May 1933, when the brothers met in the south of France to discuss the situation, Heinrich told Thomas that Nelly, who had been left behind in Germany, was suffering because of her association with him. Finally, Nelly left Germany. In a memoir published years later Heinrich wrote:

She had followed me into exile, for her it was even more a place of exile, more foreign than it was for me … Without any sense of danger she had tracked across Europe. She had found me, stood before me. That was the greatest expression of human affection I have ever received. In all truth a moment of pure happiness.

Thomas, on the other hand, thought Nelly ‘very common’ and in May 1935 remarked in his diary: ‘On edge because of Nelly’s stupid vulgarity.’

Heinrich by this time was working on his novels about Henri IV. Like many of the other German authors who had moved into exile, he found writing without an audience a strange activity. Neither British nor American publishers had much interest in his work; his previous novel had been published in German by a Dutch publisher. It was ‘bought by Germans in exile’, Juers writes, ‘and was reprinted nine times. But the German government cautioned the Dutch never to publish anything like it again.’

During these years in France, Heinrich continued to attend meetings of anti-fascist groups, often travelling to Paris, and to think about current issues. In May 1934, he wrote to Thomas about the idea of Israel as a homeland for Jewish people:

Rather moving news has come from Arnold Zweig in Palestine. I could only answer him by saying that our mother didn’t come two thousand years ago, but around 1860 from Brazil; yet if I wanted to ‘return home’ there, how much would I still recognise? Besides, so I said, it is one of our primary tasks to show that we, self-reliant as always, can live our lives respectably to the end, whether here or there. A bad, thankless country, which we had to leave, we don’t need either.

As the 1930s progressed, the bad, thankless country would test Heinrich’s self-reliance in ways that he could not imagine in 1934. In that same year Thomas first visited America and in July wrote to Heinrich: ‘America was a tremendous lark … there was something worthwhile and good in harvesting so many years of sympathy, which is abundant and growing.’ Thomas, as usual, was obtuse about politics, noting that ‘anything is possible in the future, also a Soviet America.’ The following year, on another visit to America, Thomas had a ‘family dinner with the Roosevelts’. In 1936, he went to Czechoslovakia, where he saw Heinrich’s ex-wife and daughter, but also, as he wrote to say, had lunch with President Benes, who helped both brothers get Czech citizenship. By 1938 Thomas was writing to Heinrich about a further tour of America, with audiences of 4000, and the news that Yale had a Thomas Mann Collection, which he had opened. He had now decided to stay in America: ‘I emigrated very reluctantly. And yet, probably the cleverest thing would be to go ahead and establish residence now in America.’

As Thomas was making his way in America, and coming slowly to understand that it was through that country that Hitler might finally be defeated, Heinrich continued working against fascism and for socialism in France, in the belief that there could be a revolution in Germany. There was a feeling in the correspondence between them that Thomas, by preparing so carefully for the future, was fighting a new and secret battle against his brother, who was working for a cause already lost. But, for many exiles, Heinrich was the heroic brother. When he spoke in Paris in June 1935 at the International Writers Congress for the Defence of Culture, attended also by Forster, Brecht and Musil, Heinrich gave the keynote address; 6000 people stood up at the end to applaud him. During this period, Juers writes, Thomas ‘had furious dreams about an authority figure, a mix of Heinrich and his father’.

Nelly in the meantime was typing Heinrich’s manuscripts and working as a hat-maker in Nice, but it was clear that exile did not suit her. She was volatile and prone to mood swings and threatened suicide several times. In Prague, Mimi and Goschi made constant requests for financial assistance. As a German speaker, Goschi was having difficulty finding work. Mimi believed there were worse catastrophes to come.

Slowly the net was tightening and many were going into exile. Freud arrived in London in June 1938, but four of his sisters would die in the camps. There were many suicides, including the painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, also in June 1938. It might be too easy to describe the comfort in which Thomas Mann was now living as some sort of treachery, as his furniture, including ‘his grandmother’s candelabras, his reading chair and his desk’, arrived in Princeton from Europe in October 1938. But it is clear that what was happening in Europe left him emotionally wrecked. He was taking large quantities of painkillers and sleeping pills. Juers is good on the effect of these drugs, as she is on the drugs Nelly Mann was using in the same period.

Nelly lived in fear of what was to come. Increasingly, in the second half of 1938, it is likely that she combined her already well-established drinking habit with her use of Veronal, to calm her down and help her sleep. With continuous use of Veronal, one develops tolerance to the drug and for it to be effective, the dose has to be increased, while the drug’s lethal dose remains the same.

Nelly spent time in clinics, from where she wrote difficult and demanding letters.

