Alma Mahler, the woman who lived three times

Ritratto a matita di Alma Mahler di Zoa Studio
Pencil portrait of Alma Mahler by Zoa Studio

Today, on the anniversary of her death, 11 December 1964, we’ll tell you the story and life of Alma Mahler.

Known for her relationships with famous men, Alma Mahler is much more than her husbands, and we will tell you everything about this. Also because we like to talk about special, fascinating, extraordinary artists: do you remember Artemisia Gentileschi ? Or Julie Taymor?

So, let’s start … also because we have to unravel a question about today’s protagonist together. Today are we talking about a capricious muse or a victim of the male chauvinism of her time?

Alma Schindler and Gustav Klimt

Alma Maria Schindler was born on August 31, 1879 in Vienna.

Daughter of the painter Emil Schindler, Alma grew up surrounded by art and artists. She studied art with the painter Gustav Klimt, with whom she had made friends, who also made several portraits of her.

In fact, Alma was particularly charming and was described as a purple-eyed young woman with a full body. The girl seduced Klimt and he proposed that they run away together. She agreed, but her parents intercepted communications between the two and Klimt had to offer an official apology to the Schindler family.

Alma and Klimt continued to cross paths and it is evident that he was more in love with her than she was with him. Here are the painter’s words: “Your charm does not stop capturing me, on the contrary, it becomes stronger and stronger“. But Alma, as reported in her autobiography, responded to Klimt’s courtship with these words: “He was the first great love of my life, but then I was just a child, immersed in music and far from the world”.

Becoming Alma Mahler

It’s really true: Alma’s main interest was in music, although few know that she was a bit deaf.

She was a talented pianist and student of musical composition with Alexander von Zemlinsky, an Austrian composer and conductor. With the latter, Alma had an affair; physically she hated him, but was influenced by his charm.

It should be noted that, before her, the composer had never admitted any woman as a student.

In 1902, at the age of 23, Alma married Gustav Mahler (about forty at the time), who quickly capitulated. Mahler dedicated to her various symphonies and musical movements, such as the Symphony No. 6 and the Symphony n. 8. Alma did not like her husband’s music, so much so that she said “Mahler is mediocre, so frighteningly mediocre that I will have to lie all my life”.

It is that she dreamed of becoming a great composer even if, at first, her husband discouraged her from composing, asking her to take care of him instead, more like a secretary or waitress than a wife. But Alma composed some music and legend has it that the skeptic Mahler changed his mind after listening to her compositions.

From Alma Mahler to Alma Gropius

Alma Mahler, feeling isolated and unappreciated, began to drink and gain weight.

Her husband sent her to a clinic where dance therapy was used to cure her. And it is at the clinic that Alma met Walter Gropius, a young architect, in 1910. Gropius became her lover.

One day Mahler went to his wife, mad with rage, and showed her a letter in which Gropius asked for her hand.

Mahler, however, was not in good health, in fact he had heart attacks. Alma supported him in the last months of his life and, in 1911, Mahler died.

There was much talk about Alma after her husband died. She was criticized first of all for marrying a Jew and then for having betrayed him. She did not mourn (it was the will of the deceased) and, some time later, she had an affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka.

At the time, the painter was 26 years old, Alma 32. He was overwhelmed by her, so much so that he signed himself with the name of Oscar Alma Kokoschka and painted her many times, particularly in The Tempest of 1914. The painter was jealous and crazy about her and quite possessive and tyrannical, and Alma soon got tired of this.

So much so that she pushed him to enlist. In 1915 Alma then married her lover, the architect Walter Gropius. They divorced a few years later, after the First World War. It seemed that theirs was the perfect story: both fascinating and sensual, souls of the Viennese salons. Gropius and Alma had a daughter, Manon, who died in adolescence.

Alma Werfel

While still married to Gropius, Alma met Franz Werfel. The latter, like Kokoschka, was younger than her. Alma fell in love with him because he was full of talent.

Unfortunately Werfel was also lazy and it was Alma who in fact pushed him to write so much that he became famous. Unlike the other men, Werfel took a long time to capitulate. Alma divorced Gropius in 1918. She became pregnant with Werfel and he told her: “You must marry me. I understood the true meaning of this son. He was sent to allow me to be reborn in you. You need me“. They married in July 1929.

