Happy birthday, Klaus Mann! Actually I read somewhere recently that referring to the “birthday” of someone who has died is illogical and infantile. Instead, we’re supposed to say “anniversary of the birth”. Or something. But that’s going to look rubbish in icing on the Victoria sponge I just baked for him, so “HAPPY BIRTHDAY KLAUS MANN” it is.
Klaus and sister Erika were among the more prominent members of a literary clan that is the subject of apparently inexhaustible fascination in their homeland. Enter a German bookshop, go to “M” in the biography section and you can expect metres of Mannia, with no member of the family too obscure to attract posterity’s attention (hiya, Frido Mann, what up Carla Mann!). You can find out what Thomas Mann got up to in the Baltic Sea port of Travemünde, read an account by his secretary, flick through his record collection. You can explore Brazil with the Manns, cook like the Manns, spend Christmas with the Manns. There are complete works, luxury editions, coffee table books, collections of letters, diaries and articles, to say nothing of the thousands of academic studies dedicated to the works of the various family members.
The Mann industry was still to come in 1906, when Klaus was born, although father Thomas Mann was already a feted writer with several novellas and the masterpiece Buddenbrooks to his name. He was also already a father, although the arrival of his first-born just over a year earlier had not been met with unalloyed joy. “So, it’s a girl,” he wrote to brother Heinrich when Erika was born in 1905, his disappointment echoing down the century in a phrase that now attaches itself to an exhibition in Berlin which explores the lives of the novelist’s two eldest children. Both Erika and Klaus, along with two of their four other siblings, Monika and Golo, went into the family business. A charming 1912 photo included in the exhibition shows the quartet with their dog Motz and Thomas, only the latter holding still for the exposure while the rest are a blur of juvenile, canine energy around him. But they were not just the children of Thomas Mann; through their mother Katia they were also the great-grandchildren of the brilliant Wilhelmine feminist Hedwig Dohm. Their foremother’s spirit of self-determination found particular expression in Erika as she became the between-the-wars archetype of the dynamic, independent, androgynous “new woman”.
From closeted Thomas to his polysexual brood, the Manns were an intensely queer bunch, and the exhibition is fittingly hosted by the Schwules (Gay) Museum. It is also right next door to the site where Anita Berber and Valeska Gert first danced into radical performance history a hundred years ago. Klaus met Berber when he was a young Mann about town, just beginning to explore the dark labyrinth of Weimar Berlin. He and his sister seemed to attract the beautiful and the damned, and there’s a whole dolorous portfolio of them here. There’s Annemarie Schwarzenbach, dour and dandyish, there’s Ricki Hallgarten, dark and enchanting on a snow-covered Berlin square, there’s René Crevel – another of Klaus’s lovers – with what Salvador Dalí so perfectly described as the “sullen, deaf, Beethovenesque, bad-angel face of a fern shoot”. All of them came of age in a time of crisis; none of them made old bones. Annemarie was the only one of the trio not to die at her own hand, although not for want of trying.
None of this, of course, occurred in a vacuum, and it was the family and their circle’s intimate acquaintance with the tumult of the 20th century that surely accounts for much of their lasting allure. Among the exhibits is a copy of Erika’s de-naturalisation file, with the evidence meticulously collated by German authorities – letters, articles, programs from Erika’s cabaret turns – to prove that she was unworthy of the country to which she was born. Even if their mother hadn’t been Jewish, Erika and Klaus were far too outspoken in their anti-fascism to elude notice.
In US exile, Klaus and Erika worked tirelessly to alert the public to the peril posed by Nazi Germany, only to later be branded as “prematurely” anti-fascist. The pair’s respective liaisons made them easy targets. A 1942 FBI file on Klaus provides moments of unintentional comedy, describing his fleeting companions including “the soldier known as [redacted]”, “a large 6 foot heavy set individual with fair complexion and dirty-blond hair”. We learn that said individual spent the night of 25 May 1942 with Klaus, although “the only suitable sleeping place in MANN’s room is a single bed.” Naturally the reality of living under suspicion was not so comedic. As we saw the other day on Erika’s birthday, her fight against demagoguery and harassment at the hands of the FBI present a depressing parallel with recent events. If anti-fascism can be premature, there is also the danger that it can expire.
In 1949, Klaus fulfilled his tragic destiny, his “cursed legacy” as a recent English-language biography has it. His lonely death in a Cannes hotel caused by sleeping pills was not, the weight of evidence suggests, accidental. Though her relationship with Klaus was not free of conflict, her brother’s death was a blow from which Erika never recovered. She threw herself into the work of supporting her father in his old age; the daughter whose arrival was greeted so equivocally ignored her own career to become his indispensable aide, his Mann Friday. She also continued to champion her brother’s cause after his death, defending his novel Mephisto when a man named Peter Gorski brought a suit for libel on behalf of his late adoptive father and reputed lover, actor Gustaf Gründgens, who had also been Klaus’s lover and Erika’s husband (these knotted links really need a diagram. Oh wait! Here’s one I made earlier). A new book (in German) chronicles the relationships between Gründgens and the Manns, from their initial, tangled alliances to the later enmity caused by Klaus’s roman à clef and its merciless portrayal of Gründgens in the person of Hendrik Höfgen, an amoral opportunist in collusion with tyranny. And thus the wheels of the Mann industry grind ever on.
So, happy birthday Klaus Mann. Now I just have to get my hands on 110 candles.