‘The Insatiable Fiction of Desire’

‘The Insatiable Fiction of Desire’

‘The Insatiable Fiction of Desire’

Nancy Schoenberger's and Max Phillips's new books on artists' muses.


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:


the whole thing lacks a characteristic theme…something more powerful! more energetic! Not always murmuring: not always chocolate, candied fruit, white dress at dinner, Queen of Society…a little failure, some ugliness, possibly also sadness in love, everyday worries and strict attention to kindness to others, plus a separate soft-heartedness: now that would be a life-enhancing subject!


Alma declined this challenge, and abandoned musical composition for a field in which she would truly excel. "I have always been ambitious," she told a biographer, "I began to realize the tremendous impression I could make on men, what an important role I could play in their lives, becoming literally the creator of creators." Mahler's Eighth Symphony contains a passage meant to be a portrait of her imperious nature, Klimt and Kokoschka created their masterpieces out of her eroticism, and Werfel became a novelist under her pressure.

Alma needed passion so intensely that whenever a husband grew too preoccupied (Mahler), went to war (Gropius) or began to bore her (Werfel), she had to find someone else. Unable to choose among suitors, she made notes in her diary, listing men like items on a shopping list for a trip to the mall:


Gustav Mahler–from the struggles of abstraction,
Oskar Kokoschka, the genius,
Walter Gropius, the improviser of cultures and wills–
…From Walter I want children–from Oskar, works–


Once she won a husband, how did she inspire his art? None of the magical-muse clichés apply. In a letter during their courtship, Mahler cut down her hopes of being a personality and an artist. Other men flatter her, he wrote, "because you're beautiful and attractive to men…. Just imagine if you were ugly, my Alma. You've become vain about that which these people think they see in you and wish to see in you…. My little Alma, we must agree in our love and in our hearts! But in our ideas? My Alma! What are your ideas?" After marriage, Mahler's rigid routine–he required a domus so perfect that he could reach into a particular corner of a particular bag without looking and find aspirin–caused her to collapse several times from nervous exhaustion. It is unclear how much she enjoyed her job, and Mahler apparently treated her rather indifferently. She reveled in the reflected glory her marriage brought her, but wrote glumly that "nothing has reached fruition for me. Neither my beauty, nor my spirit, nor my talent!"

Everything changed when she had an affair with Gropius, driving Mahler into a jealous frenzy. Her husband suddenly became much more aware of her existence and dedicated his Eighth Symphony to her.

After this experience, Alma seemed to realize that many men respond strongly to a woman's sexual and emotional independence, and she decided that these were key to retaining her powers of allure. She would never become a loving woman; nor did she possess much talent. But over time, her personality and confidence did grow in what Mahler called an "opening out." Her style, energy, drive and convictions about her destiny accumulated into a sheer force of personality. Each man proved a useful tool in obtaining the next one. As Mahler's wife she had an affair with Gropius, and as the widow Mahler she toyed with poor Kokoschka until he practically lost his mind. (He had a lifesize stuffed-cloth doll of her built as a replacement.) Barely separated from Kokoschka, Alma married Gropius and had his child. She first slept with Werfel while Gropius was away at war.

Ultimately, however, no man inspired her to total devotion, and she began to drink. For decades she polished off a bottle of benedictine a day. Yet she kept her eye out for new recruits. When she was in her late 70s she was asked if she had found geniuses in the New York of the 1950s. "Ah, no, it is sad," she said. "There are so few. Leonard Bernstein, Thornton Wilder. I cannot think of any others. It is not as it used to be."

Phillips's unpretentious novel adheres quite closely to the historical record and is an amusing facsimile of the woman and her peculiar gifts. Phillips's fictional Alma talks like a mean drag queen. She calls herself "a selfish little flirt" who "lived a long life, and was unkind to many men." She specializes in powerful men who find being affronted to be "a voluptuous feeling."

Phillips makes a great show of Alma neglecting her children. He allows her one lyrical moment, a cataloguing of all the names of a piano's notes: "Short, long, overlong, writing-paper, black ink, hawthorn blossom, straw-blade, short-lived love… pewter, lime-blossom, calves, departed glutton, lark, true pelican, brightly gleaming thread." But toward the end, his characterization turns cartoonish. He zooms in on her fat feet, and shows her flirting with her daughters' suitors like an aging Mae West.

