Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879-1964) and Lady Caroline Blackwood (1931-96) are frequently named the great muses of the twentieth century. They sought out and managed to marry several of the most brilliant, difficult artists of their times: Alma wed composer Gustav Mahler, architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and writer Franz Werfel; Caroline married painter Lucian Freud, composer Israel Citkowitz and poet Robert Lowell. Their love affairs were equally grand. Gustav Klimt's The Kiss is by some accounts based on a buss with Alma, Oskar Kokoschka's Die Windsbraut on a moment during his passionate three-year affair with her. Among Blackwood's suitors were critic Cyril Connolly, photographer Walker Evans and New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers.
When writing about a woman of great beauty, persuasive charm and dominating personality, it is far easier to explain what men want from her than it is to elucidate the motivations behind her decision to select "erotic legend" as her job description. Because we respond so viscerally to beauty, whether with wide-eyed, intimidated worship or hostility and sarcasm, great objects of desire can be vastly compelling, famous in their times, and yet remain obscure and unfathomable to later observers. Nancy Schoenberger, in her biography of Blackwood, and Max Phillips, in a novel based on Mahler-Werfel, take on a challenging task in resurrecting these women. Since the men of these stories are renowned as artists, we tend to see their wives as passive, as the chosen rather than the chooser. Schoenberger and Phillips face the onus of putting each woman at the center of her life.
Phillips's funny novel The Artist's Wife is narrated from beyond the grave by Alma, the great beauty of turn-of-the-century Vienna, a woman so impassioned in her conquests that her confidence comes off as a happy form of stupidity. Alma was the daughter of Emil Schindler, one of the most prominent painters of nineteenth-century Vienna, who died when she was 13. In photographs, she has long brown hair, beautiful blue eyes, an air of alertness and a mischievous, flirtatious expression. She studied music composition and wrote some unmemorable lieder before her marriage. She became the wife of Mahler at 22, married Gropius at 35 and Werfel at 50. She was a ruthless gladiator in the amorous ring, using her combative powers to get men's attention and to demolish rival women.
"Mahler observed me closely," she wrote in a memoir about their meeting, "not simply because of my face, which might have been called beautiful in those days, but also because of my piquant air…. His unfortunate neighbor was ignored that evening." To be this kind of woman was a full-time job.
Phillips is the lucky beneficiary of the 1999 English translation of Mahler-Werfel's astonishing diaries. In her voice, there is ambition: "With iron claws I claw my way up to my nest…. Any genius is the right straw to clutch at, the right prey to feather my nest." There is sex: "I shall never forget the touch of his hand on my most intimate parts…. One little nuance more, & I would have become a god–Everything about him is holy to me. I would like to kneel before him & kiss his loins–kiss everything, everything. Amen!" There is ambivalence about composing: "I don't take music-making seriously enough, I lack depth. I can feel it too, I know it, yet I'm so superficial. That, unfortunately, is just the way I am."
The diaries reveal a flighty sauciness that she obscured in her memoir but is revived in Phillips's novel. This quality seems to have been apparent, however, in her music. An early suitor, Alexander von Zemlinsky, criticized her sonata movement in a way that is also a commentary on her personality: