Magazine article The Spectator

'Cursed Legacy: The Tragic Life of Klaus Mann', by Frederic Spotts - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Cursed Legacy: The Tragic Life of Klaus Mann', by Frederic Spotts - Review

Article excerpt

Thomas Mann, despite strong homosexual emotions, had six children. The two eldest, Erika and Klaus, born in 1905 and 1906 respectively, were delinquent almost from the word go: shoplifting, prank phone calls, trickery on old ladies, special schools. They were also artistically precocious; the frantic pair took German Expressionist cabaret to Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, London, New York and Moscow. By the time Klaus reached 21, he and his sister had frolicked right round the globe. Klaus never stopped travelling, and this biography is a feverish sequence of arrivals and departures.

Erika was more the performer, Klaus more the writer. Both were openly gay. Klaus explored his homosexuality in his first book, published in 1925, and in many works thereafter. He found rough trade in every city he visited; 1932, for example, finds him frequenting Piccadilly Circus and the Turkish baths in Jermyn Street. But Paris became his spiritual home, where he smoked opium with Cocteau, terrified Julien Green, and worshipped Gide (to Gide's annoyance).

In Weimar Germany, Klaus was sneered at by those on the left who might be expected to have supported him: Brecht, Tucholsky and Walter Benjamin. Klaus was a courageous, talented writer, but they couldn't cope with his sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Those on the right ignored him altogether, until the rise of Nazism led to aggressive persecution and Klaus fled permanently abroad. When Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933, the Mann parents were in Switzerland. Klaus and Erika begged them not to return to Germany and they didn't. Thomas, already marked as a vocal anti-Nazi, lost everything in his homeland. Well before the rest of the world turned up for the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the entire Mann family was in exile.

Klaus dashed from capital to capital, editing, writing and rousing the German emigré opposition. It was through Klaus's friendship with Isherwood that Erika was able to marry Auden as an escape route. By this time, Klaus was living on morphine, benzedrine and anything else available, preyed on by casual pick-ups, enslaved by destructive infatuations. In private he droned on ceaselessly about death and suicide, yet the dizzy pace continued in the USA where the Manns spent most of the second world war. In Hollywood Klaus 'had lunch successively with Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and Fritz Lang. …

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