And so to Vienna. On this my fifth – sixth? – visit, the first after a long absence, I feel like I am discovering it anew. But what follows in this and the second part of our tour will inevitably be a cursory study. You could spend weeks exploring all the bizarre, transgressive, seditious, wayward, decadent stories that Vienna has to offer (note to self: spend weeks exploring all the bizarre, transgressive, seditious, wayward, decadent stories that Vienna has to offer). Here we merely paw languidly at the surface.
The first part is confined entirely to the old town once contained within defensive walls. Their removal by imperial decree in the mid-19th century was the defining moment in the development of modern Vienna, with the medieval fortifications replaced by the Ringstrasse, a prestigious boulevard lined with monumental buildings. Even the second part of our tour rarely strays far from the centre. And along with this geographical confinement, the people we encounter almost all found fame or infamy in a tight time frame that coaxes us little more than 15 years either side of 1900, with just a few outliers in place and period. Hey – my tour, my obsessions.
We begin our intra muros meandering centrally at the Café Central having disembarked dizzily from the night train out of Berlin. It is early, and although the café is already getting busy, we avoid the queues that will form later in the day. Portraits of Sissi and Franz Joseph stand guard on the back wall but we haven’t got to them yet, are barely through the door in fact when we are greeted by the profuse moustache of Peter Altenberg; that a man who died 100 years ago can look so alert certainly speaks well of the coffee on offer here.
We don’t know it yet but Altenberg has adopted us, and will be our mascot for the rest of the trip. The presence of a life-size effigy of one of the most uncompromisingly avant-garde writers of his age, one who transgressed the sexual mores of that age (and our own) and spent time in mental institutions, gets me to thinkin’. It makes me reflect on my own overriding area of interest, the progressive writers of imperial Germany of the same period, and how little of their physical legacy – the cafés, the taverns, the cabarets – remains, and how absent their memory is from contemporary Germany, and the extent to which those facts may be linked.
Vienna went into the Second World War with a richer architectural heritage than Berlin, and came out of it with less destruction. Most of its grand cafés survived, joining the palaces and dancing horses and Third Man locations tumbling into the rapacious maw of the Austrian heritage industry, which can fashion even the most unpromising raw materials of the past into snow globes, postcards and fridge magnets. Returning the walrus-faced gaze of Peter Altenberg I have a strange insight into an alternative universe, what might have happened if the brave visionaries of Wilhelmine Germany were not just widely remembered, but if that remembrance had congealed into kitsch.
The Central truly was central to the cultural life of Vienna as it faced the 20th century, but it had only recently taken over from its neighbour, the Café Griensteidl. This remarkably tenacious establishment adjacent to the vast Hofburg palace only closed in 2017 and is currently obscured by a Christo-style wrap rumoured to be masking its transformation into a branch of ubiquitous Austrian supermarket chain Billa. Peter Altenberg was a regular, inevitably, one of a familiar conga line of progressive writers who made up the loosely composed “Young Vienna” group that emerged toward the end of the 19th century, whose thoughts and provocations were very much fixed on the century to come – Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Hermann Bahr, Karl Kraus.
Even by the standards of late 19th-century literary groupings, Young Vienna was shockingly male. One of the very few women who appears in their orbit is Frida Uhl, and she is usually mentioned solely for her association with male creative professionals (including husband August Strindberg) rather than her own writing and translating endeavours. But she would later be utterly instrumental in launching the cabaret tradition in Berlin, with lover Hanns Heinz Ewers, and in London, where she opened The Cave of the Golden Calf, gathering the most brilliant personalities and brightest minds of both cities.
It was at the Griensteidl that 23-year-old German poet Stefan George first set eyes on Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Later famed as the librettist for a number of Richard Strauss operas, at the time Hofmannsthal was just 17, a precocious new voice in Austrian letters. George was smitten, and if he couldn’t get Hugo to play Elio to his Oliver, it wasn’t for lack of trying. George could be highly persuasive; Max Weber’s theory of charismatic power was inspired by the German poet. But the poor schoolboy was rattled by the insistence and immoderation of George’s advances and rebuffed him in a letter that detailed George’s inclinations in such bare terms that the elder poet challenged him to a duel. As a minor Hofmannsthal was barred from taking part so George was denied satisfaction of any sort, leaving Vienna without so much as a pre-loved peach.
