In Vienna Farewell, an article published in the April 1939 issue of Photoplay magazine, writer and journalist Heinz Liepmann describes a fateful night in Vienna on which he met Hedy Lamarr, then wife of one of Europe’s most powerful arms manufacturers.
Most of the articles about Hedy Lamarr published in the Hollywood fan and gossip magazines are pretty trivial fare – typically about her looks, her clothes and her romances. Here is an exception, a well-written piece that offers glimpses into her life before she crossed the Atlantic, set in the context of the fall of the first Austrian Republic.
The author, German as his name suggests, was a writer and journalist as well as a committed anti-fascist. From 1934 to 1947 he lived in exile in various countries including the US, which is presumably how he ended up writing this article. To set it in context, it’s framed by a prologue and postscript.
The year, 1914; the place, Vienna. Hedy Lamarr begins life as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler but Hedwig soon morphs into Hedy as the little girl struggles to pronounce the name with which she has been christened. Her parents are Jewish (though her mother has converted to Catholicism) and from modest backgrounds. But her father is intelligent and industrious and builds a successful career in banking. Hedy grows up as a privileged child in an insulated world.
When she’s just five years old, she becomes entranced by movie magazines and starts pretending to be an actress. Age 16, she skives off school and manages to land a job as a script girl at Sascha-Film Studio, Vienna’s first movie studio. One thing leads to another and over the next couple of years she get parts on the stage in Vienna and Berlin (notably working for highly regarded director Max Rheinhardt) and in films. Then, in 1932, she goes to Prague where she is offered a lead part by director Gustav Machatý in his new film, Ecstasy.
Ecstasy is an art-house film and garners a good deal of critical acclaim. But in the US in particular this is overwhelmed by the notoriety it acquires for two scenes featuring Hedy. In the first, she appears running naked through the woods and swimming in a lake. In the second, with the camera focused on her face, she has an orgasm as the young man whom she has followed to his cottage makes love to her – her string of pearls breaking and cascading to the floor. She is well prepared for this scene – she’s having a real-life affair with Aribert Mog, her on-screen lover.
To rehabilitate herself in polite society and rebuild her career, Hedy’s next appearance is on stage is as Empress Elizabeth of Austria in Fritz Kreisler’s entirely conventional and uncontroversial musical-comedy operetta, Sissy, the Rose of Bavaria Land. And that is how she first encounters her husband-to-be, Fritz Mandl. He showers her with flowers after each performance before finally presenting himself backstage to her.
Fritz is a glamorous and dangerous playboy with a closet not exactly devoid of skeletons. He is also an Austro-fascist arms manufacturer with close ties to Prince Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg and Benito Mussolini. Fritz is a power broker in Austria – in the words of one journalist, “It was said of him that he could break a prime minister faster than he could snap a toothpick in half.”
These are turbulent times and the first Austrian Republic is in its death throes. Chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss, is desperate to ensure that the country remains an independent nation state and a bulwark of Christian German culture against Nazism and communism. Crucial to his strategy is an alliance with Benito Mussolini’s Italy.
The threat from the Nazis within Austria increases early in 1933 when Adolph Hitler comes to power in neighbouring Germany. In March, Dollfuss advises President Wilhelm Miklas to suspend the National Council indefinitely, leaving him as a de facto dictator. The following year, he cements his position by forcing through a new constitution.
With such political instability, growing hostility to the Jews and the impact of the Great Depression, Hedy’s family are facing a perfect storm. It’s not surprising that they see marriage to Fritz Mandl as a way of safeguarding their daughter’s future and that encourage her to accept his proposal. Eight weeks after their first encounter, the couple are married and begin to settle into their future roles: she the trophy wife, he the autocratic and jealous husband.
It is at shortly after this that the party described by Heinz Liepmann takes place.