Phillips has isolated the strengths of Alma at her height and eliminated her complexities. He looks up at his version of Alma with resentful admiration, as photographer Helmut Newton does at his domineering models, or as von Sternberg did at Marlene Dietrich. Alma looms like an unmitigable fact of life, sadistic in her indifference to each cowering admirer. Phillips's overreliance on Alma's diaries has done him a disservice as a novelist, because he cannot get away from her own idea of herself. Having Alma narrate the book may give it momentum, but it also limits its depth. From her lofty perch, Alma occasionally quotes a husband's remark, like a viceroy recalling a subaltern's complaint. But Phillips writes insipid, wooden dialogue for the husbands. ("The great femme fatale, the great amoureuse! But you don't love anyone, you've never loved anyone.") By cheapening the subtlety of each man's painful perception that he loved an arrogant and foolish woman, Phillips squandered the novel's potential to blend tragedy into its comedy.

Like Alma Mahler, Lady Caroline Blackwood, the Anglo-Irish writer who was married to Lucian Freud in the 1950s and to Robert Lowell in the 1970s, was a beauty. She was also petulant and arrogant. But whereas Alma the bourgeoise wielded her beauty like a sword, Caroline the aristocrat seemed burdened, even defeated by hers. As a young woman she was shy and showed a waifish lack of focus, but she grew into disdain and a slightly affected "wickedness." In her 40s, when she published books of fiction and nonfiction, there was pointed rage in her writing (Lowell wondered what she would demolish next) and cruelty and vitriol in her personal life.

How to show these ephemeral qualities? Visual art comes closest: Freud's paintings of the early 1950s, Girl in Bed and Girl Reading, showed a calm, introverted 21-year-old with bulbous eyes and large lips, swollen with quiet personality. Later in the marriage, Hotel Bedroom revealed her chilly, depressive passivity. A Walker Evans photo from the late 1950s shows her framing her astonishing face with her index finger and thumb, as if she were Vermeer's procuress proffering the goods to the viewer. Lowell's poetry focused on her sensuality and her hostility. In 1970–Blackwood was in her late 30s–he made his erotic catalogue of her body, published in The Dolphin: "Bubble and bullfrog boating on the surface,/belly lustily lagging three inches lowered–/the insatiable fiction of desire." He also mimicked her rage, which despoiled everything it described, comparing her to Muhammad Ali. He observed her Shakespearean mixture of heat and cold: "I see you as a baby killer whale,/free to walk the seven seas for game/warm-hearted with an undercoat of ice." Her uncanny beauty, so odd when she was young, was like a ruin in middle age, desolate and gorgeous.

Nancy Schoenberger has made a heroic effort not to join the ranks of the seduced in her new biography Dangerous Muse, with partial success. Blackwood's is an incredible story, and Schoenberger is to be lauded for taking on such an unconventional woman. Her biography is clever and polished, like her subject. Her style is graceful and plainspoken, although she is occasionally given to Vogue-isms like "wolfishly handsome" and to using one-sentence paragraphs. ("She was to become one of the most celebrated hostesses of her day.") Schoenberger describes perfectly the aristocratic and bohemian milieus in which Blackwood moved. Unfortunately, her knowledge of her subject is limited in large part because Blackwood's three children decided to oppose the biography.

Not only are these crucial witnesses not interviewed, there is no reference to Blackwood's papers. Further, Lucian Freud, the only living husband, was not interviewed, and neither were many of Blackwood's close friends. Schoenberger gets the externals of Caroline's life down: The reader sees Lucian's face, Francis Bacon's personality, the journals Encounter and Horizon, Cyril Connolly's infatuation, the gay scene at the Colony, English émigrés in Hollywood, the cuckolded second husband doing laundry and Lowell's hospitalizations. There is a lot of drinking and buying and selling of Georgian houses. The book has a picaresque feel, as if Blackwood were a beautiful princess kidnapped for dozens of adventures; but it does not read like it has a flesh-and-blood subject at its core.

Schoenberger interviewed a few too many romantic admirers with idealized notions of Blackwood. We get a great number of quotations like the one from a lover who speaks of being initiated "into her own darkness." The reader can feel like she too is waiting fearfully in the living room for the subject of the biography to come downstairs, while Blackwood spacily runs around her bedroom getting dressed. Dispatches from the world of reality arrive only occasionally, in the form of the impressions remembered by casual acquaintances. Christopher Isherwood, a man immune to Blackwood's charms, saw an arch snob: "Caroline was dull…because she is only capable of thinking negatively. Confronted by a phenomenon, she asks herself, what is wrong with it?"