On the eve of the First World War Stefan George had started recruiting his own twink army, but back in Vienna we find history and sexuality colliding in spectacular fashion at the Hotel Klomser. It witnessed the climax to a story that has lost none of its potency over a century later. It is one of the most compelling of the numerous interweaving strands making up Thunder at Twilight, Frederic Morton’s utterly essential account of Vienna on the eve of the First World War.
It is 1913. For months counter-espionage agents in Vienna drilled by the highly esteemed Colonel Alfred Redl, now serving in Prague, have been trying to discover the identity of a well-placed informant in the Austrian ranks who has been feeding secrets to the Russians. These are intensely fractious times; the two empires have already been drawn into a proxy war in the Balkans that foretells the greater conflict to come. But agents believe they are on the trail of the traitor after they discover conspicuously large sums of cash being sent poste restante from a town on the German border with Russia to a pseudonymous addressee in Vienna, and they stake out a post office to catch the recipient in the act of retrieving it.
And then he does, but slips away again. They eventually track him to the Hotel Klomser and discovered that he is in fact – Alfred Redl. The explosive discovery that the spycatcher was himself a spy might have been covered up by Redl’s suicide in the hotel the next morning, with a gun thoughtfully supplied to him for the purpose, were it not for a locksmith who has been hired to break into Redl’s apartment back in Prague, who finds there incontrovertible evidence of not just a double, but a triple life – Redl had been supporting a younger male lover – and then alerts an ambitious young journalist named Egon Erwin Kisch with whom he happens to play football.
Kisch followed up this highly fortuitous lead and broke the story. It launched his career, and he was soon off to Berlin to become one of the most prominent journalists in the German-speaking world (I wish we had more time to discuss Kisch’s later life, one in which my home country of Australia plays a particularly ignominious role … another time!). Redl’s treachery, which diminished the Austrian Empire’s tactical advantage as it entered the First World War, raised questions that recurred throughout the 20th century, from the Harden-Eulenburg Affair in late Wilhelmine Germany to the post-war “Lavender Scare” in the US, the Cambridge Five, to “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” and beyond. Is it simply that illegal sexual practices make an agent of the state susceptible to manipulation and blackmail, or – a homophobic trope of remarkable tenacity – are lesbians and gay men innately disloyal, so morally degenerate that they derive some manner of erotic frisson from betraying all that the upright citizen holds dear? Both theories were put forward in the case of Alfred Redl, but despite the historical significance you will search in vain for a plaque marking the event beside the ornate portal that now frames the entrance to an upmarket fashion store.
In 1913, the year that Redl died, Peter Altenberg (born Richard Engländer) moved into the Grabenhotel. Like Else Lasker-Schüler’s Weimar-era bolthole in Berlin, the building has not only survived, it still functions as a hotel. A plaque on the façade also records the occupancy of Franz Kafka and Max Brod, reminding us that Vienna was a magnet for ambitious writers from elsewhere in the empire, in this case Prague.
Altenberg lived in room 51 on and off until his death in 1919. The “off” times generally saw him immured in the Steinhof or another of Vienna’s mental institutions. And even when he was here, ingress to his room was dispelled by a sign on the door proclaiming “Ich bin heute ausnahmslos für Niemanden zu sprechen.” (I am not available to talk to anyone today, no exceptions). You can get that on a fridge magnet, by the way (and I did!). There was no desk in the room; Altenberg would sit up in bed and write his diamond-sharp fragments, texts of telegraphic concision, never revising them, simply consigning them to an overflowing suitcase when he was done. The walls were covered with selections from his huge collection of postcards, many of which spoke of his love for teenage girls.
Next we visit an underground club; it’s a bit dead and frankly it won’t get a whole lot more lively in the evening – but what a guest list. This is the Kapuzinergruft, the crypt of the remarkably plain Capuchin Church where the Austrians have been disposing of their expired potentates for almost 400 years. In this temple of high Habsburg morbidity, this Ritz of remains, we find the likes of Maria Theresa, Joseph II, Franz Joseph. And Sissi, naturally, her grave adorned with wreaths wrapped in Hungarian flag ribbons. Son Rudolf is here, but not his Belgian wife Stephanie (who would go on to invent the chafing dish), and certainly not his mistress Mary Vetsera, who died with him in a murder-suicide in 1889. Nor is Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination launched the protracted hoo-ha that would eventually shutter the family business.
