Commentary Magazine

Alma Redeemed A Story

Gustav Mahler’s ghost.

Bruno Walter had seen it as Mahler conducted one of his last concerts. It waxed in music as the conductor waned. The ghost appeared, more or less, to Alma Mahler one or two years after her husband was dead. Alma did not believe in ghosts, but this one troubled her. It had got into her bedsheets but hadn’t stayed long.

Can Jews haunt people?

Gustav was a rationalist nonbeliever. “In that clear mind I never detected any trace of superstition,” Bruno Walter said. He spoke of Mahler—as Alma clearly remembered—as a “God-struck man,” whose religious self flowered in his music, viz., “Veni, creator spiritus,” as it flashed in eternity in the Eighth Symphony. Alma felt that Mahler was too subtle a man to have believed simply in God, but that wouldn’t mean he might not attempt to disturb her, although she was aware that some of her thoughts of Mahler had caused her more than ordinary fright. Might the fright have produced the ghost? Such things are possible.

In my mind, more than once I betrayed him.

Yet Mahler was a kind man although an egotist who defined his egotism as a necessity of his genius.

Gott, how he loved his genius!”

Now, all of Alma’s husbands, a collection of a long lifetime including Mahler, Walter Gropius, Franz Werfel—and Oskar Kokoschka, the painter, made it a fourth if you counted in the man she hadn’t married, whom Alma conceived to be her most astonishing (if most difficult) lover—they were all artists of unusual merit and accomplishment; yet Alma seemed to favor Mahler even if she had trouble during her lifetime caring deeply for his music.

When she met Gustav Mahler, Alma stood 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 144 pounds. She loved her figure. Her deep blue eyes were her best feature. She drew men with half a glance. Alma never wore underpants and thought she knew who might know she wasn’t wearing them. When she met him she felt that Mahler didn’t know though he may have wanted to.

Alma, a lovely, much sought-after young woman, one of the prettiest in Vienna in those days, felt Mahler was magnetic, but she wasn’t sure she ought to marry him. “He is frightening, nervous, and bounds across the room like an animal. I fear his energy.”

She wrote in her diary in purple ink: “At the opera he loves to conduct Faust.”

She wanted Gustav. She felt she had snared him in her unconscious.

Yet his demands frightened her. “Is it too late, my dearest Almchi, to ask you to make my music yours? Play as you please but don’t attempt to compose. Composition is for heroes.”

“How can I make his music mine if I have loved Wagner throughout my life? What passion can I possibly feel for Mahler’s music or even for Mahler?” These thoughts concerned her.

“You must understand, my tender girl, that my harmony and polyphony, for all their vivid modernity, which seems to distress you, remain in the realm of pure tonality. Some day your dear ears will open to the glories of my sound.”

“Yes, Gustav,” said Alma.

“Let us be lovers in a true marriage. I am the composer and you are, in truth, my beloved bride.”

Mahler urged her to consult her stepfather and mother. “You must lay to rest your doubts, whatever they are. The matter must be settled before we can contemplate a union for life.”

“Say nothing,” Carl Moll, her stepfather, advised Alma. “Best get rid of the Jew.”

Perhaps get rid of him,” said her mother. “I never trusted his conversion to Catholicism though he pleads sincerity. He became Catholic because Cosima Wagner insisted that no Jew be allowed to replace Richard Wagner at the Vienna Opera.”

But Alma said she had thought about it and decided she loved Mahler.

She did not say she was already pregnant by him.

Mahler walked in his floppy galoshes to the church on their wedding day.

At breakfast the guests were spirited, although in memoirs she wrote many years later, Alma wasn’t sure of that. She had trouble defining her mood.

She was twenty-two, Mahler was forty-one.

“If only I could find my own inner balance.”

Mahler whispered into her good ear that he loved her more than he had loved anyone except his dear mother, who had died insane.

Alma said she was glad he respected his mother.

“You must give yourself to me unconditionally and desire nothing except my love.”

He sounded more like a teacher than a lover.

“Yes, Gustav.”

“He is continually talking about preserving his art but that is not allowed to me.”

“Nothing has come to fruition for me,” Alma thought. “Neither my beauty, nor my spirit, nor my talent.”

“Does his genius, by definition, submerge my talent? My ship is in the harbor but has sprung a leak.”

He did not lie in bed and make love to her. He preferred to mount her when she was deeply asleep.

His odor was repulsive. “Probably from your cigars,” she had informed Mahler. He was a stranger to her, she wrote in her diary, “and much about him will remain strange forever.”

She tripped over a paraffin lamp and set the carpet afire.

Mahler dreamed Alma was wearing her hair as she used to in her girlhood. He did not like her to pile her tresses on the top of her head. Gustav said her hairdo was Semitic-looking and he wished to avoid that impression. He assured his friends he was not a practicing Jew. Alma wore her hair long most of the time.