The son who had come to “revive” the writer, unfortunately died at an early age. Werfel and his wife Alma often quarreled, but by now she was getting old and no longer wanted to be the femme fatale she once was.

In fact, she had no new love, but only a lover, a priest. Werfel accused her of being unable to love, but he stayed with her.

The two bought a villa, which became a sort of museum of Alma’s loves. It contained the portraits of Kokoschka and Mahler’s Decima. In the late 1930s, the Werfels left Nazi Germany, settling in the United States.

Here Alma continued her role as “patroness of the arts”, bringing together Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann and many others. Werfel, who had already enjoyed moderate fame in the United States as an author, achieved popular success with his novel The Song of Bernadette and then with the posthumous Star of the Unborn.

Franz Werfel, who had had severe heart problems during his exile, died of a heart attack in California in 1945, five years after moving to the States. Alma did not go to his funeral.

Alma’s last years

In 1946, Alma Mahler-Werfel officially became a US citizen.

Later, in the early 1950s, Alma moved to New York, hoping to leave the painful memories of Los Angeles behind. In 1960 Alma finished her famous and already mentioned autobiography, And the Bridge is Love.

Walter Gropius declared his disappointment with the description of their relationship  and Thomas Mann also distanced himself from what was written. In addition, the parts of the text that contained political and anti-Semitic considerations were deleted in the German version which came out under the title Mein Leben, but the work was equally criticized.

Two years later, Alma had the opportunity to attend rehearsals for Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (dedicated to her) under the baton of Leonard Bernstein in New York. She lived long enough to witness the rebirth of Mahler’s compositions, the recordings of which were also used as the soundtrack in “Alma”.

On December 11, 1964, Alma died in her apartment in Manhattan, where she had spent the last decade of her life. She was buried on February 8, 1965 in the Grinzing cemetery in Vienna, in the same grave as her daughter Manon Gropius, a few steps away from her first husband Gustav Mahler. At her death, an obituary was written in the New York Times, taken up by Mahler’s detractors, especially Tom Lehrer who wrote a ballad, “Alma,” about how capricious she had been and had commanded her husbands.

The legacy: Alma Mahler film

Ten years after her death, the film Mahler, directed by Ken Russell, was released. In the film, Alma is played by Georgina Hale and her spouse Gustav by Robert Powell.

Interesting is what happens about twenty years after the release of the film, which makes it clear how much influence the figure of Alma Mahler still has.

In 1996, Israeli writer Joshua Sobol and Austrian director Paulus Manker created Alma, a play that saw over 400 performances in Venice, Lisbon, Los Angeles, Petronell, Berlin, Semmering, Jerusalem and Prague, all locations where Mahler-Werfel had lived. The show was even made into a three-part television miniseries in 1997.

In 2001 another film about today’s protagonist was released, Bride of the Wind, in which Alma was played by the Australian actress Sarah Wynter. Gustav Mahler was played by British actor Jonathan Pryce (yes, he himself, The High Sparrow of Game of Thrones).

A few years later, in 2010, the German director Percy Adlon and his son released the film Mahler auf der Couch (Mahler on the couch), which tells of Gustav Mahler’s tormented relationship with his wife Alma and the latter’s meeting. with Sigmund Freud in 1910. In the introduction of the film, the directors stated: “That it happened is a fact. How it happened is a fiction.”


As we can see, Alma Mahler has never been forgotten. In addition to an incredible biography, atypical and unconventional, the woman can also boast historical importance.

Indeed, she was for decades considered the main authority on the values, character and daily behavior of the mature Gustav Mahler, and her publications quickly became the main source of material for both Mahler scholars and music lovers. Citing the serious contradictions between Alma’s accounts and other evidence, including her diaries, several historians and biographers have started talking about the “Alma Problem”.

However, although “problematic” we cannot fail to recognize that the author’s deliberate distortions have had a significant influence on several generations of scholars, performers and music lovers.

In her 85 years of life, Alma Mahler – Werfel has experienced two world wars and changes in civilization like never before. And she told them through her eyes, the eyes of a woman who was probably too emancipated for her time. Like other women we have talked about earlier: Mata Hari, Sarah Bernhardt, The Countess of Castiglione. And when a woman is like that, it is normal to be considered  an” Alma problem”.



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