When Heinrich heard about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact he locked himself in his study for two days and spoke to no one. Juers suggests that he was ‘one of the last to let go of his wishful thinking’. It was obvious that he and Nelly would have to leave France and, ‘just as she had done seven years before in Berlin,’ Juers writes, ‘Nelly took on the practical tasks of paying bills, closing bank accounts, selling their furniture.’ They left in September 1940 with Thomas’s son Golo, Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler (who had sent ahead a dozen or so suitcases which contained Mahler’s scores and the manuscript of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, ‘as well’, Juers adds, ‘as her extensive wardrobe’). They had to walk across the Pyrenees. Heinrich was 69 years old. ‘The only incongruity was Alma’s voluminous white dress. They made their way over slippery rocks, up steep goat tracks and ancient smugglers’ paths.’ At times Heinrich was supported and sometimes almost carried by Golo or Nelly. When Thomas in Princeton got news from Lisbon that they were waiting for a ship, he was relieved, but unhappy at the idea that Nelly – he called her ‘Mrs’ – was coming. He did not like writing down her name.

As Heinrich and his companions departed from Europe, he was aware, as Juers writes, that ‘his whole sense of himself was inextricably connected with this continent and this moment of time. He said it was an emotion far more intense than parting from a lover. He carried with him the catastrophic defeat of intellectual politics.’ He was also deeply concerned about his ex-wife and daughter in Prague. Mimi spent most of the war in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. When Klaus Mann saw her in Prague in 1945, he wrote to his uncle that she was almost unrecognisable. She and her daughter were destitute. Mimi died the next year. Goschi married the Czech writer Ludvik Askenazy and lived until 1986.

When Heinrich and Nelly arrived in New York, they were effectively under Thomas’s care, and at his mercy. The family watched Nelly carefully. Klaus noted in his diary that on arrival she ‘inexplicably dissolved in tears’, but then recovered and was well behaved and cheerful. They moved in with Thomas and his family in Princeton. Klaus noted that his uncle had aged and his energies seemed spent. In November 1940 Heinrich began as a scriptwriter at Warner Brothers at $500 a month, even though he knew very little English. He worked on an adaptation of a novel he had written based on Nelly’s life and personality and there was talk that the part would be played by Bette Davis. But it came to nothing.

Thomas Mann and his family continued to dislike Nelly. When she and Heinrich needed sponsors to regularise their stay in America, Heinrich turned to his brother, who wrote to him in February 1941:

That I am doing it for you goes without saying, even though I fear overdrawing my credit somewhat; besides the three children, we’ve already vouched for several other émigrés. Your case is special and natural. But I have to draw the line there; the affidavit cannot apply to Nelly. That has to be separate. Nelly has relatives in America; they are closest to her, and will not refuse.

The following month Heinrich would turn 70; Klaus wrote to his mother to find out about the birthday celebrations, mentioning that he had heard that his uncle was rather isolated ‘and was struck down with Frau Kröger as with an infectious disease’. On 16 April Thomas noted in his diary that Heinrich’s wife was an ‘awful trollop’ (‘schreckliche Trulle’).

In May 1941 there was a party for Heinrich in Santa Monica, attended by Thomas and Katia Mann, Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel and many other German émigré writers. Thomas Mann’s speech in honour of his brother was an hour long, and there were many other speeches and toasts. But the best part came later, when ‘a button popped off the décolletage of Nelly’s red velvet dress to reveal the splendid contours of her lacy bra.’

By the end of 1941 the novelty value of the German writers who had been employed as screenwriters was wearing off and Heinrich lost his contract. When he and Nelly came for supper that November, they needed a cheque for $500 to pay bills. They were given another $300 the next day and it was agreed that from then on they would get $100 a month from Thomas. They weren’t invited for Christmas or New Year and on 2 January 1942 Heinrich sent a sad letter to his brother. ‘What I owe you and thank you for, my heirs will have to settle,’ he wrote. ‘I know that your house is full,’ he went on. ‘As soon as it’s convenient for you, we’d like to come.’ Nelly wrote to a friend that the loss of dignity and the worry of not having enough money to live on was hard to bear. The year, she said, had been the saddest of her life.

In July 1942 Thomas put the funding of Heinrich on a more formal basis, paying money – it was tax-deductable – to the European Film Fund to be passed on to his brother every month. In the letter explaining the arrangement, he did not spare his brother news of his own domestic problems: ‘We’re in the midst of a domestic emergency; our coloureds are leaving us and new ones are either unaffordable or intolerable. But we’ll get it straightened out soon and hope to have you and Nelly over for an evening. With warm regards from both of us and the children.’ News came all the time of the death of friends in camps and the suicide of others – those who had stayed behind as well as those who failed to escape or could not handle exile. In March 1942 the RAF bombed Lübeck: 3400 buildings were destroyed and more than a thousand killed. Only the façade was left of the house where Buddenbrooks was set.

In her memoirs, Katia Mann writes about these years: ‘Surprisingly, Heinrich became more and more attached to his younger brother. His devotion grew with the years along with his modesty.’ But ‘Nelly’s case was not a pleasant one … we were constantly receiving telephone calls that she had been found in a ditch again.’ After dinner one night in her brother-in-law’s house she interrupted Heinrich reading from a work in progress and Thomas vowed she would never be invited again. His family discussed the need for Heinrich and Nelly to separate. In her letters to friends, Nelly dreamed of moving out of the city to a farm, and wrote that she had got a job. She was found guilty of drunk driving a number of times. Making enough money to pay the bills put a great strain on her and on her relationship with Heinrich. At one point Heinrich moved in with his brother, who found it touching that Heinrich was rereading Buddenbrooks, but he went back to Nelly after two weeks.

