ETHAN MORDDEN is the author of dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He lives in New York.
Kurt And Linnerl
She was born first, about a year and a half before him, in Vienna, on October 18, 1898. Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer was the daughter of a coachman, Franz Blamauer, and a laundress, the former Johanna Teuschl. If young Linnerl—a standard nickname for Karoline—was to captivate men, as her mother predicted, it may have been one of those traits acquired by imitation, for her mother was a pet of the local lads. “Frau Blamauer sees pants on a clothesline,” the neighbors would carol, “and she’s pregnant.” But of her many gestations only five children were born alive, three girls and two boys.
The firstborn, Karoline, died at the age of four, and the future Lotte Lenya was named after her. There were as well her older brother, Franz; her younger brother, Max; and her younger sister, Maria. It was Linnerl who attracted their father’s particular attention, for he had loved his dead Karoline and hated the one who replaced her. Young Linnerl lived in terror in the Blamauers’ small apartment, in a five-storey block of masonry way out to the southwest of Vienna’s “inner city,” on the southern edge of the district of Penzing, where it borders Hietzing. The area was so distant from Vienna’s core area around St. Stephen’s Cathedral that from the window of the Blamauers’ kitchen one could see Schönbrunn, the summer palace of Austria’s royal house, the Hapsburgs.
It is an odd trick of the abusive parent to select one child in particular to destroy. The others are ignored or even favored, and Franz singled out the surviving Linnerl for intimidation with the constant and very real threat of violence. If he wanted a stein of beer from the corner tavern, it was always Linnerl who was sent to collect it and slapped if he suspected that she had spilled any of it. When he barged into the apartment after a night of carousing and demanded a song, it was Linnerl who was pulled out of bed—a wooden box with a removable cover for use as an ironing board or in preparing dough for noodles—and forced to sing for him.
It was a hard life for the family in general, for despite the impressive look of the apartment building, at 38 Ameisgasse, the Blamauers were poor. One of the souvenirs that Linnerl took with her on her global journey from Vienna to dwellings in Switzerland, Germany, France, and finally America is her photograph with neighborhood children and their mothers when she was three or four. Some forty-five souls pose, from infants in arms to a few grandmothers, the little girls in pinafores or Sunday dresses and the boys dolled up in jacket, high collar, and flowing tie. Scarcely anyone smiles; most look worried, Linnerl especially. Her mother seems to have been unwilling to protect her daughter (or herself) from her husband’s rages, but Lotte never blamed her mother as an enabler. On the contrary, many years later, when, as Lotte Lenya, she received her mother and sister on a visit to the Weill place in Rockland County, north of Manhattan, Lenya seemed genuinely touched—and amused—by her mother’s absolute lack of character growth. She had remained the same withdrawn, incurious, and blunt being she had been when raising her children, taking life’s jests and jostles with a kind of Penzing fatalism. She was even living in the same old two-room flat.
Franz Blamauer, for all his paternal cruelty, was a neighborhood celebrity, as coachmen often were. A fixture of Viennese life, the cabmen drove horse-drawn vehicles ranging from bumpy, roofless one-seaters to carriages fit for a regal suite, and like the taxidrivers of New York in the 1950s and 1960s they were official City Characters. No other European town seems to have celebrated its hackney drivers the way Vienna did, although their vehicle, the Fiaker, was of Parisian derivation, introduced by the Hôtel St. Fiacre and nicknamed after it.
Vienna’s coachmen were truculent but helpful, eccentric yet bound to custom and the old ways of doing things. They would invoke a bygone age as if intimately connected to its day-to-day life and speak of the great Metternich as if they had driven him to Mass at St. Stephen’s just the other day. Blamauer was not a freelance driver for hire, however. He held a steady post in the household of a well-off industrialist. For a working-class fellow of unsteady habits with a drinking problem, this was what Penzing called—to use modern lingo—a “good job.”
One of the most famous of Viennese songs of old, Gustav Pick’s “Wiener Fiakerlied,” in the softened German of Viennese dialect, tenderizes the coachman figure with “I hab’ zwa harpe Rappen…” (I drive two strong black horses…). The verse, in 4/4, catalogues his doings, which includes the exercise of utmost discretion when taking a certain Count Lamezan, a pair of lovers, and even Grandpa to dodgy rendezvous. And the chorus, in a melting waltz, assures us with poetry fit for his gravestone: “My blood is easy and light on the wind, for I am a true Wienerkind” (Vienna boy).