And our favourite Habsburg, Archduke Ludwig Viktor, wouldn’t be seen dead in the Kapuzinergruft. Literally. The youngest brother of Emperor Franz Joseph is buried in Salzburg, but in his living years he did have his own preferred Viennese underground hang, just a couple of streets away. The Centralbad was a complex of therapeutic baths opened in 1889 on a site which had hosted bathing since the Middle Ages. With highly fashionable Orientalist décor and hyper-modern electric lighting by Siemens & Halske, it attracted a prestigious clientele, including the Shah of Iran.
“Luzi-Wuzi”, as the gossipy archduke was known, was a familiar face at the Centralbad. His nearby palace didn’t have a swimming pool but, more pertinently, Ludwig was in search of fleeting companions among the sweaty clientele. This had been going on for a while until one day in 1904 when his archducal advances were repelled by a soldier who underlined his sentiments with a slap in the face. Franz Ferdinand, who always hated his effeminate uncle, rushed to inform the emperor of this public scandal and LV was banished to Salzburg. His palace there did in fact come with a pool, although the silly archduke would sometimes forget to provide swimming costumes for the soldiers he invited to share the facilities. Oh, and the Centralbad? It is now the Kaiserbründl – a gay sauna.
And on to the Fledermaus, but also not. Well not here. Because it isn’t here. There is a place in Vienna called the Fledermaus but the site of the original cabaret, the landmark of modernist décor and trenchant entertainment which opened in 1907, is long gone. It was established as a gesamtkunstwerk for the highly innovative Wiener Werkstätte, which supplied everything from the mosaic wall decorations to the cutlery in designs by the likes of Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. But you can currently see it recreated at the exhibition Into the Night at the Barbican in London, which looks at clubs and cabarets that, like the Fledermaus, marshalled the best of their age and drove the culture forward.
The first words on the Fledermaus stage were spoken by Lina Loos, the actress wife of architect Adolf Loos, but they were penned by her admirer Peter Altenberg; Gustav Meyrink and Hermann Bahr were among the other prominent writers to supply text for the venue. Hanns Heinz Ewers appeared here, fresh from lathering up the young cabaret scene in Berlin in which he was instrumental. But for Altenberg, of even greater interest was Ewers’ spirited wife, Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald, a brilliant artist of intricate Jugendstil scenes. He bombarded her with letters which are among his best work; years later she considered publishing them but decided against it. In the figure of performer Marya Delvard the Fledermaus had a direct link to the even richer contemporary cabaret scene in Munich, where her striking features glowered from numerous posters. The explosion of colour and audacity and genius that characterised the Fledermaus was over in its original form before the First World War.
Ballerina Fanny Elssler was born just outside Vienna in 1810; she ventured forth and found scandal, glamour, hyperfame as one of the most feted performers of the 19th century. Elssler initially danced with her older sister, who would perform dressed as a man. Fanny was tough, dancing en pointe without the blocks embedded in modern ballet shoes. She became an early intercontinental superstar, touring throughout Europe as far as Russia, to Cuba and to the US – where she bought and freed a family of slaves; a contemporary caricature showed her straddling the Atlantic holding bags of money. She had an illegitimate child, an affair with Napoleon’s son and inspired a cult of personality known as “Fannyticism” which came with a vast iconography that continued long after she died, here, in 1884.
Had she lived long enough there is no doubt that Fanny Elssler would have sat for “Madame d’Ora” (Dora Kallmus), who embarked on photography at the outset of the century and opened a studio here in 1907 with partner Arthur Benda. She became one of the first women to make an independent living as a photographer, and there is an interesting parallel with the contemporary Atelier Elvira in Munich, run by a lesbian couple, the first female-run business in Germany. Both studios had a vast range of subjects ranging from the most ragged bohemians to the most august of crowned heads. Later in Paris Kallmus captured Colette, Coco Chanel, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, the sublime Barbette. To look through her work (here for example) is to expose yourself to extreme, possibly dangerous levels of glamour, elegance and sophistication, of history, culture and worldly diversion.
Here in Vienna she ran the gamut from A to Z; from Arthur Schnitzler to Zita, the last Empress of Austria. Richard Strauss, Alma Mahler, Karl Kraus, Gustav Klimt, Emilie Flöge, Hanns Heinz Ewers, Tilly Losch, Paul Wittgenstein – philosopher Ludwig’s one-armed pianist brother, Hugo von Hofmannsthal with his twink days very much behind him. And isn’t that our old friend Anita Berber? What was she doing in Vienna? We find out in part two…