A biography that sees a woman through the eyes of her husbands and admirers feels surreal, though it might accurately reflect Blackwood's own tenuous sense of herself. Her father was an aristocrat who died when she was 13, and her rather unmaternal mother, Maureen, was one of three beer-heiress society sisters, the golden Guinness girls. In the world of Blackwood's mother, British society of the 1920s, the requisite manner for a woman was fun and frivolous, and Maureen clung to her girlishness into her 60s, until she looked like an aging prostitute. She wore quantities of blue eye shadow and clear plastic heels with goldfish in them, bragging, "I was one of the great beauties, with my two sisters, and we were known as the beautiful Guinness girls…. Every man in London was in love with me, and every man wanted to marry me." Caroline was well acquainted with the woman who made a profession of her beauty, and in her novel Great Granny Webster she described one whose "attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a sense of driving purpose."

Caroline loathed her mother and aspired to be a different kind of woman. Like many aristocratic girls, she received a mediocre education, and throughout her life she sought out men who might educate her. When she came of age in the 1950s, she chose to ditch society and instead join London's bohemian set, where men were aesthetes with a tragic sensibility, and the feminine style was quiet resignation, clear-eyed realism and an ironic appreciation for the Gothic and grotesque. She was an introverted, bratty socialite who hung out with artists, a nervous chain-smoker, known for her silences, her beauty and her drinking. She perfected the indifferent mode of dress, and for decades she ran around in sneakers with laces undone, the casual style of her debutante years.

Unlike her female family members, she interested herself in matters intellectual and political and hoped for true love. In 1953 she married Freud, a breathtaking physical specimen. He was too much of a gambler and risk-taker, so she left him and England. After her departure, he went through a depression after which his paintings shifted to his mature style.

She lived briefly in Los Angeles and then New York, where, in 1959, she married Israel Citkowitz, a revered art-song composer who had ceased to write and instead lived meagerly in his Carnegie Hall studio, where he taught piano to society ladies of a certain age. Citkowitz never returned to composing, and Caroline soon lost interest. She bore three children during their marriage (although Schoenberger questions the paternity of two of them).

With maturity, she had begun to move through the world with a quiet, formidable style, and spoke with a confidence that transcended the quality of what she had to say. In Schoenberger's book, an observer of Blackwood applies James Merrill's phrase "the glamour of pure identity" to her. Photographs show a woman tense with anger, and her journalism indicates that she was catholic about where she directed it.

She moved back to London, where she met Lowell at a party in 1970. They moved in together, had a child, divorced their spouses, married each other and scandalized the publishing world. She had difficulty managing his intense manic-depression, which led him to harass Jacqueline Onassis, claim to be King of Scotland and eat the Cascade under the sink.

Lowell saw Caroline as an erotic animal, a dolphin spouting "the smarting waters of joy in your face." But Caroline had a different fantasy of love, and it had to do with looks, genius and (one guesses) a shared sense of superiority to others. It did not involve caring for a person during an unseemly manic attack, and she frequently panicked and rejected Lowell. She went into drunken rages that were too much for a man who needed her to be "calm and full." Lowell, like Citkowitz before him, became deeply terrified of her, even while remaining erotically mesmerized.

After a few years he reached his limit and moved out. ("Yet everything about the royal swan/is silly, overstated, a luxury toy/beyond the fortunate child's allowance," he wrote.) But he still longed for her and harangued anyone he could with photographs and descriptions of her beauty. Dangerous Muse contains a painful scene in which Blackwood tries to get Lowell back by flirting with an academic working on his poetry. She reclines on a bed, sits the academic at the end of it, and makes him admire her leather boots, all with Lowell in the room.

To perhaps little surprise, Blackwood's men are far more interesting than she is. All three of her husbands were intensely seductive: handsome, unstable and brilliant. The two she loved most were entirely self-involved. Schoenberger's Freud is very vibrant as a man and as an artist. Citkowitz is vivid as the paralyzed genius. Lowell is a presence so powerful that he practically steals the show. In what is ostensibly a Blackwood biography, Schoenberger focuses almost exclusively on how he experienced his wife, rather than how she experienced him. Blackwood's own struggle in being married to a brilliant manic-depressive who required Thorazine and lithium certainly deserved more attention.

