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Family Memoirs of Thomas Mann

ISSUE:  Winter 1999

Mann fathered six children in symmetrical pairs—girl-boy, boy-girl, girl-boy—between 1905 and 1919. No writer (not even Tolstoy) has been so exhaustively written about by members of his immediate family. Thomas’ wife, Katia, and four of his immensely talented children published books about him, and another wrote a number of scholarly articles about his work. The memoirist always writes about himself, regardless of the ostensible subject. Two masterpieces of English autobiography, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, succeed brilliantly because each author acknowledges the true focus from the start: his relations with his father and what they reveal about himself and his father. Though the fathers of Gosse and Ackerley were both powerful personalities, they were little known outside their social and professional circles. Mann’s family had to come to terms with a more difficult subject—not only an overwhelming force in their own lives, but also a writer of genius and a mythical public figure. Their memoirs are torn between veneration and rivalry, between a desire to emphasize their father’s greatness and reveal his human failings, to bask in his reflected glory and to tell the story of their own development.

The bright and beautiful Katia Mann (1883—1980), the daughter of a mathematics professor at Munich, had a twin brother and belonged to a fabulously wealthy and immensely cultured Jewish family. Thomas, whose Buddenbrooks had been a phenomenal success in 1901, married her in February 1904. Their marriage was generally happy and productive of many books and children. Katia, along with the servants, took care of the children, but her first loyalty was always to Thomas. Their son Golo writes that during the Great War, when food supplies were short, their father had normal meals and the rest of the family ate less. Thomas was a remote, self-absorbed deity, with an artist’s overwhelming ego, who usually treated the children with benign neglect. Katia—though incapacitated by bouts of tuberculosis and visits to distant sanatoriums—gave Thomas several stimulating suggestions, which he made good use of in his work. She accompanied him on his European and American lecture tours and, with their daughter Erika, handled his voluminous correspondence. In 1974, Katia, the only one in the family who didn’t write, was persuaded to participate in a series of conversations that, transcribed and edited by her son Michael, became Unwritten Memories.

Erika (1905—69), a mannish-looking lesbian, was married first to the German actor Gustav Gründgens and then (to secure a British passport) to W.H. Auden. She wrote and performed songs and sketches, in Germany and other European countries, in her anti-Fascist cabaret, The Peppermill. With her brother Klaus she made a successful lecture tour in America. After Thomas went into exile in 1933, she became his assistant and aide. She acted as his chauffeur, edited his lectures, stood in the wings when he delivered them, and helped answer questions in English. She was the co-author, with Klaus, of Escape to Life (1939), which included a 25-page “Portrait of Our Father.” After his death, she wrote The Last Year of Thomas Mann (1956) and edited three volumes of his Letters.

Klaus (1906—49), a homosexual, acted, traveled widely, was active in anti-Fascist politics, went into exile, edited Sammlung and Decision, reported the Spanish Civil War, and served in the U.S. Army. He wrote several novels, most notably Mephisto (1936), based on the career of the pro-Nazi Gründgens; biographies of the homosexuals Tchaikovsky, King Ludwig of Bavaria, and André Gide; and his autobiography The Turning Point (1942). After surviving Nazism, exile, and the war, he became despondent about the state of postwar Europe and of his own literary career. In May 1949 he committed suicide in Cannes by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

Golo (1909—94)—a homosexual like his older siblings—studied with Karl Jaspers and earned a doctorate at Heidelberg. He went into exile, like the rest of the family, and taught history at St. Cloud and Rennes in France. With his uncle Heinrich Mann and the writer Franz Werfels, he escaped through Spain and Portugal to America. He served in the U.S. Army, taught at Olivet College and at Claremont, and, after returning to Germany, at Münster and Stuttgart. A distinguished historian, he published A History of Germany Since 1789 (1959); a biography of the 16th-century Austrian general Wallenstein (1971), the subject of Schiller’s dramatic trilogy; and his autobiographical Reminiscences and Reflections (1986). He also wrote a review of a boring philosophical book, a job his father had agreed to do. Thomas then published it in the New York Times Book Review under his own name. At the end of his life Golo lived in the house in Kilchberg, outside Zurich, where Thomas had spent his last three years.

Monika (1910—92) married a Hungarian art critic who died before her own eyes when their ship, the City of Benares, was torpedoed en route to Canada in September 1940. After drifting for twenty hours on a piece of wood, she was finally picked up by a British battleship and brought back to Scotland. After abandoning her plan to become a concert pianist, she lived with her parents in America during the war and, later on, with a fisherman on Capri. She brought out her memoir, Past and Present, in 1960.

