So the last in our quartet of venturesome Swiss folk this week is writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, who died this day in 1942.
Schwarzenbach was wild, troubled and beautiful – a “ravaged angel” in the words of novelist Thomas Mann. Like her compatriot Isabelle Eberhardt (whom we met on Friday), she was always more comfortable in men’s clothes, and likewise possessed of a raging wanderlust. She pursued a Tintin-esque existence from the nightclubs of Weimar Berlin to the treacherous shadows of Stalin’s Moscow, from occupied Eritrea to America’s segregated South. A string of lovers, including American author Carson McCullers, were captivated by her boyish allure; adventure and intrigue followed at her heels as faithfully as Snowy.
While battling morphine, alcohol, love and other addictions Schwarzenbach wrote and photographed her impressions. She herself was extraordinarily photogenic; numerous images from her wanderings depict her kitted out as a between-the-wars gentleman traveller of independent means – booted, suited and modishly coiffed.
Schwarzenbach’s death was a threefold tragedy. Firstly, at 34 she was much too young. Second, the cause — falling from a bicycle in her native Switzerland— seemed like a bad punchline to a life which had been lived with such passion and courage in the furthest corners of the world. After all, Schwarzenbach’s idea of a country drive was to drive across whole countries, most memorably a journey which saw her motoring from Geneva to Kabul. To Kabul.
And lastly, after years of battling drug and alcohol problems Schwarzenbach was just starting to get her shit, as they say, together. She had survived a suicide attempt the previous year and seemed to have turned a corner. But in the end she died alone, her possessive mother having instructed the clinic not to admit friends. As Schwarzenbach herself once wrote, “a lonely death is the symbol of a lonely life.”
Curiously, almost a half century later another drug-addled mitteleuropa beauty, singer and actress Nico, would like Schwarzenbach meet her demise not through the needle but rather after embarking on a health kick, during which she fell from a bicycle.