When Lotte Lenya stepped on stage for the opening night of Cabaret on November 20, 1966 for the first of what would be over one thousand performances as Fraulein Schneider, she was sixty-eight years old and had lived enough sorrow for twice that many years. A legend of the musical stage, she was the living embodiment of the heady and fast-passing world of Weimar Germany, where life flourished amongst misery and all things were permitted, lionized in the papers but her head full of ghosts and the slow burn tragedies that awaited her at home.
The dichotomy between public success and private tragedy is an old song, repeated across so many Hollywood biographies that we have largely come to expect it, but few can claim to have come from such abject beginnings as Lotte Lenya, born Karoline Blamauer. She came into the world in 1898 in a Vienna that was tearing itself apart from its internal contradictions while doing its Austrian damndest to pretend that all was in Ordnung. For the upper crust of Vienna society, life could be an elegant and glorious thing, but for those, like the Blamauer family, living on the outskirts of the city, it was something else entirely. Lenya’s father was an abusive alcoholic who regularly pulled her from her bed at night to sing him songs, and just as regularly beat her for failing to sing as well as her deceased older sister used to.
A victim of regular childhood abuse, it was scant surprise when she turned to the profession that so many other young Viennese boys and girls were reduced to, as she began selling her body on the streets at age twelve. Those who knew her theorized that she threw herself into the life of a child prostitute not only to provide the money that some days was enough to keep her father from thrashing her, but also as a desperate means of experiencing something like affirmation from an adult male figure.
The dichotomy between public success and private tragedy is an old song… but few can claim to have come from such abject beginnings as Lotte Lenya, born Karoline Blamauer.
Abused by her family at home and by strangers for scant coin, young Karoline was in danger of becoming yet another of the faded and wasted Viennese street youth, seen every day on the corners of twisted avenues until the fateful day when they weren’t. In 1913, however, her childless aunt visited from Zurich and, taking in the situation at the Blamauer house, declared that she wanted Karoline to come back to Switzerland with her. At her aunt’s Karoline experienced some first glimmerings of normalcy, and when she began taking classes in dance and theater, she found that she had something bright in herself, something engaging and irresistible that surmounted the fact that she didn’t dance as well as the other girls, didn’t sing with anything like professional polish, and was not a beauty of the classic school.
What she had then, and what is evident even in recordings made in her seventies, was truth, an ability to convincingly sings stories of life as it is truly lived in a manner artful but unpolished that said, these are people, these are the terrible things they do, you’re an idiot if you believe they don’t, but that’s okay, we’re all idiots really, so let’s do something we’ll regret and if we die tomorrow, ground into nothingness by a society that has forgotten us, at least we’ll have squeezed a little bit of living out of today. That combination of sentiments, of unvarnished reality, didn’t have a voice until Lotte Lenya stepped upon the stage, and since then all artists striving to express them since have, in one way or another, channeled her unique voice.
That voice, however, had but scant opportunity for expression in Zurich. Though Zurich was the center of the avant-garde Dadaist movement at the time, with its core devotion to art through randomness, the dynamic Lenya could find little more than bit roles in the local theater scene. So, she and a friend put together a two-woman dance show and headed for Berlin in 1921, where an entirely new ethos reigned, one less intellectual than that of the Zurich crowd, an earthy and bawdy mix of sexual, social, and political experimentation with its origin in the economic devastation left in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles. In a world where money vaporized under the glare of hyperinflation, work was far from a guarantee, and politics often devolved into street brawls, all that one could be sure of was hunger and desire, and Weimar era Berlin made art from them both.
Lotte Lenya (for so she had taken to calling herself shortly before arriving in Berlin) had to wait three years in that city until she could add her own art to Weimar’s swirling creative maelstrom. Until 1924, she sampled the rich theatric scene, and took lovers and roles when she could, but had yet to experience the breakaway moment that would ensure her steady work of the first order and the steady paycheck that might follow in its wake.
