The Business of Observing the World: Annemarie Schwarzenbach in 1940

by Padraig Rooney

Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s third and final visit to America in the summer and fall of 1940 quickly raised old demons. This time the woman in her life was Margot von Opel, a Baroness married to Fritz, a wealthy car manufacturer. When Germany invaded the Low Countries on 10 May, the three of them were mid-Atlantic on the Manhattan bound for New York. On 10 June Mussolini brought Italy into the war and on 14 June Paris fell to the Germans. In the first of her articles written at this time, Annemarie reported on American preparations for war and her own misgivings. She shuttled between the lavish world of the Von Opels at the Plaza and Klaus and Erika Mann at the Bedford Hotel (now the Renwick) on East 40th Street—a bolthole for German and Jewish refugees of the “better sort.” There was more “tuna,” her and Klaus’s code word for morphine.  She had been a user since the early Thirties.

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Carson McCullers in 1941

It was through the Mann siblings that she met the twenty-three year-old writer Carson McCullers, quickly smitten by Annemarie: “She had the face of a Donatello, her soft blond hair cut like a boy’s; her deep blue eyes examined you closely; her mouth was child-like and soft.”[i] This encounter led Annemarie to review McCullers’ prize-winning The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and the two writers exchanged letters over the next couple of years. Her meeting with Annemarie precipitated McCullers’ split with her husband and her move to the infamous rooming house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, in the company of W. H. Auden, the stripper Gypsy Lee Rose, Benjamin Brittan and his partner Peter Pears, the poet Louis MacNeice and a host of other luminaries. Writing to Annemarie in June 1942, McCullers looked back on their emotional encounter:

“I am glad you are going back to Switzerland. I wonder if you ever remember any of our talks in New York. You told me once about Sils, the house with the trap door and the ladder leading up to your bedroom, the room with the great stove. I never forget anything. Or at least I never forget anything about you. Let us try to believe in the world after this war. I feel so close to you. It is true that in the past I asked of you more than you were able to give. But all that is over, thank God. Remember only that I do love you.”[ii]

New York was awash with war refugees. Annemarie thought she might make a go of becoming a journalist in English, and drafted a typescript about Afghanistan on Nantucket in July-August 1940. As early as January 1937 she had had prints made of her negatives by the Black Star Agency that supplied magazines such as Life, Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. In 1940 she acquired a New York literary agent and was beginning to sell her photos and articles to reputable outlets.

She followed Margot von Opel to the Vesper Country Club in Lowell, Massachusetts, in June 1940, where she wrote the piece on Carson McCullers that I translated (AGNI Issue 84). A couple of summer months on Nantucket brought matters to a head. Photos of Annemarie show her emaciated, blue under the eyes, wearing a natty blazer at the wheel of a Ford coupé. She took to the bottle and relations with Margot deteriorated. Annemarie liked causing scenes, indulging her own suffering and self-involvement at the expense of present company. Erika Mann’s letters suggest that ‘Princess Miro’ or ‘The Princess,’ as she referred to Annemarie, could be hard work.

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Annemarie Schwartzenbach on Nantucket 1940

The Thirties were ‘a mixed-up and foreboding time,’ as the writer Sybille Bedford puts it. Much of that foreboding, and a punchy quality, make their way into Annemarie’s view of American democracy. As a Swiss woman—Swiss women had to wait until the 1970s and later for full voting rights—she is in a position to compare democracies, large and small.

Here she is in Pittsburgh describing those who have done well out of the Depression:

“On an early evening in January, under mizzling rain, we drove along Fifth Avenue where all the wealth of the city is concentrated: the Carnegie Museum, the Greek temple-style Mellon Library, all Parian marble and hewn stone. The soulless décor of the Webster Hall Hotel reverberated with the sound of several competing orchestras. Negroes manned the bar, heaving with commercial travelers, rich sons of good family, students, women in showy evening dress, accessorized with artificial nosegays and costume jewelry.”

By the second half of 1940 her personal demons and addiction had begun to take center stage. There was a noisy scene with alcohol and drugs at the Plaza Hotel on New York’s Fifth Avenue. An attempt to strangle Margot von Opel in her sleep, the death of Annemarie’s father in November, and a suicide attempt all played their part in unhinging a mind already bewildered by addiction. A sanatorium in Topeka, Kansas, was mooted. In December, after three days in a psychiatric clinic in Greenwich, Connecticut, she smashed the windows with her feet and had to be restrained in a straitjacket. At Christmas she escaped to New York, where the Mann family cold-shouldered her. In January 1941 she called up Carson McCullers who immediately took the train from Columbus to New York, where Annemarie attempted suicide again. She was taken in a straitjacket to Bellevue, the United States’ oldest public hospital, and after three days was committed for treatment to a private clinic in White Plains, Westchester County, New York. Her doctors, however, declared her insane, perhaps as a way of having her deported from the United States with no possibility of return. On 1 February 1941 she sailed for Lisbon.

A year and a half after she had been deported the United States, following travels in Portugal and the Congo, she returned to Switzerland. The “devastated angel,” as Thomas Mann called her, was seriously injured in a fall from her bicycle in Sils-Maria, and died on 15 November 1942 at the age of thirty-four.

Schwarzenbach’s writing and a fascination with her nomadic life revived in the nineteen-eighties with the emergence of gender politics. Her star continues to rise, and she is in print in German, French and Italian. Photogenic looks, cross-dressing, and a rock-star’s early death make of her a lesbian icon. The druggy traveling, the sharp suits and cars, seem contemporary. Posthumous fame is scant reassurance for writers, but she was able to get on with the business of observing her world in a range of formats.

Her America—post-Depression, racially divided, split along Civil War lines, exploitative—has come round again in our own time, if it ever really went away. In the year of Sanders, Trump, and Hilary, it is salutary to remember that a strong American left once fought for rights. Labor rights were a matter of survival—for the worker, the union member, and the Black underclass. Schwarzenbach had few illusions about the American Dream. She is an eternal Leftie commenting on dog-eat-dog capitalism, and as such deserves to have her voice heard in English in the land she came to observe with acuity and sympathy.

It has been a delight to return to the translating life—the translated life—begun a half century ago cribbing Latin into English and English into dog Latin, Irish into English and visa versa. That kind of multi-lingual education has gone by the wayside, but its translator’s joys returned to me in the small hours of the morning while working on this project—homework done in the nick of time before homeroom.

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rooney3 Padraig Rooney is an award-winning Irish poet and journalist who lives in Basel, Switzerland. The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland (Nicholas Brealey, 2015) was described by Edmund White as “a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland.” Rooney is translating Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s American journalism from the 1930s.

[i] Carson McCullers, unpublished essay quoted by Josyane Savigneau in Carson McCullers, un coeur de jeune fille, Stock, 1995, p. 95-96.

[ii] Carson McCullers letter in the Swiss Literary Archives, Bern.

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