Vienna, night of November 22, 1934. … Vienna – the gayest capital of Europe; the town known the world over for its waltz music, pretty girls and easy life; Vienna, now dark and deserted. On the Kaertner Strasse and around the Stefansdome, where, in former days, music, light and laughter ruled, there is now silence and darkness. The only steps one can hear are those of the patrolling guards of the Heimwehr, the Storm Troopers of Austria.
Vienna is dying. Only nine months have passed since Dollfuss’ cannons and machine guns smashed houses and streets in Vienna and slaughtered the last Austrian Liberals. But behind the five-foot Chancellor Dollfuss, who now governs the unfortunate country with terror and tears, stands another man, six feet, five inches tall, a member of the oldest and proudest nobility of Europe, fabulously wealthy – Vice Chancellor Rüdiger Prince von Starhemberg, Master of the Heimwehr and therefore Master of Austria. And whereas the streets of gay Vienna lie dark and deserted, and the easygoing Viennese sit in their houses, silent, poor and hungry, the palais of Prince von Starhemberg shines, full of light, gaiety, music and laughter. Violins are humming sweet waltzes – beautiful women with jewels and chinchilla wraps laugh and dance and flirt; old servants in gold-embroidered uniforms carry trays with champagne; yes, the spirit of old, gay Vienna is still alive. …
Yes, I remember the night of November 22, 1934. Two days before, I had arrived in Vienna. How well I remember the deep depression I felt as I walked through the dying town. And then, through the mediation of Professor Clemens Krauss, the famous conductor of the Viennese Philharmonic, I was invited to the ball in Prince von Starhemberg’s palais.
We arrived rather late. The big crowd seemed to be in an extremely gay mood. About one hundred twenty people were present. Seldom in my life have I seen so many beautiful women together and so many famous men and so many diamonds, furs and luxurious trappings. The air was filled with exotic perfumes and the smoke from many cigars. The guests belonged to the cream of Austrian and international society. If my memory serves me right, I recognized Prince Nicholas of Greece, Madame Schiaparelli, Franz Werfel and his wife, formerly the wife of the great composer Gustav Mahler, Prince Gustav of Denmark, Nora Gregor, the best-loved actress of Vienna, General Malleaux of the French General Staff and – Hedy Lamarr.
I remember that she attracted my attention as soon as I arrived. Among all the beautiful and extravagantly gowned and jeweled women, she was by far the most attractive – and the youngest. She wore a white dress, which in its simplicity was really a work of art, and a single diamond that, as I learned later on, was one of the purest and largest in Europe. She was dancing with a man much older than she, a big stout man with a strongly lined face.
“Who is she?” I asked the young Hungarian playwright, Oedoen von Horvath.
He led me a few steps aside where nobody could hear us. “Look here,” he whispered, “don’t you know what is going on here tonight? It is the first official meeting between Prince von Starhemberg and Fritz Mandl, after their quarrel. Maybe history will be made tonight!”
A little impatient, I replied: “At the moment I am not interested in history but in that woman who is dancing over there. Who is she?” Horvath looked at me, incredulously. “Do you mean to say that you don’t know her? That is Hedy Kiesler, the Hedy Kiesler. She is the wife of Fritz Mandl. That’s the man she’s dancing with.”
I was somewhat perplexed. I had heard the name Hedy Kiesler mentioned through her unfortunate appearance in the film, “Ecstasy” – but everybody in Europe knew Fritz Mandl, the owner of the Hirtenberger Patronen-Fabrik. Fritz Mandl was one of the four munition kings of the world. Sir Basil Zaharoff, the greatest international dealer in arms, Schneider-Creuzot, his French colleague, Alfred Krupp, the master of the German cannon works in Essen and Fritz Mandl – these four hold the fates of all of us in their hands. Day and night, they are active in their trade, for war is their business; they have to sell arms and ammunitions. Mandl was the youngest of the big four. He was fabulously wealthy. Hedy Kiesler, the most beautiful woman in Vienna, was his wife.