That was when playwright Georg Kaiser and his family adopted the struggling performer and invited her to stay with them as an au pair until she got her financial feet under her again. It was at this time that she met Kaiser’s young and promising musical collaborator, Kurt Weill. Two years younger than Lenya, he was her polar opposite in virtually every detail. A reserved musical workaholic, he was captivated by Lenya’s devil-may-care free spirit and the two soon formed a relationship wherein Weill took it as given that Lenya’s carrying on affairs with other men was simply the price of being close to her. In Weill, Lenya found someone understanding of her nature, a safe haven to return to when her adventuring spirit lead her astray, as it often did. In Lenya, Weill found the artist who would become the interpreter of his music, and its fierce protector and promoter in the decades following his early death.
The unlikely pair married in 1926, just as the third component of what would be Weimar Germany’s most famous artistic trio drifted into their orbit, the poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Brecht, depending on to whom you talk, was either the century’s most visionary and politically committed theorist of a new approach to drama, or a self-serving and egomaniacal hack who regularly claimed credit for the work of others. What he was to Lenya and Weill, however, was the catalyst for the achievement of their highest art. Weill wrote many successful musicals after ending his collaboration, and Lenya had several major roles in non Brecht-Weill productions, but it was the magic combination of Brecht’s archly ironic but somehow simultaneously earnest words, Weill’s sense of melody and orchestration, and Lenya’s gift for infusing roles with bitter verisimilitude that spawned a series of musical productions that defined an era.
Beginning with the success of the Mahagonny Songspiel at Baden-Baden’s 1927 musical festival, with Lenya in the role of Jessie, the trio moved on to a reworking of John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera in celebration of its 200th anniversary which they titled The Threepenny Opera. Despite organized Nazi opposition, the play’s roster of criminals, prostitutes, and outcasts betraying each other under the pressures of the cruel modern world caught the spirit of the times. Threepenny went on to four hundred performances in that initial run, and spread to other countries, while Brecht managed to still his Communist conscience long enough to profit from the Threepenny merchandise that was taking Berlin by storm. Lenya as Jenny, a world-wise prostitute, was the stand-out star of the production, and the angularity of her phrasing, the refusal to sacrifice the particular color of her voice in the pursuit of Standard Tone and Elocution, have defined not only the role of Jenny ever since, but the entire sub-genre of cabaret performance. From Jenny, I don’t believe it is too great an exaggeration to say, come Edith Piaf, Liane, Ute Lemper, and a whole string of female vocal performers who found their triumph in highlighting the individual character of their voice instead of training it to an acceptably palatable standard form.
Lenya, Brecht, and Weill were on a role that extended into The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) and The Seven Deadly Sins (1933). Professionally ascendant, and her thirst for adventure slaked by a series of lovers, Lenya nonetheless felt hampered by her thinly married state, and asked Weill for a divorce in 1933, which he granted, only for her to ask within a couple years for their mutual friends to intercede on her behalf for a reconciliation. Though he could be too wrapped up in his music to give her the full degree of attention that she wanted, she found that she missed the option of returning to the security of their home, and the matter of fact forbearance Weill could be counted on to exhibit in the face of her changing needs.
Professionally, as well, Lenya’s future was tied to Weill’s. Though she performed in non-Weill productions, they were overwhelmingly the primary source of her income, and with Weill preparing to emigrate to America to escape Nazi persecution in 1935 (he was of Jewish ancestry), she made the decision to accompany him to the New World. They lived together in New York until remarrying in 1937. Weill worked hard with American lyricists and directors to produce both musicals and film music as his way of repaying the United States for granting him haven, while Lenya, less confident that she would be accepted on the American stage, did not seek out new work, but tended to accept roles as they were written for her by those within Weill’s circle of acquaintance.
In 1945, Weill wrote a part particularly for her in his upcoming musical, The Firebrand of Florence. At this time, most of his work for the theater was enjoying success and runs numbering in the hundreds, but Firebrand bowed out to bad reviews after only forty-three shows, and Lenya in particular was singled out as having been badly miscast for her assigned role. Deeply disappointed in herself, Lenya all but disappeared from the stage for the next five years, until Weill’s death from heart disease in 1950 compelled her to take up the mantle of his music and re-emerge to her greatest acclaim yet.
