In this meticulously researched and absorbing biography, Haste reassesses the life of Alma Mahler: socialite, composer and muse. Through extensive reference to diaries, previously unpublished letters and interviews with Mahler’s granddaughter, Haste draws a portrait of a complex, ambitious, highly accomplished woman. Married three times – to composer Gustav Mahler, architect and founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, and writer Franz Werfel – Mahler is depicted as a woman who not only facilitated the creative pursuits of her husbands and lovers, but was an intellectual and creative force in her own right.
Passionate Spirit does not answer all of the questions about this complex, flawed and contradictory character. But it is a welcome and engaging narrative of a life that, surely, has not yet been fully explored.
Haste’s biography makes clear that this fixity in Alma’s character – her utter refusal to move with the times or develop or mature in any significant way – was bound up with the great tragedy of her life: the early death of her father Emil Schindler, the painter.
Lively, well illustrated and enjoyably juicy (we learn that one besotted admirer liked to kiss any chairseat that betrayed a lingering imprint of Alma’s bottom), Haste’s genial romp through Alma’s follies lacks only the rich historical context and shrewd insights of Oliver Hilmes’ fine biography of Alma (2015), a book which still awaits a British publisher.
When she looked back before her death at the age of 85 in 1964, she concluded that her “life was beautiful”, because “God gave me to know the works of genius in our time before they left the hands of their creators”. She made no mention of her songs, of which only 20 survive and are published. Nor does this book elucidate her artistic style or offer a critical view. Haste makes a strong case for us to view her subject with more compassion, yet Alma’s musical voice, her “bridge to life”, once again falls silent.
The Alma of Passionate Spirit is a more sympathetic creature than the monster of previous biographies. She may still act abominably, but Cate Haste has wisely forsaken the harshly judgmental tone so often used about Alma, and corrected significant errors that have contributed to the monster legend.
Being inside Alma’s mind is like being trapped with a lachrymose drunk, and it is clear that for most of her life she was indeed a lachrymose drunk. After finding early refuge in asti spumante, a bottle of Benedictine became her constant companion. Was she an alcoholic? Haste does not comment. Despite describing her as “a woman of extraordinary complexities”, Haste elides most of Alma’s complexities, and what is striking about the woman who appears in these pages is how simple she seems.