While all these romances went on, her children were neglected, to tragic end. Caroline had a hedonist's impatience with suffering, and, much as she ran from Lowell's manic attacks, she ignored her daughter Natalya's depression and heroin addiction, which led to death at age 17.

Blackwood's tragedy is that she was a romantic who set her hopes on love but was no good at it, so she made do with drama. Paradoxically, she emerges as a fuller character only through her desperation as her great dream of love fails. Accordingly, the last chapters of Schoenberger's biography are the strongest. After Lowell left and Natalya died, Blackwood wrote eight minor books over a ten-year period. But then she stopped writing and descended into deep alcoholism and mental illness. When a writer canonized Blackwood in a 1993 Town & Country interview, she repaid his kindness by imposing herself as a nightmarish summer visitor, showing up with one dress and a bottle of vodka. She became so slovenly and menacing, reports Schoenberger, that she was put on a hotelier list of undesirable guests. One gets the impression that her life ended well before she died.

At the end she indulged in a philosophy of resigned fatalism. Her favorite Lowell lines, carved on her tombstone, were: "Past fifty, we learn with surprise and a sense/of suicidal absolution/that what we intended and failed/could never have happened…"

Gratifyingly, neither Phillips's novel nor Schoenberger's biography claims its subject was a "muse." Alma and Caroline may have each incarnated the sensibility of her place and time–Alma a piping, martial spirit; Caroline a ruinous, soured eroticism. But did they make art happen in a way another beautiful woman could not? Lowell used the dolphin metaphor for an earlier girlfriend to indicate that he obtained similar erotic joy from many women, while he referred in letters to "still having his muse," by which he meant his drive to write. As for Alma, Gropius was not with her during his most creative period, and many critics feel that Werfel's work was better before he met her.

Alma and Caroline were difficult women; when young, they inspired longstanding sexual and romantic feelings. Perhaps the muse label persists because we are ultimately so much more interested in the men who loved Alma and Caroline than in the women themselves. Perhaps we cannot stand to imagine artists as ambitious professionals whose erotic and other drives are no more noble than our own. In these cases, "muse" may be the polite term for a woman who uses her beauty and confidence as a passport into the world of genius. The price of citizenship is loneliness, nagging evidence of inferiority and perhaps painful awareness of the difference between vanity and greatness.

Paradoxically, Caroline's and Alma's ordinary failures to fashion great lives make them exceptional as literary subjects. Literary critic Rachel Brownstein, in her book Becoming a Heroine, noted that no novelist has been able to create a female protagonist who was not exemplary by some yardstick, be it feminine or feminist. And indeed, it is jarring to imagine how disconsolate Alma and Caroline became at the end of their lives; here you must use your imagination, since neither Schoenberger nor Phillips had the stomach to go all the way in there with their subjects. Each is an antiheroine who is funny and stylish but somehow lacking; clever, but not as smart as she thinks she is; a mediocrity convinced of her superiority to everyone else. She ultimately finds herself loveless and descends into alcoholism, instability and loneliness. One wishes to avert one's eyes from this story.

For the most part, we get representations of such women through genres that sunnily embrace beauty, such as fashion, pornography, celebrity worship. It takes an exceptional artist to make serious work out of raw, unredeemed physical beauty. Even the great Walker Evans and Robert Lowell focused on the nausea, lust and terror Caroline could inspire in them while largely declining to visit the more interior precincts of her psyche. One thinks of Brigitte Bardot alone among her animals, like a glamorous and unhinged Francis of Assisi.

The difficulty inherent in representing the inner life of the beautiful object of desire recalls a scene in Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night: A famous actress and mistress, just passing her prime, visits her aging mother in her country home to strategize a new affair. She asks her mother why she never published her memoirs. The grande dame replies that the mansion in which they stand was given to her in exchange for a promise never to publish her story. They laugh. The daughter blows her mother a kiss from the door.

The aging beauty's never-published memoirs may be Bergman's metaphor for the necessary absence of the seductive arts from the public record. The knowing exchange between mother and daughter perfectly captures the all-female world to which such professionals retreat, like a backstage dressing room. I remember a similar moment eating breakfast at a restaurant with a drop-dead beautiful young woman just reaching a point where she had to make some decisions. A chubby, middle-aged man passed by with a well-dressed blonde, and my friend looked up from her plate. "That's what my husband is going to look like," she said with a disgusted expression, "all fat like that." She sounded arrogant, predatory and melancholy, and went back to eating her breakfast.

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