In the years after 1950, Lenya was not only the tough-as-nails executor of Weill’s musical properties, but the most effective promoter of his catalogue. When Threepenny was revived off-Broadway in 1954, it featured Lotte Lenya reprising her role as Jenny for an entirely new generation of theater-goers. With her role augmented by the addition of the iconic “Pirate Jenny” song (which had originally been written for the character of Polly), Lenya injected a savage line of deliciously arch cynicism into the comfortable affluence of 1950s America, and the production went on to hundreds of performances, while Lenya won a Tony in 1956 for her portrayal. It was not long before recording companies scented profit in the water, and arranged for Lenya to set down her now-iconic Weill recordings of the mid-1950s.
She was aided in her re-emergence by her second husband, George Davis, whose devotion to the music of Kurt Weill was matched only by her own. He encouraged and supported her in her return to the stage, and she flourished at an age when most female performers of the era had little to look forward to but a steadily diminishing presence as younger actresses assumed the roles that were once theirs.
… she flourished at an age when most female performers of the era had little to look forward to but a steadily diminishing presence as younger actresses assumed the roles that were once theirs.
George Davis, unfortunately, died in 1957, like Weill of heart disease, and in Lenya’s next two selections of husband she was not so fortunate as in her first two, picking both times young alcoholic gay men who abused her mothering instincts and brought a steady stream of misery to her home life even as her stage career continued flourishing in its fifth decade. Her third husband drank to insensibility as a matter of course, and disappeared for days at a time to seek rough sailors in New York to indulge his more violent fantasies (she on several occasions had to pick him up from the hospital after his would be lovers savagely thrashed him and left him for dead). That husband died in 1969 from a fall while in a drunken stupor, and the fourth husband, who split his time between Lenya’s house and that of his lover, so exasperated her with his complete indifference that she sued him for divorce and resolved to live her final years at last alone.
But in the midst of all that personal grief, she managed to string together a parade of autumnal successes across multiple media platforms, from her thousand plus performances in the stage production of Cabaret in the late 1960s to her role as Rosa Klebb in the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love to a series of concert recitals of the music of Kurt Weill at America’s most prestigious classical venues to a truly strange five minute comedic scene with Burt Reynolds in 1977’s Semi-Tough. Lenya’s career only slowed when severe abdominal pain in November of 1977 betokened the arrival of a pervasive cancer that wore away at her by degrees until her death in 1981.
For five decades, from 1927 to 1977, Lotte Lenya embodied an era in history and an approach to life barely conceivable to American audiences accustomed to suburban propriety and steady, relentless prosperity. Standing on a vast stage at the age of seventy, she mesmerized audiences as readily as she did in the small-time dives of her mid-twenties, evoking a world of casual cruelty pragmatically borne and tragic passions that rarely outlast the night. Audiences loved her for being, simply, Lotte Lenya. What matter that she didn’t always sing on key, what matter that her voice was all angles and smoke in her later years, when she could reach back across the decades and bring to life an era long-since-perished, one that didn’t aim for perfection because it knew perfection cannot be trusted, and settled instead for the songs of the street, offered by whatever lips chose to sing them, in that thin gap between the end of the day’s labors and the small ritualized self-obliteration of sleep.
FURTHER LISTENING: We are lucky enough to have recordings of Lenya from throughout her career. Here she is singing her signature piece, the Pirate Jenny song, from the 1931 film version of Threepenny. The culminating moment, when Jenny orders the death of everybody in her town, is chilling in its fantastic stillness:
The Tango Ballad from Threepenny is a wonderful evil little song, which is usually ruined by the white-bread English translations produced in the 50s and 60s, and this recording from 1954 is no exception, but in spite of Scott Merrill being a far too bland and smooth counterpoint, you can hear Lenya’s explosive presence radiating from this performance. (For a recording that uses a translation that reflects the original lyrics, check out the Ute Lemper version on the album Punishing Kiss).
One of the first products of the Brecht-Weill collaboration was the Alabama Song from the Mahagonny Songspiel. Later, The Doors and David Bowie both covered it, but here is Lenya herself from 1958 at the age of 60 performing its fiendish lyrics as if they’re the most natural thing in the world:
In her late sixties Lenya conquered Broadway once again with her performance in Cabaret, and So What? was a grand Americanized encapsulation of the spirit of Weimar. Here she is performing it with Maurice Levine conducting.
Lead image: Portrait of Lotte Lenya, 1962 By Carl Van Vechten – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection. Catalog, Image download, Original url, Public Domain, Fair Use.