The reality of the Viennese coachman was a good deal less demure; it was said that when police work did not involve surveillance of political adventurers, it almost always involved a coachman. Yet the Fiakermann stands for the thing Vienna most loved: tradition. The city’s attitudes were frankly ultra-conservative—as befits the cultural capital of Prince Klemens von Metternich. This is the name that historians—and, indeed, every intellectual of the early-middle nineteenth century, Metternich’s own era—have pasted onto political absolutism and reaction. Perhaps the most reviled figure of his century, Metternich inspired a book’s worth of false tales delineating a fatuous popinjay. This was the most powerful figure short of warlord or monarch? When the Russian ambassador suddenly dies just before a diplomatic conference, Metternich becomes entranced with suspicion, his favorite mode. “I wonder why he did that,” Metternich exclaims.
And yet Metternich, as Austria’s Foreign Minister and then Chancellor, was the diplomat with the tact—at least, the cunning—to lay out a blueprint for the power structures of post-Napoleonic Europe even while Napoleon was still in business. After all, Napoleon was France: and France was contagious. “When Paris sneezes,” Metternich observed, “Europe catches cold.” Metternich’s sway outlasted that of Napoleon by more than thirty years, till it was ended in the cascade of continental revolutions in 1848. Still, Metternich left his repressive sociopolitical system as an example to governments throughout the continent—especially in Central Europe, dominated in the north by the Kingdom of Prussia and, in the south, what in 1867 became the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.
This was the nation, or agglomeration of nations, that Karoline Blamauer grew up in. Besides Austria and Hungary themselves it included Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and Sudetenland of later Czechoslovakia; sections of Poland, Romania, and Ukrainia; Bosnia and Croatia; and the Italian Tyrol. Because the dual monarchy recognized two thrones but was governed from Vienna, representatives of the empire’s constituent peoples flooded Vienna, making it the most cosmopolitan city in Europe. Adolf Hitler, who spent his youth there trying to launch a career as an artist, hated its lack of nationalist values. Vienna was not a melting pot, exactly. It laced a multi-ethnic stew with exotic chunks of music and costume and language from afar: a chowder of Babel. Other great cities were filled with tourists; Vienna was filled with foreigners, and they were staying.
Ironically, it was a smallish place that had only recently expanded to absorb suburbs and outlying villages into a Grossstadt, a metropolis. The inner city, its narrow streets spreading out radially from St. Stephen’s, was crammed, albeit with Beethoven, Schubert, the playwrights Grillparzer and Nestroy, the waltzing Strausses. It counted a population of only half a million in 1858, when the city’s outer defensive walls were pulled down—literally detonated, with high explosives, as they proved too thick to respond to conventional demolition. The work lasted well into the 1860s, and when it was over the vast open space left encircling the inner city became the boulevards known as the Ringstrasse, giving spectators room to marvel at a crescent of public buildings in neo-style, from Greek through Gothic to Baroque: the Opera, the Parliament, City Hall, the Memorial Church, the University, the Burgtheater, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Stock Exchange. It seems characteristic of Vienna to be the last great European city to lose its outlying armor—as though, unlike revolutionary Paris, businesslike London, and eternal Rome, it viewed its battlements as protection from such modern ideas as democracy, a free press, and liberalization of lifestyle. But then, Vienna was also the easternmost of continental Europe’s metropolises. The armies of Islam twice besieged it as they swept through southeastern Europe, in 1529 and 1683, both times unsuccessfully, though the second try nearly came off. The invader had breached the walls and was just smashing into the city when a Christian relief force arrived and turned history around. The Turks retreated so precipitously that they left everything behind, including hundreds of bags of coffee beans. These were immediately put to use—or so the legend runs—in initiating another feature of Viennese life, the coffeehouse.
Vienna’s most identifying feature, however, might be its related worlds of music and the stage. The Viennese are born theatregoers—opera, the classics, low comedy, and operetta all have their publics, and it is worth noting that, aside from a few nomadic excu...