May 5, 2015
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v2.1 Reference

Malevolent Muse

The Life of Alma Mahler

Of all the colorful figures on the twentieth-century European cultural scene, hardly anyone has provoked more-polarized reactions than Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel (1879–1964). Mistress to a long succession of brilliant men, she married three of the best known: the composer Gustav Mahler, the architect Walter Gropius, and the writer Franz Werfel. Her admirers regarded Alma as a self-sacrificing figure of inspiration to great artists, many of whom indeed exhibited a remarkable devotion to her. Her detractors saw her as a self-aggrandizing social climber, a boozy, bigoted, vengeful harlot—or as one contemporary put it, “She was a grande dame and at the same time a cesspool.”So who was she really? The historian Oliver Hilmes sets the record straight. Drawing on a trove of unpublished material, much of it in Alma’s own words, as the basis for his biography of her, he succeeds in evoking the atmosphere of intellectual life on the Continent during the first half of the century. Hilmes goes on to describe life in émigré communities on both coasts of the United States following the Nazi takeover in Europe. First published in German in 2004, the biography was hailed as a rare combination of meticulous scholarship and sensational gossip. The whiff of scandal surrounding this reputed muse of geniuses helped make the book a runaway best-seller.

About the Authors

OLIVER HILMES has written a number of best-selling biographies. His second work appeared in English as Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth.


"Clearly Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel inspired passionate antipathies among her many acquaintances. She also inspired passionate admiration in the course of a long life that spanned the collapse of Hapsburg Austria and two world wars. Charming, privileged, ambitious and calculating, she was one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century, one whose magnetic aura touched an entire generation of creative artists. . . . Even-handed, compulsively readable. . . . [Malevolent Muse is] the most exhaustively documented study of Alma Mahler to appear to date. . . . [It] makes an absorbing psychobiography, a must-read for Mahlerians."—John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

"Oliver Hilmes’s Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler is a stylishly dispiriting biography of the woman who had early ambitions to become a composer but who won fame for a remarkable series of marriages and affairs—to and with, variously, Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel. Hilmes . . . emphasizes the extent of Mahler-Werfel’s anti-Semitism, which remained disturbingly strong even during the Second World War: in exile in Los Angeles, she told Werfel that the Nazis had done “a great many praiseworthy things.”” —Alex Ross, New Yorker

“Of all the writers who have attempted to write Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel's biography, Oliver Hilmes is by far the best informed. . . . Alma's incredible life, the contrasting aspects of her powerful nature, her burning passions, the fierce jealousies and dislikes she aroused in others, make for a fascinating tale that is very well told by Hilmes, who scrutinizes her character and tells her story with a rare mixture of lucidity and objectivity.”—Henry-Louis de la Grange, biographer of Gustav Mahler

"Those seeking gossip will not be disappointed. But neither will those seeking to better understand the much-maligned subject and her relationships with the men in her life. . . . Hilmes is especially successful at situating his subject in the context of European intellectual life before WW II, and within the various émigré communities in the US following the Nazi takeover. Hilmes’s list of sources is extensive, and the volume is well documented and presents a great deal of unpublished material, much of it in Alma’s own words. . . . Recommended.” —Choice
Northeastern University Press

9781555537890 : malevolent-muse-hilmes-arthur
360 Pages
$40.00 USD

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