Elisabeth (born 1918) married a much older anti-Fascist Italian historian, Giuseppe Borgese, and had two daughters, He taught at the University of Chicago; she became a legal expert on ocean resources and a professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Michael (1919—77) married a Swiss classmate of Elisabeth and had two sons. After a career as a concert violinist and violist with the San Francisco Symphony, he became tired of playing pieces that he felt people didn’t want to hear. Changing careers in his 40’s, he earned a doctorate at Harvard and became a professor of German at Berkeley. He published books on Schiller and Heine, and scholarly articles about music in The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. On New Year’s Day 1977 Michael (like Klaus) killed himself with a fatal overdose of barbituates and alcohol.

I met Michael at Harvard and Berkeley (where Einstein’s son and Renoir’s grandson were also on the faculty) and was struck by his astonishing vitality and good looks. Keen to learn, I asked him what his father was really like and he surprised me by replying: “I didn’t really know him.” He had been brought up by his nursemaid and governess. By the time he was old enough to sit at the family table, Thomas had won the Nobel Prize (1929) and had hardened into an imperious figure who had little time to spend with small children.

Golo writes that “during his formative years [Michael] had had no grounds for being grateful to TM” and that, as an adult, still had dreams about fighting with his father. But Michael’s widow, Gret, has recently told me that his suicide was not directly related to his father. Thomas was a good father, she said, but he was dedicated to his work, not his family, and the household revolved around his schedule. He openly preferred his oldest and youngest daughters, Erika and Elisabeth, to all of his other children, and his three sons suffered from a complex about him. They each aspired to literary fame, Gret said, but could never hope to equal their father’s achievement.

Thomas was a famous and successful writer before his first child was born. He had a luxurious and cultivated household in Munich, with many servants and a summer house in the mountains outside the city. The family enjoyed private schools and foreign travel, musical evenings at home and boxes in the theater, high-minded discussions, and frequent visits from important writers like Gerhart Hauptmann, Hugo von Hofmannstal, and Hermann Hesse.

The rather rigid and conservative Thomas, whose habits were as regular as Immanuel Kant’s, worked religiously from 9 until 12:15 every day and produced about 500 words, which he rarely had to change. He composed the next day’s work in his head while taking an hour’s walk with his dog. After a leisurely lunch, he’d have a nap and, after tea, deal with his correspondence. In the evening he would often read aloud from his works, play music on his violin and phonograph, entertain guests, or, driven by his chauffeur, attend a play, concert, or opera.

Mann supported German nationalism during the Great War and quarreled bitterly with his older writer-brother, Heinrich, who took an international stance and espoused the French cause. But they were staunch allies in their opposition to Nazism, both before and after Hitler came to power, and both went into exile. Thomas must have had an extremely strong character to survive the loss of his houses and all his possessions, his manuscripts and correspondence, his publisher, royalties, and Nobel prize-money, his citizenship, honorary doctorate, and German audience. His books were burned and his life threatened, but he went on to create a new, triumphant existence in France, America, and Switzerland.

Thomas’ patrician background and dignified appearance, his force of character and fame as a writer, the adoration of his wife and servants, inspired awe and reverence in his children. In that class and that time children did not live in close proximity to their parents. The Mann children had a separate nursery and were brought up by maids, governesses, and tutors, but their father was exceptionally withdrawn. For a brief hour or so each day they competed for their parents’ attention.

Having known many great writers since childhood, Thomas’ children were brought up to believe that literature was the highest calling. Their autobiographies all paid tribute to his elegant style, high art, penetrating irony, subtle wit, depth of meaning, and profound insight into European culture. Proud of their father, they tended to follow the hagiographic convention of filial memoirs rather than the contemporary denigration of parents in the interests of “truth.” Their decorative books provide valuable biographical details, but sometimes resemble the speeches made at the unveiling of a public statue.

They all defined their own identity in relation to their father. But their own literary efforts were inevitably criticized by reviewers either for exploiting his name or for failing to equal his achievement. The earlier memoirs paper over the cracks in the family façade and never manage to explain why they felt crippled, even crushed by their father’s overwhelming presence, his leadership of the anti-Fascist exiles (“Where I am, there is Germany,” he said), and his self-conscious role as a 20th-century Goethe. Not until Golo’s frank, perceptive memoir of 1986 do we begin to understand why the three oldest children were homosexual, and why Klaus and Michael committed suicide.