When their daugher Maria caught diphtheria and died, Mahler could not stand being alone. Memories of his daughter seared his life. He went from person to person with a new message: “Alma has sacrificed her youth for me. With absolute selflessness she has subordinated her life to my work.”

Alma let Ossip Gabrilowitsch hold her hand in a dark room.

“To gain a spiritual center, my Alma, that’s the important thing. Then everything takes on another aspect.”

Alma found his impersonal preaching repellent and frightening.

Since her youth she had been nervous among strangers and very sensitive about her impaired hearing.

Mahler became frightened at the thought of losing his wife.

Mahler and Freud met in Leiden and walked for four hours along the tree-lined canals. Freud told him a good deal about the life of the psyche and Mahler was astonished though he had guessed much that Freud had told him.

“My darling, my lyre,” he wrote his wife, “come exorcise the ghosts of darkness. They claw me, they throw me to the ground. I ask in silence whether I am damned. Rescue me, my dearest.”

Mahler suspected that he loved Alma more than she loved him.

He was as strict now about her going back to her music as he had been nine years ago in insisting she give up composing.

One night she woke up and saw him standing by her bed like a ghost.

He dedicated his Eighth Symphony to her.

He feared his Ninth.

“Ah, how lovely it is to love, my dearest Almscherl. And it is only now that I know what love is. Believe me, Tristan sings the truth.”

“Alma blossoms, on a splendid diet, and she has given up tippling Benedictine. She looks younger day by day.”

One day she had a cold; Mahler invited the doctor who had examined Alma to look him over too.

“Well, you have no cause to be proud of that heart,” the doctor said after listening for a minute.

The bacterial tests sealed his doom. Mahler insisted he be told the truth, and he said he wanted to die in Vienna.

He talked to Alma about his grave and tombstone. She listened gravely. He did not want to be cremated. He wanted to be there if people came to the graveyard to see him.

“Mozart,” said Mahler, before he died during a thunderstorm.




Alma had met the man who later became her second husband, Walter Gropius, the architect, in a sanitarium, in Tobelbad, when, exhausted by Gustav’s pace and striving, she was advised by a country doctor to take the cure.

Gustav displayed an unyielding energy she couldn’t keep up with. She was the young one but he made her feel old. “That’s the trick,” she thought. “He wants me to match him in age.”

At Tobelbad she met a handsome architect, age twenty-seven, who lived down the hall and stared at her in astonishment as she walked by. He gazed at Alma with architectural eyes and she was aware she had form.

They began to go for long walks. Gustav usually gave her short lectures in philosophy as they walked together, but this one talked on about nature and architectural masses; he seemed surprised that she did not throw herself into his arms.

Gustav, promoting his conducting career, hurried from city to city, writing to her from where he happened to be, one opera house or philharmonic society after another; but she was in no mood to respond. In his letters to his tender Almscherl he wrote, “I could not bear this depleting routine if it did not end with delicious thoughts of you. Regain your health, my precious dear girl, so that we may again renew our affectionate embraces.”

In his letters Mahler tickled her chin and ladled out bits of gossip laced with pious observations. His pace was again frantic; yet wherever he went, he worried about her, though for reasons of scheduling, etc., found it difficult to pay her a visit to Tobelbad, yet surely she knew the direction of his heart?

He had asked his mother-in-law, Anna Moll, to write Alma a letter requesting news; and soon thereafter she paid her daughter a visit but there was no news to speak of. “She is responding to her cure, not much more.” Gropius was invisible.

Alma had put him out of her mind and returned home. No one knew whether they had become or had been lovers.

“When shall we meet again?” the handsome Gropius had asked.

She wasn’t sure.

“Seriously, my dearest—”

“Please do not call me ‘my dearest,’ I am simply Alma.”

“Seriously, simple Alma.”

“I am a married person, Herr Gropius. Mahler is my legal husband.”

“A terrible answer,” Gropius replied.

“‘None but the brave deserve the fair.’” He quoted Dryden in English.

When he translated the line, Alma said nothing.

“Mahler met me at the Tolbach station and was suddenly more in love with me than ever before.”

One night when Mahler and Alma were in Vienna, before returning to their farmhouse in Tolbach, Mahler, looking around nervously, whispered, “Alma, I have the feeling that we are being followed.”

“Nonsense,” said Alma. “Don’t be so superstitious.” He laughed but it did not sound like a laugh. He did not practice sufficiently, Alma thought.

Gropius then sent Mahler a letter asking his permission to marry his wife. Alma placed her husband’s mail on the piano and shivered at lunch as Mahler slowly read the letter, whose writing she had recognized. She had wanted to tear it up but was afraid to.