“Look,” Horvath gripped my arm. The dance had ended and Mandl, after bowing to his wife, slowly went up the wide staircase. His host followed. And, though the music was now playing another tune and everybody seemed to be busy flirting, dancing and laughing, there was something sinister in the air, a nervous tension, a barely audible excitement.
Everybody in the ballroom was aware of the two men who had just left the hall. In the minds of each one of us was the thought: what are the two men up to? A torturing question. …
I asked a mutual acquaintance to introduce me to Hedy Kiesler – or, as she was then called, Mrs. Fritz Mandl. I asked her to dance.
She seemed to be tired. I noticed that her shining deep eyes were not so gay as they had appeared to be from a distance.
“Let’s sit down for a moment,” she suggested. Only then did I notice that her soft alluring beauty was really intoxicating when enhanced by the vital charm of her eyes and her voice. She appeared sophisticated and naive at the same time – great international hostess and sweet Viennese girl.
Hedy and I spoke about her father, Emil Kiesler, who had died a few years ago and whom I had known as director of an important Viennese bank. He was a shrewd businessman, a tall, handsome, well-dressed man with blue eyes and dark hair growing gray at the temples. About four or five years ago, when I was in his office, his wife came in. Mrs. Kiesler was – or better, is (she is still living in Vienna) – a small energetic woman. Kiesler immediately interrupted the conference and started to whisper excitedly with his wife.
“It must have been about a younger sister of yours,” I told Hedy, “because I could not help overhearing talk of their ‘little girl.’ Something seemed to have happened to her.”
Hedy laughed. “The little girl must have been me,” she said, “because I am the only one they have. Probably I was having the measles or I had been in some mischief. My poor old daddy –“ Mrs. Mandl added thoughtfully, “– we were a very happy family in our house in Peter Jordan Street –”
A new waltz began and Hedy was claimed by one of her admirers. Horvath approached me excitedly. “Did she say anything about Mandl’s conference with von Starhemberg?” he asked.
I took Horvath’s arm and led him out of the ballroom to the big balcony. It was a cold and clear winter night. The sounds of the music and the laughter were only faintly audible. Before and under us was the silent dark town.
“Mrs. Mandl didn’t say a word about her husband,” I replied, “but I wish you would tell me something about her. She can’t be much older than nineteen or twenty. When did she marry, and why?”
Horvath thought for a minute and then answered slowly. “In these last three or four years, Hedy Kiesler has lived an amazingly fantastic life. It began in quite the usual way. As the only child of a well-to-do Viennese family, she went through the usual forms of education – private tutors, private schools, later on, perhaps a year or two in a pension in Switzerland; and then the climax, introduction into society.
“As far as I remember, shortly before she became a debutante, her father died and at once her troubles started. The fortune of the family slowly vanished during the Austrian monetary crisis. Hedy’s attempts to regain some of the fortune on the stock exchange failed. She and her mother lost every penny they possessed. But Hedy was a brave girl. She accepted a job as a stenographer, but she was much too pretty to work in an office. You know what I mean. At last, through an old friend of the family who wanted to help the Kieslers, Hedy got a job as script girl in the Sascha Film Studios. And there Gustav Machaty got hold of her.
“Machaty was the first to recognize the possibilities of Hedy Kiesler,” Horvath went on. “For years he had been planning a great film – his lifework, as he called it – but he had not been able to start it because he could not find the right actress. When he saw Hedy he knew that he had found her, but first, of course, she had to gain experience.
Six scenes from Ecstasy (1933). The movie opens in US cinemas in spring 1936, with these stills part of a set issued to promote it.
SPOILER ALERT! Ecstasy plot synopsis
On her wedding night (1 + 2), Eva discovers that her elderly husband isn’t really interested in sex. Unloved, frustrated and bored, she leaves him and goes back to her father and initiates divorce proceedings.
