Viennese beauty Alma Schindler was loved to distraction by all of the following men and bedded by all but one:Â¥ Gustav Klimt, the most important painter of fin-de-siecle EuropeÂ¥ Gustav Mahler, the greatest composer of his timeÂ¥ Walter Gropius, the most significant modern architect in the world in the years following World War IÂ¥ Franz Werfel, the best-selling European novelist of the first half of the 20th centuryEach man provided testimony of one sort or another that a considerable segment of his profoundest art was inspired by his passion for her.
Meanwhile, Alma turned her back on her own promising gifts as a composer to become muse, goddess, mistress and wife to each of them in turn sometimes, scandalously, two at a time. As she said herself, she was a collector of geniuses.
Max Phillips' new fictionalized portrait of Alma's life, The Artist's Wife, is gossip of the highest order, outweighing anything in People or The National Enquirer by a vast margin. It's all a matter of factual record, confirmed by Alma's own substantial memoirs, and the only reason Phillips is obliged to describe his book as fiction is because he imagines a few bits of private conversation and relates the whole history to us in first person, through the ghostly voice of the principal figure.
And what a voice! A siren's voice ("I seemed to have wrecked him with pleasure."), at once sensuous and world-weary, most delightful in flirtation with her famous lovers, but irresistible in solitude as well. "Death, also, I find to be a disappointment," Alma tells us, and this expression from beyond the grave retains more of the scent of a Viennese coffee shop than of heaven or hell.
Phillips' Alma possesses an almost frightful actuality, down to her notorious anti-Semitism, which in real life exhibited itself most strikingly in the perverse contempt with which she mingled her love for her two Jewish husbands, Mahler and Werfel. We see and hear the drama of everyday life as it unfolds for some of the signal heroes of modern art, who had in common not only Alma, but also the rare ability to transcend in their work the kind of sordid history she records in these pages. With searing irony, Max Phillips has turned the forgettable chaff of their lives into spun gold, the very hue of Alma Schindler's glorious hair.
Michael Alec Rose is an associate professor at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music.