Mahler read the letter and let out a gasp, then a deep cry.

“Who is this crazy man who asks permission to marry my wife? Am I, then, your father?”

Alma laughed a little hysterically yet managed to answer calmly.

“This is a foolish young man I met at the sanitarium. I do not love him.”

“Who said love?” Mahler shouted.

Alma eventually calmed him, but he felt as though he had been shipwrecked and didn’t know why.

That afternoon Alma saw Gropius from her car window as she drove past the village bridge. Gropius didn’t see her.

She returned from her errand feeling ill and breathlessly told Mahler whom she had seen walking near the bridge, “That was the young man who was interested in me in Tobelbad although I did nothing to encourage him.”

“We shall see.” Mahler took along a kerosene lamp and went out searching for Gropius. He found him not far from their farmhouse. “I am Mahler,” the composer said. “Perhaps you wish to speak to my wife?”

Gropius, scratching under his arm, confessed that intent. “I am Gropius.”

Mahler lit the lamp. It was dark.

He called up the stairs and Alma came down.

“I come,” she said.

“You two ought to talk,” said Mahler. He withdrew to his study where he read to himself in the Old Testament.

When Alma, white-faced, came to him in the study, Mahler told her calmly that she was free to decide in whatever way she wanted. “You can do as you feel you must.” If he was conducting, no stick was visible.

“Thanks,” said Alma. “I want him to go. Please let him stay until morning and then he shall go. I have spoken to him and explained that I will not tolerate bad manners.”

Mahler went back to reading the Old Testament. He was thinking of “Das Lied von der Erde” though he had not yet written it.

Gropius stayed overnight and Alma drove him to his train to Berlin in the morning.

Gropius, holding his hat, said he was sorry for the trouble he had caused. Then he said, “When shall we meet again?”

“Never,” said Alma. “I am a happy woman. Please stay away from my life.”

“Never is never.”

Gropius said none but the brave deserve the fair.

He got into the train and sent her a worshipful telegram from every station it stopped at.

Gustav, that night, collapsed outside Alma’s bedroom. The candle he was holding fell to the floor and the house almost went up in flames.

Alma got him to bed; she put Gropius out of her mind, where he remained until years later, long after Mahler’s death, when she felt she could no longer stand Oskar Kokoschka’s wild fantasies and burning desires.



Mahler, leaning out of his window at the Hotel Majestic above Central Park, in New York City, heard “boom” in the street below. The boom was for a dead fireman in a horse-drawn funeral cortège.

Mahler wrote the muffled drumbeat into his Tenth Symphony: BOOM!



“I know I am lost if I go any further with the present confusion in my life”—Kokoschka.

“May I see you?” he asked.

Alma loved men of genius.

He was worldly, sensuous. He needed love and money.

He came to visit and they went to bed. She woke him and said it was time to go home. When he left her he walked till dawn.

He signed her into his name: Alma Oskar Kokoschka.

“Read this letter in the evening.”

He bought the Paris newspapers to check on the weather when she was there.

“Alma, I passed your house at one o’clock and could have cried out in anger because you see the others and leave me in the dirty street.”

The women in his paintings resemble Alma.

Remembering Gustav and fearing that she was pregnant by Oskar, Alma worried about any Jew who might see her pregnant.

In view of the Jungfrau he painted her on a balcony.

Oskar’s mother railed against his obsession. “She is like a high-society mistress, a whore without garters.”

“Shut your black mouth,” he told her.

Alma feared pregnancy. It was wrong to have had a child out of wedlock. Maria had died because Alma had become pregnant before her marriage to Mahler.

Oskar’s mother threatened to shoot her.

Kokoschka went to Alma’s house and found his mother walking around with a gun in her purse.

“Give it here.”

She crooked her finger and said, “Boom.”

“Those who sin will be punished,” Alma said one night to Mahler’s ghost.

Oskar: “I am not allowed to see you every day because you want to keep alive the memory of this Jew who is so foreign to me.”

“I must have you for my wife or else my talent will perish miserably.”

She said she would marry him only after he had created a masterwork.

“Alma, please don’t send me any money. I don’t want it.”

Die Windsbraut” is Oskar’s painting of Alma and him. She sleeps with her head on his shoulder. He gazes into the distance.

“I dreamed that Gustav was conducting. I was sitting near him and heard the music but it clearly displeased me.”

“How far behind me my life with Mahler seems.”

“I need my crazy mystique of the artist and from this I always manage to fill my head. The whole world is ultimately a dream that turns bad.”

In Kokoschka’s painting at Semmering, Alma ascends to Heaven in fiery immolation. Oskar is in hell, surrounded by sexy fat serpents.

Alma was pregnant. “She will marry me now”: Kokoschka.

