The Jewish Writer’s Dream Wife
Why I published Friderike Burger’s memoir of her service as femme de l’artiste to Stefan Zweig
Tolstoy had Sofya; Meyer Schapiro had Lillian; Amos Oz has his wife and his daughter. Almost every male author I can think of has had an (unheralded, unpaid) assistant in the family whose duties included reading, researching, transcribing, typing, corresponding, and editing for his genius. (Female authors less frequently.) But few couples have had as complicated and even posthumous a relationship as Friderike Burger and Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish writer who was and continues to be one of the most widely translated German-language authors in the world.
Both Zweigs were born in the early 1880s, products of the Habsburg Monarchy. Both were secular Viennese Jews (Friderike converted to Catholicism in her twenties) who lived through World War I and its chaotic aftermath in Austria. They built a house in Salzburg known as “the Villa in Europe” where Zweig wrote many of his most popular works until the rise of Nazism. The house was searched, the books were burned, and the Zweigs were forced into emigration. They divorced in 1938, and Zweig married Lotte Altmann, the young secretary Friderike had hired for him in London. But the couple remained close. Both fled Europe and wound up, in their early sixties, in New York. Friderike had the resilience to create a new life there, but Stefan and Lotte moved to Petropolis, Brazil, where they committed suicide in 1942. Friderike’s memoir is, I think, a rare account of two 20th-century Jewish writers, their liaison, marriage, divorce, and continuing friendship, from a surviving ex-wife’s point of view.
Friderike Maria Burger was born into two Jewish families, the Burgers and the Feigls, on Dec. 4, 1882. She was the exact contemporary of Ida Bauer (whom we know as Freud’s case study “Dora”) and a generation younger than Bertha Pappenheim (Freud and Josef Breuer’s case study “Anna O”). After attending the University of Vienna as one of the first few women permitted to take degrees, Friderike married a civil servant named Felix Edler von Winternitz. She published a few newspaper articles but soon abandoned her “hobby of writing” to supplement the family income by teaching French and history.
She was 26 when she first exchanged glances with Stefan Zweig in a Viennese wine garden in 1908. “I shall tell you about this romance as if I were an outsider, thereby overcoming my reluctance to reveal my personal life,” she writes. Her husband was taking a rest cure at a nearby sanatorium; her baby daughter was at home with her nurse. Friderike was out with friends on that summer night. Her marriage was only two years old but tepid. She was less attached to her spouse than she was to his father.
Stefan was 27, an up-and-coming poet and playwright. His father owned a textile factory in northern Bohemia; his mother came from a banking family; his older brother ran the family business, leaving Stefan free to write without worrying about an income.
No words were exchanged but Friderike didn’t forget him. Four years later, when the two again exchanged glances in a garden restaurant, she was then 30, mother to a second daughter, and even more restive in her marriage. Stefan was 31, a celebrated Viennese poet and debonair man-about-Europe. She wrote him a letter.
They began the kind of liaison that Arthur Schnitzler and Zweig himself so often dramatized for their Central European audience. Letters. Visits. She got a gig to review one of his plays in Germany where the couple perhaps consummated their relationship. Then she went away to the Tyrolian Alps with her ailing daughter; he traveled to Paris to work. Neither evinced any jealousy on her account. In his own classic memoir, The World of Yesterday, Stefan makes no mentions of his private life. But Friderike tells us that Stefan argued for her eventual divorce and the consolidation of their households. He viewed her daughters and professional life as assets that would prevent her from making too many demands on his time.
Friderike obtained a divorce that was kept secret from her own mother and her father-in-law. She worked out separate financial arrangements with her husband and with Zweig. For most of World War I, they shared a compound outside Vienna where they lived in two pavilions, enabling the by-now internationally celebrated author to work without interruption while enjoying the benefits of Friderike’s housekeeping. He was the artist; she the devoted, capable, practical helpmeet. She translated and edited as well as managing their social calendar.
“As guardian of his inner world I was to keep the outer world away, pregnant as it always was with disturbances,” she writes. “Therefore—a fact but seldom openly confessed—I was to have no world of my own, no work of my own that might possibly deflect me from my watch. The circle was widely extended but I had to stay within it.”
By 1917, Zweig entrusted Friderike to purchase a home in his name. He found that living in Vienna distracted him from work, and the couple decided to buy a romantic ruin glimpsed while visiting Salzburg together. It was a 17th-century hunting lodge with rudimentary plumbing and no electricity. Located on a hilltop called the Kapuzinerberg because of its proximity to a Capuchin monastery, it was also barely accessible. It became Friderike’s project to oversee the renovation during a time of scarce building materials and workmen, fluctuating currency, and the chaos during the last year of the world war.
In 1920, the now-married couple moved in and began to receive literary luminaries such as Romain Rolland and Joseph Roth and musicians such as Richard Strauss, Arturo Toscanini, and Bruno Walter, who had been engaged by the annual Salzburg summer festival. During the next 13 years, Zweig produced some 200,000 pages, or 50 individual pieces of work there, with a wife who served as first reader and editor.
“I could lend him a hand in various ways,” she writes, “besides showing my warmest interest in his work, and occasionally suggesting new themes. But the most important thing of all was to maintain an atmosphere of peace, to dig trenches around his spiritual castle. He refused to let me do his typing or take shorthand dictation. I could spend my time to better purpose: by helping in research, translating quotations from foreign languages, reading books sent to him, making excerpts from them, and finally writing letters of acknowledgment in his name.”
Writer Clarice Lispector’s exoticism had much to do with her Jewishness; her literary vocabulary did not