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Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler

by Oliver Hilmes

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8116330,466 (3.52)6
"The legendary life of the muse of geniuses, Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel"--

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Oliver Hilmes has done a truly remarkable job digging into the life of Alma. However, I wish he would've chosen a less despicable person to do so. (Though who says who should investigate something?!?) Alma seems to have had nothing much going for her except for her money (average looks, terribly bigoted, probably looked like a "fun" girl at a party, all surface), and her telling you about how wonderful she was. People like this make me want to run in the other direction, and were it not for Hilmes' writing, I would've dropped this book early on. I think that says a lot. I requested this book because I love classical music, and I'm trying to read more biographies of composers and the people in their lives. And all I can say is "Wow". A muse, I certainly couldn't call her, but clearly several men were drawn to her like a moth to a flame. A truly interesting portrait of a truly terrible woman, I'd only recommend it with caution. Still, kudos to Oliver Hilmes! ( )
  LauraBrook | Jan 10, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is the biography of Alma Mahler, a woman who had a long term relationship with many men in the artistic community in Europe in the early 1900's including Gustave Mahler (composer) and Franz Werfel (author) among others. So, was she really an inspiring muse which she portrayed herself throughout her life or was she merely a woman with an eye for talent who uses her sexuality to latch onto a number of talented men. The author's summary indicates he favors the second option. This is a well researched interesting book that will greatly appeal to a very narrow audience. ( )
  muddyboy | Nov 17, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The reason I requested this book, a biography of Alma Mahler was the description of her in the overview. Specifically "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." To put it mildly she was all those things and then some. The author did a really excellent job in his research of this narcissistic spoiled woman. I cannot see how anyone in their right mind would find her attractive as she was really not that physically attractive and had such a unearned over inflated opinion of herself. Her level of antisemitism was astounding and yet she managed to attract two Jewish husbands whom she tortured with her unfaithfulness and vile attitude. It has been said she was attracted to, and attracted genius's, but the 'genius's' she had relationships with were say to put it mildly, weirdos, especially the artist Kokoschka. Frankly if she had not had money she would have been nothing. I think if she were a modern woman of today she would have turned out to be a corporate raider, or some kind of female version of Bernie Madoff (and probably in prison). The only thing it seems that Alma Mahler seems to have accomplished in life was the act of torturing and hurting others while always playing the victim. Despite her disgusting character I found the book interesting and I came away with a better understanding of early nineteenth century Europe and the life style of the times. Recommended. ( )
  erinclark | Aug 18, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Alma Mahler, or, to be more exact, Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel, is both a fascinating and a difficult subject for a biographer. A number of full-length treatments have preceded Hilmes's effort to capture Alma Mahler's elusive magnetism, but Hilmes's book is the first that I have read. I have encountered Alma Mahler many times in second-hand fashion, in reading about Gustav Mahler, Thomas Mann, or any one of a number of her glittering circle of acquaintances and lovers, but I was looking forward to reading a work devoted to this woman who clearly fascinated so many brilliant minds in her time.

To say that she presents a difficult subject seems somewhat of an understatement. Not only is Alma frequently unlikeable, bearing as she does variously sympathies with Nazi ideology, cruel actions toward family and friends, and frequently manipulative behavior (in Hilmes's telling), but it is also clearly difficult to keep the narrative focused on Alma when she is surrounded by such important personalities. Obviously, there will be much intimate overlap, as Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel were not only part of Alma's circle but of her family as well. I do feel, however, that, especially in the case of Mahler, Hilmes tends to get a bit bogged down in detailing minutia of the great composer's career while losing a bit of the thread of Alma's existence during these years.

Having read the most about Alma's relationship with Mahler prior to reading this work, I found the sections regarding her relationship with Franz Werfel and her later life to be more engaging than those regarding her years with Gustav Mahler. Hilmes treads a fine line, when engaging words like "hysterical" when referring to Alma Mahler and her often peculiar behavior, but he presents a convincing picture of her emotional ups and downs, making frequent and effective references to personal letters, journal entries, etc. One of the other challenges, of course, for a biographer of Alma Mahler, is the pre-existing published record. Alma crafted her public image carefully and published an account of her years with Mahler that paints her in a certain light. It is up to the modern biographer to sift through this careful process of persona-building to emerge with a clearer picture of the actual state of affairs. Has Hilmes done this? Perhaps. This book certainly appears to be well-researched and more than competently crafted to present us with a picture of a woman who is far from perfect, infinitely complex, and continually captivating.

I received a copy of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Group. ( )
1 vote kbuchanan | Jul 11, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I like to listen to Mahler, so I was interested to learn something about his wife. Unfortunately, Alma Mahler-Werfel (and who else in the world hyphenates the names of her two husbands as her identity?) does not emerge as a coherent personality because of the clouds of verbiage, both her own and her biographer's. Oliver Hilmes goes to some lengths to proclaim that she was not a monster. I'm not convinced. Her great achievement seems to have been her persona, which she created without regard to anybody else's feelings or any regard for truth. If she had not married three very famous men, she might have done less damage and died unknown.
She was a virulent anti-Semite who nevertheless married two Jewish men and then made their lives miserable by denigrating them. She was an appalling mother. Her daughter who survived her called her "tiger-mommy." She used and abused her only Aryan (!) child whom she professed to love. (I find it hard to forgive a picture of Alma, swathed in white, holding the arm of prepubescent Manon who stands beside her nude except for a pair of Mary-Janes, much less her exploitation when the young woman was dying of polio.)
I promised myself that I wouldn't say a word about the writing, but I can't help it. I may question word choices, but what is one to do with a sentence like this? "Sometimes she would patronize one of the restaurants she regularly frequented..." Nor can I follow narrative without transitions; I had to give up and read on:
"She missed Europe, especially Italy and Austria. Alma sadly recalled the years in Venice and Santa Margherita Ligure. 'Italy is the homeland of us all' was her conclusion.
'Had coffee, bathed, left.' Thomas Mann began the first of April 1942 with a meticulous grooming session."
Maybe AM-W will never be captured in a biography. I've warned you about this one. ( )
1 vote LizzieD | Jul 5, 2015 |
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