Gustav’s death mask arrived in the mail. Alma unpacked it and hung it on the wall. She entered the clinic for an abortion.

Austria declared war on Serbia. Alma wrote in her diary: “I imagine I have caused the whole upheaval. . . .”

“I would like to break free from Oskar.”

“God punished me by sending this man into my life.”

“I would give up every man on earth for music.”

“Wagner means more to me than anyone. His time will come again.”

Mrs. Kokoschka picked up her clay pot and dropped it on the floor. She withdrew a blood-red string of beads she was holding for Kokoschka. Alma had given them to him as a memento of his love for her.

“Yesterday evening I ran away from Oskar.”

“What of the Jewish question now? They need help and direction—brains and feeling from those of us who are Christians.”

She wrote to Gropius.

“I will get him quickly. I feel this is, or will become, something important to me.”

Walter’s birthday fell on the day Mahler had died.

Alma went to see him. “Finally in the course of an hour he fell in love with me. We were where the wine and good food raised our spirits. I went to the train with him where love overpowered him so that he dragged me onto the moving train, and come what might I had no choice but to travel to Hannover with him.”

Walter had the manners of a husband. He was talented, handsome, an Aryan. He was crazily jealous of Kokoschka. Alma married him.

“So married, so free, and yet so bound.”

“I wanted to make my own music, or music about which I felt deeply, because Gustav’s was foreign to me.”

“Jews have given us spirit but have eaten our hearts.”

“My husband means nothing to me any more. Walter has come too late.”

She had met Franz Werfel. “Werfel is a rather fat Jew with full lips and watery almond eyes. He says: ‘How can I be happy when there is someone who is suffering?’ which I have heard verbatim from another egocentric, Gustav Mahler.”



Alma married Werfel. He was a Jew who looked like a Jew, yet passable. She had had half a Jew in Mahler, and Werfel made the other half. They had a lot to learn, these Jews. They needed a Christian quality. Gropius was a true Aryan, a fine gentleman, passionate in his way, though she had never loved him. She had given him up for Werfel. She often thought of Kokoschka but hated him. “He wants to annihilate me.”

Werfel needed her. He lived in dirty rooms, his clothes uncared for, cigarette butts on the floor. He needed a wife. He already had fathered a son whom Gropius thought was his child. Walter had guessed that out and departed. He had tried to keep their daughter Manon but Alma had fought him for her. Gropius retreated like a gentleman. Manon died and was buried next to her half-sister, Maria Mahler.

Alma lived with Franz Werfel through her best days. He wrote Verdi, The Song of Bernadette, and The Star of the Unborn. He made money and they spent it freely. The only really bad time was when they were trying to find their way out of Europe as the Nazis sought them in Spain. Then an American diplomat assisted them and they got out of Portugal on a Portuguese ship, and afterward lived in Beverly Hills, U.S.A. Alma was feeling happy again.

But there is no beating out illness and bad health. Werfel died in his sixties. Alma did not attend his funeral though the guests had assembled and were awaiting her. Bruno Walter thrice played a Schubert Impromptu as they waited for Alma to appear, but she had had it with funerals of three husbands. She was drinking Benedictine and never got to Werfel’s funeral. She often felt that Kokoschka had been her best lover.



“Mahler had a long white face. He sat with his coat buttoned up to his ears. He looked like death masquerading as a monk. I told him this, hoping to exorcise my ghostly pangs of dread.”

“Why do I fancy I am free when my character contracts me like a prison?”: Mahler.

“Where is my truth?”: Alma.

“He was always stopping on a walk to feel his pulse. I had always known his heart was diseased.”

“The Jews are at once an unprecedented danger and the greatest good luck to humanity.”

“I see Hitler as a genuine German idealist, something that is unthinkable to Jews.”

“But fortunately he was stupid.”

“Oh, my God, my God, why do you so love evil?”

“Werfel believed in the world revolution through Bolshevism. I believed that fascism would solve the problems of the world.”

Alma wore long necklaces with earrings and used dark lipstick. She drank Benedictine and ate little.

“Death is a contagious disease. That is the reason,” Alma wrote in her diary, “why I will not place a photograph of a living person next to someone who is dead.”

She thought she had met Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria on a mountaintop and he asked Alma to bear his child.

One night Mahler’s ghost appeared, momentarily freezing her fingers.

“Alma, aren’t you yet moved by my classically beautiful music? One can hear eternity in it.”

“How can one love Mahler if she best loves Wagner?”

“My time will come.”

Mahler diminished as he faded.

Alma felt he had handled her badly in her youth.

Yet there were moments she thought she still loved Mahler. She pictured him in a cemetery surrounded by his grave.

Alma favored cremation.

She was eighty-five when she died in 1964, older than King Lear.



Alma redeemed.



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