When she goes skinny-dipping in a nearby lake, her horse runs off in search of a mate taking her clothes in the process. Eva, naked, sets off in pursuit and watches as youthful and virile Adam captures the steed and, spotting her in the bushes, returns her clothes. It’s love at first sight. As she leaves, she twists her ankle, giving him the ideal excuse to make physical contact as he straps it up.
Initially she plays difficult to get but love blossoms and that night she goes to visit Adam in his house in the woods. They fall into each other’s arms and consummate their love. The following morning they walk out into the countryside where they part, vowing to meet again that evening (3). Back at her father’s place, Emil lies in wait seeking a reconciliation. She tells him it’s too late.
On his way into town, Emil gives Adam, who’s part of a gang working on the road, a lift. They stop at Adam’s house so he can change and get Emil a drink of water. While he waits, the heartless Emil ignores the pleas of little children for charity (4). Adam returns and Emil notices he’s carrying Eva’s broken string of pearls. After a demented drive, Emil only just manages to stop the car as the gates to a level crossing come down. He’s spent and Adam drives him to a hotel to recuperate.
Adam, blissfully unaware of the situation, prepares to welcome Eva at the hotel where Emil is staying. She arrives, they drink champagne (5 + 6). While they dance, they hear a shot. Adam breaks into the room from which it came and finds Emil lying dead on the floor. Eva doesn’t tell Adam her terrible secret, but at the train station she leaves him asleep and boards the train to Berlin alone. Adam returns to work and the camaraderie of his gang. Somewhere in the city, Eva has a baby on her lap.
“Machaty asked a few film directors to let her play small parts in their films. After she had gained what the film people call ‘camera technique,’ Machaty began his ‘great work.’ It was a super-modern film about a beautiful poor young girl who married an ugly, old, but wealthy man. Working with unknown actors and with Hedy Kiesler as star, Machaty at last finished the film and called it ‘Symphony of Love’ – later known under the title of ‘Ecstasy.’”
Horvath paused. Footsteps came nearer on the silent street. They belonged to a detachment of Heimwehr soldiers – gray-uniformed, brutal fellows – the creatures of the noble Prince von Starhemberg and Fritz Mandl.
We looked up. From the balcony of the palais where we stood we saw a lonely light in the floor above us. Prince Starhemberg and Fritz Mandl were having their conference there. What would be the result? Something sinister was in the air. Mandl was known as usually getting what he wanted. …
“With one exception.” I smiled. “When Mandl had married the beautiful star of ‘Ecstasy,’ he had tried to buy all negatives of the film. Machaty sold them to him. But new negatives turned up in Tokyo, or in Australia, or in Rome. Again Mandl started buying. He didn’t want to have his wife appear naked before the bulging eyes of movie fans. But it was a long time before he learned that as soon as he bought the negatives, the company which distributed ‘Ecstasy’ had new ones produced. At last Mandl succeeded in buying the original for a terrific amount of money.”
“Why did she play in ‘Ecstasy’ at all?” I asked Horvath, who was still staring up at the silent light in the room above.
My friend shrugged his shoulders. “I think that she can hardly be blamed for it,” he answered. “The film itself is a very ambitious and purely artistic work and I think that nobody, least of all Hedy, had the faintest idea that the great public could regard it as a ‘naughty’ film. Hedy must have suffered deeply over the international scandal. Of course, she didn’t behave cleverly after the scandal broke. She shouldn’t have appeared in public for some time. But the great Max Reinhardt was just then going to direct the new play by Eduard Bourdet, ‘The Weaker Sex,’ and, either because he wanted to take advantage of Hedy’s publicity, or, as I believe, in order to give her a chance to show the public that she was really an actress, he gave her a small part in it. Through her, the play became a sensation. She began to travel between Berlin and Vienna. Among the parts she played in these years, I remember one in Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ and a big part in the film, ‘The Trunks of Mr. O. F.’”
