Have you ever take a trip because of a book? I just did.
I’d always wanted to go to Vienna, but every time I got as far as Munich or Salzburg, it seemed I always had a reason to head elsewhere or hurry home. This time it would be different. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of The Lady in Gold by Anne Marie O’Connor.
I enjoyed the movie The Woman in Gold (I enjoyed Helen Mirren’s witty little quips), but it didn’t come close to covering the breadth and depth of the book.
From O’Connor’s book you get the whole story. You learn all about Gustav Klimt, his background, his rise to fame, and his women. About Adele Bloch-Bauer, her affluent Jewish family and her sophisticated intellectual circle. We learn how Klimt came to paint Adele’s famous portrait and how it became the Mona Lisa of fin de siècle Austria.
We don’t just learn what became of The Lady in Gold after the Germans took over in 1938, we see how the entire Bloch-Bauer family suffered under Nazi rule. The Gestapo terrorized and extorted wealthy Viennese families to gain access to their factories, valuables and bank accounts which would be used to fuel their war machine. The story is much, much bigger than the story of one painting.
The losses of this extended family are staggering. Adele’s widowed husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer gave up his home and valuables in Vienna (with The Lady in Gold still inside) and escaped to his castle in Prague until that too was overtaken by the Nazis. Ferdinand lived until 1945, when he would die impoverished and alone in Switzerland. Adele’s nephew Leopold was arrested by the Gestapo and held until he promised to turn over the stock to the family sugar company. (Interesting sidebar: in 2005, Leopold’s heirs would receive $21 million in restitution for the theft of the sugar company, made possible by the collaboration of Swiss banks. Read more here.)
Adele’s niece Maria (played in the movie by Helen Mirren) and her new husband Fritz Altmann were able to sneak out of Vienna to England, thanks to the cash and connections of her father-in-law who owned a factory in Liverpool. Adele’s other niece, the Baroness Luise Gutmann, became trapped in Yugoslavia with her husband Viktor and her children. Viktor was arrested and killed by the Nazis, but Luise and the children survived. The remaining members of the Bloch-Bauer, Altmann and Gutmann families emigrated to Los Angeles and Vancouver after the war, living in close connection with other Austrians.
O’Connor even came upon a fascinating true story about how a different kind of “gay marriage” saved Jewish lives in Vienna. Gay culture had in fact flourished in artistic circles before the Nazis arrived. An underground network of eligible “Aryan bachelors” offered to marry Jewish women and get them out of Austria. A Bloch-Bauer in-law, Ada Stern, found a gay Dutch man who did exactly that.
Not surprisingly, the movie just scrapes the surface of all this tragic and important history of wartime Vienna. The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor is a must-read whether or not you have seen the movie. And once you’ve read it, you too will probably want to visit Vienna and walk in the footsteps of Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer.
First on my Lady in Gold literary tour was a walk to Adele Bloch-Bauer’s home near the Vienna Opera on Elisabethstrasse.
The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor: Very highly recommended
For further reading:
The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. I read this haunting autobiography-memoir while I was visiting Salzburg and Vienna this summer. One of the best book and travel pairings I’ve ever made. Set in Vienna, Salzburg, Paris and much of Europe, it was published after Zweig’s exile to Brazil and his subsequent suicide. It is a beautifully told story about the lost world of old world Vienna and the horror of a world in the midst of war. Fun fact (as revealed in The Lady in Gold): Stefan Zweig was a friend of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Very highly recommended.
The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. The story of Gustave Klimt and his long-time companion, partner and muse Emilie Flöge, the subject of The Kiss.
Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman (historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century Vienna).