By 1943, the FBI was on Heinrich’s case. Katia Mann wrote in her memoirs that Heinrich had received financial help when he arrived in America from the Soviet ambassador, and his file shows that the FBI spotted the Russian vice-consul in San Francisco visiting his house. His mail was intercepted. As the FBI began to listen in to the phone calls of other male German émigré writers in California, two of their wives responded by reading ‘long excerpts from cookbooks to each other in languages they themselves did not speak’. In the meantime, there were rumours that when a new government was formed in Germany after an Allied victory, Thomas Mann would be the head of state. This did not make him any more popular with the other exiles. Alfred Döblin, for example, admired Heinrich enormously but thought of Thomas as ‘an emotionally detached, self-appointed patrician who had raised the perfectly ironed crease of his dust-free pants to an aesthetic principle and who had an insatiable hunger for the honours that were heaped on him’. Brecht remained close to Heinrich but disliked Thomas, and the feeling was reciprocated. Katia Mann recounted her husband’s comment on reading one of Brecht’s plays: ‘Just imagine, the monster has talent.’ When this was reported to Brecht, he replied of Thomas Mann’s work: ‘I always found his short stories quite good.’

It is clear from Juers’s portrait that Nelly’s optimism and warmth, her openness to life, her attempts to make the best of things, were part of the same spirit which made her drink too much, be too loud at parties, irritate her in-laws and not fit into the world of German émigré writers in California. And just as she could radiate happiness, she could also easily become depressed. She lacked reticence, and it was this that made Heinrich so interested in her, and also caused her to suffer so openly when the future for them seemed so bleak. Juers writes about her decline over the course of 1944:

According to Heinrich, throughout the year Nelly endured a number of physical and psychological crises, when her bright eyes lost their spark, her entire body and face were distorted with her suffering, and she wanted to die … She cried a lot. At one stage she mourned the death of her sister, who was in fact alive and well.

In December 1944, having already attempted suicide several times, she died from an overdose of sleeping pills. Thomas paid her funeral expenses and recorded in his diary that he had been to the cemetery at Santa Monica for the funeral of ‘Heinrich’s unhappy wife, who had brought him a lot of trouble’. Marta Feuchtwanger, the wife of the writer Lion Feuchtwanger, who had been at many of the dinners when Nelly had seemed to enjoy herself more than was proper, said that ‘the most remarkable thing about [her] was Heinrich Mann’s extraordinary love for her.’ After the funeral, which was attended by Brecht and Döblin among others, Thomas gave his brother money to retrieve his furniture from the pawnshop.

On New Year’s Eve 1944 Klaus Mann wrote to his mother:

What a shame! What an embarrassing, superfluous, ugly tragedy! It must be an awful blow to poor old Heini – who is likely to follow her soon. Couldn’t she wait a few years? What deplorable, objectionable lack of consideration and self-control! Yet I feel sorry for her. She should have stayed in Germany with people of her own kind. He has ruined her life by transplanting and uprooting her. But then, that’s what she wanted. I suppose it was completely on her own account when she followed him to Bandol, or wherever he was at the time. Stupid thing she was! But back in Nice she used to cook really delicious suppers for us. It’s all very sad.

Five years later, Klaus wrote an essay proposing that ‘hundreds, thousands of intellectuals follow the examples of Virginia Woolf, Ernst Toller, Stefan Zweig, Jan Masaryk. A suicide wave among the world’s most distinguished minds.’ Soon afterwards he took his own life.

In his final years Heinrich kept in touch with many of Nelly’s friends in Germany. In Los Angeles, Katia Mann found him an émigré nurse, ‘with whom’, as she wrote, ‘he was better off than with any of his strange wives’. She also found him a small house closer to where she and Thomas lived. There was an alcove with a dining-room table instead of an actual dining room. When Heinrich saw this, the Lübeck senator’s son emerged: ‘Where does one dine?’ he asked his sister-in-law, as one of the characters from Buddenbrooks might have asked.

He was invited to return to live in East Germany, and died as he was preparing to leave California in March 1950. He had become a sort of hero in the new East Germany, but not in West Germany. Despite his lifelong rivalry with his older brother, and perhaps through a heightened sense of the family dignity, Thomas Mann, soon himself to leave California for Switzerland, wrote to a friend: ‘I am hurt and angry that from Munich as from the rest of West Germany (Bonn, Frankfurt, his hometown Lübeck) not one word of official sympathy … has reached me concerning the death of my brother Heinrich. It seems they have no idea in the Federal Republic of West Germany who it is that has died.’ Thomas died in August 1955; Katia died in 1980 at the age of 97. In 1961 Heinrich’s body was dug up and cremated and the ashes reburied in East Berlin. Walter Ulbricht, who would build the wall later the same year, declared: ‘He belongs to us.’ No one, it seems, felt the same about Nelly Kröger, who remained buried in Santa Monica, though at the base of Heinrich’s headstone in Berlin a plaque was placed in memory of his ‘brave companion, Nelly Mann née Kröger’.