My friend became silent again. After a while he went on, thoughtfully: “Yes – and then her marriage. It was a very strange and curious coincidence. People say that Fritz Mandl, who had seen Hedy Kiesler in ‘Ecstasy,’ went to the first night of ‘The Weaker Sex’ and watched her from his box. In the intermission, he asked a mutual friend to introduce him to her. Fritz Mandl is supposed to be a man who gets everything he wants – and a short time later his marriage to Hedy Kiesler was announced. Do you remember the story of ‘Ecstasy’? A very wealthy, ugly old man buys – excuse me, I meant to say marries – a beautiful poor young girl. Do you understand what I mean when I call it a strange coincidence?
“Since the wedding, Hedy Mandl has become one of the most brilliant hostesses of international society. Yes,” Horvath ended dreamily, “if a novelist were to describe her life, people would call him unbelievably fantastic. …”
Horvath suddenly gripped my arm. I looked through the glass door and saw Prince von Starhemberg and the munition king Mandl walk down the wide staircase, arm in arm. Horvath and I returned to the ballroom. Everybody had stopped dancing to look at the two men. Hedy Kiesler left her dancing partner and went over to her husband. At that same moment, the music that had stopped began to play a waltz. Fritz Mandl, the munition king, took the arm of Hedy Kiesler, the most beautiful girl in Vienna and his wife, and they began to dance. We saw him whispering to her, gravely, and then I noticed that her eyes grew wide and fearful. …
Yes, it was a great night in the Viennese palais of the Prince von Starhemberg. Today we know from political documents that on this very night – November 22, 1934 – Starhemberg and Fritz Mandl reached an agreement concerning their ambitious political plans. Fritz Mandl promised to supply Prince Starhemberg’s Heimwehr with arms for the overthrowing of Dollfuss.
On this night the foundation was laid for those tragic events which began with the cruel murder of tiny Chancellor Dollfuss and led, at last, to the end of the proud Austrian Empire and its rape by the German dictator. …
I remember well the jubilant violins playing Viennese waltzes … I remember the laughter and the gay voices of famous men and beautiful women … I remember the atmosphere of exotic perfumes, white shoulders, expensive cigars, promising smiles, international medals and chinchilla wraps … and I remember Mrs. Fritz Mandl – more appealing, more charming and more beautiful than anyone else – and, hidden behind her veiled eyes, a great loneliness and fear. …
Dark and deserted were the streets of Vienna. Only in one house, a palais – like a ghost, a dream out of old times – the last sweet waltzes of Vienna were danced under shining chandeliers. …
It’s only a few years ago, but the dream has long since ended. The morning was gray, the awakening terrible. Dollfuss has bled to death; von Starhemberg is a poor forgotten refugee in Switzerland; Fritz Mandl, driven out of his country, is traveling somewhere between Shanghai and Buenos Aires, selling arms – and Vienna, old, beautiful, gay Vienna, is occupied by the barbarians. The “blue” Danube has become a “red” Danube, flowing over with blood and tears. …
Only one has escaped the awakening in the gray morning: Hedy Lamarr.
Whether or not Mandl and Prince von Starhemberg plotted Dollfuss’s downfall that evening in Vienna is open to doubt. What’s not, is that on 25 July 1935, the Chancellor will be assassinated. This raises two issues:
- The date given in the original article must be incorrect since by November 1934 Chancellor Dollfuss will be dead and buried. It is likely that the party actually takes place in November 1933.
- The killers will be eight Austrian Nazis who burst into the chancellery in an attempted coup and happen to bump into Dollfuss in the process. There’s little evidence of a connection between them and either Prince von Starhemberg or the Heimwehr.
Hedy will grow increasingly worried about her husband’s business affairs and the control he insists on exerting over her. In 1936, she will have an affair with Prince von Starhemberg with a view to enlisting his help in escaping from Austria. But as the pair step off the train in Budapest, they will be confronted by Mandl, whose spies have tipped him off about the elopement.
The following year (1937), Hedy will finally manage to outwit her husband and flee via Paris to London and from there to the US and Hollywood, with a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.