The Jewish Writer’s Dream Wife
Why I published Friderike Burger’s memoir of her service as femme de l’artiste to Stefan Zweig
Friderike raised her two daughters with little participation from Stefan. One can only imagine the complications for two adolescent girls and their mother in a home where their benefactor’s insistence on silence was the rule. However, the couple’s unusual relationship would survive far more than those family tensions. It withstood the rise of Nazism, with its burning of Zweig’s books, a traumatic search of the Kapuzinerberg house, and the couple’s sharply differing views about whether to remain in Austria or leave it. After Stefan left Salzburg for good, Friderike continued in her many roles as helpmeet, even after they divorced and Stefan remarried.
Her story, with its colorful cast of characters and international backdrop, is extraordinary in itself. But what kept me reading was her detailed reporting of marital life with the famous writer, reporting that veers from insightful to unabashedly mystical and sentimental. Most of the time, Friderike is crisp, supplying a store of social history in unusual detail. Here she is describing the couple’s involvement in adult education after World War I:
The Socialists, now in power … established promising institutions called “County Educational Courses” intended as forerunners of people’s universities to be founded in all the former Habsburg Crownlands. Their underlying idea was to lure the unemployed, most of whom were discharged soldiers, away from the streets. … The men were supposed to use their leisure time in pursuit of “culture.” Schoolrooms were opened up for these courses, and the Salzburg intellectuals asked to function as teachers. … Stefan gave a course on literature. Those desiring to emigrate were especially interested in foreign languages. My state diploma enabled me to give a French course for beginners, in which seventy pupils of the most diverse ages were enrolled.
At other times Friderike falls back on the clichés of a romance author: “I, on the other hand, had always been open to the unpredictable effects of predestination. Strange incidents, recurring in our union after long intervals, seemed like portents of destiny. And the last link in the chain … was marked by an atmosphere of tragedy and inevitability.”
She also tracks and describes what contemporary readers might recognize as her husband’s manic depression: “Sadness and laughter alternated as speedily in my husband as in a little child. But it was different when Stefan, assailed by some serious crisis, used any and every occasion as a pretext for his rage. After it was all over, he could not remember what he had said or done. But he knew that everyone was helpless in the face of these terrifying attacks. … These crises occurred with increasing frequency during the years of his male climacteric, as the doctor called it.” We cringe when she paints a wildly idealized portrait of “the beloved poet” or invokes her “involuntary and indissoluble affinity” with him.
Friderike addresses divorce head on. In a chapter titled “The House Breaks Up,” she writes: “Friend and foe alike will judge harshly a man of almost sixty who, dissolving his union with a but slightly younger wife, joins himself to a girl his junior by twenty-seven years. … But there existed such an indestructible friendship between me and my mate that intuitive sympathy with his feelings, never wholly undermined, survived all the conflicts.”
It’s easy to see why her brother-in-law Alfred Zweig (who lived on Central Park West in New York City until 1977) found her phony and her memoir a document of life with Zweig as she had wanted it to be rather than what it was. Not only, in his view, did she appropriate the role of author’s widow (“the companion who was at Stefan’s side during the most productive years of his life”) but she included in this memoir what she had heard from Stefan of the Zweigs’ family life before she entered it.
I suspect that Friderike’s self-identification as an Austrian Catholic must have irked Alfred profoundly, as it seems to have irked Stefan. Married to Stefan Zweig (first published in 1946) highlights Stefan’s dislike of Christmas celebrations. Friderike explains it away as a consequence of childhood jealousy when his parents’ servants received gifts while their children did not. Her embrace of Christianity as well as of Austria was delusional after 1933, yet Friderike exults that Zweig’s mother “never objected to her sons’ marriage to women of other faiths,” and asks, “Had not the [Christmas] tree been universally adopted by non-gentile families?”
Despite these flaws, I find Friderike’s memoir an invaluable document. In The World of Yesterday, Stefan aimed to write a memoir of his generation; in Married to Stefan Zweig, Friderike was interested in portraying the man, filling in details in her memoir that Stefan left out of his. Literary historians as well as Zweig’s contemporaries have had questions about Zweig’s sexuality. Anthony Heilbut, author of a comprehensive biography of Thomas Mann, contends that “Zweig shared Mann’s quiet but intense adoration of young men. Interviewed in the 1990s, German émigrés who were living in Brazil in 1942 remembered the older man as obviously attracted to them. Words were unnecessary; as in Letter from an Unknown Woman, one glance told the story.”
Although Friderike does not provide a clear answer to the question of her ex-husband’s sexuality, sex was clearly not the core of their long relationship. In the end, she too fled Austria through France, across the Pyrenees to America. She was able to create a new independent life for herself in New York, where she arrived in 1940 with her two grown daughters and their husbands.
In Austria, she had helped found a chapter of the International Women’s League for Peace. In New York City, in 1943, she co-founded the Writers Service Center, a literary agency, clearing-house, and all-around refuge for European refugees and exiles, and the American-European Friendship Association, a cultural center. Two years later, at the age of 62, she moved to a house overlooking Long Island Sound in Connecticut where she spent her last decades writing, engaged in memorializing her husband, and supporting various progressive social causes. She died on Jan. 18, 1971, at the age of 88.
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