Escape to Life, written in English by Erika and Claus and published by Houghton Mifflin in the spring of 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, is an autobiography, a portrait of their father and an effective piece of anti-Nazi propaganda. In The Turning Point Klaus explains: “The Boston publisher wanted Erika and me to compile the characters and the experiences of our fellow refugees in a comprehensive yet dramatic account. The volume thus produced was supposed to become a land of analytical and anecdotal “Who’s Who” reviewing the personnel and the accomplishments of the German anti-Hitler emigration. The somewhat euphemistic title agreed upon was Escape to Life.” They convincingly argue that true German culture is embodied in the illustrious émigrés—in Einstein, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, the writers Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger, Bruno Frank, and Erich Remarque, the conductor Bruno Walter, the actresses Elisabeth Bergner, Lotte Lehman, and Luise Rainer, the directors Max Reinhardt and Ernst Lubitsch—who left Germany and opposed Nazi barbarism.

Before describing their childhood and early life (both were still in their early 30’s) as well as Thomas’ life and their relationship with him, Erika and Klaus recount two crucial and oft-repeated stories about Thomas’ exile. He and Katia happened to be in Switzerland when the Nazis took power and burnt the Reichstag while blaming their political enemies for the fire. Their oldest children believed it was dangerous for them to return to Germany. Knowing their phone was tapped, they told the parents that the weather was so bad and the spring-cleaning of the house so disruptive that it would be better if they did not come back. The parents, unaccustomed to such subterfuge, had some difficulty deciphering the message. The Nazis seized Thomas’ house, car, money, and possessions, but Erika was determined to rescue his current manuscript on Joseph and His Brothers. Using her house key, she risked her life to sneak inside at night and steal back the precious manuscript.

The context of Escape to Life demands a dignified and flattering portrait of Thomas as leader of the emigration. But there are some hints, between the lines, of his repressive power and godlike authority at home. They seldom saw their father, who demanded absolute quiet, except in the “terrible moments” when he suddenly appeared to chastize them for disturbing his work. They associated him with the vague smell of cigar smoke, eau-de-cologne, and dust from his books. A highly accomplished performer, he read children’s stories to them when they were young and from his own works when they grew up. “It was in this way,” they write, “that we came to know The Magic Mountain, Felix Krull, and the Joseph novels as they came into being.” But these readings (did any of his children dare venture a criticism?) may have been too much of a good thing. A photograph in Donald Prater’s biography suggests a penance, in which the gathered family looks positively stupefied and Thomas reads on—and on—from his own work. Erika and Klaus define the great theme of his work as “the motive of a love which burns the more unquenchably just because it is hopeless.”

The remoteness from his children—a recurrent theme in all the memoirs—was well known to their classmates, who pointedly asked: “Does your father ever trouble his head about you?” Klaus and Erika admit that he did not seem to think about them, but influenced them indirectly through his personal values and “living example,” through “the atmosphere of our home, the feeling of spiritual responsibility, the discipline of work, the regularity of life, the cheerfulness, the calm, the gravity, always tinged with irony.” But if truth be told, these admirable values came to them as much from Katia as from Thomas.

Klaus’ The Turning Point (1942), written in English and published during the war, inevitably repeats some of the anecdotes in his previous book. He describes once again Thomas’ strait-laced father and exotic Brazilian mother, his childhood in the narrow medieval streets of Lüback, his Tonio Kröger-like schooldays, brief stint in a Munich insurance company, unheroic military service, work on the satirical magazine Simplicissimus, and his idyllic early years with Heinrich in Rome and Palestrina, which culminated in the spectacular success of Buddenbrooks. Klaus also describes the wealth of Katia’s family, the Pringsheims, and Thomas’ courtship and marriage. But Klaus’ own book is less formal and propagandistic than the book he wrote with Erika, more honest and revealing about his hopeless rivalry with his father.

Klaus describes Thomas as “a Bohemian with a “guilty conscience”—full of nostalgia for the lost paradise of his patrician childhood; hankering, with a sort of ironic fervency, for what he had abandoned and could never regain.” He calls Thomas, who never spanked the children, gentle and good, kindly and ironic. He is both touchy and lenient, weary and preoccupied, living in his own world and completely aloof from what goes on in the house. Like an Old Testament patriarch, and without even noticing the presence of the children, Thomas announced the outbreak of war in August 1914 by prophesying: “a bloody sword is going to appear in the sky.” Klaus calls Reflections of a Non-Political Man, Thomas’ massive retort to Heinrich’s opposition to the war, which took four long years to write, “a political blunder of impressive proportions.”

Driven to establish his own literary reputation, Klaus records in his diary at the age of 14: “I must, must, must become famous.” When he reaches maturity, the emphasis shifts from his father to himself. As the son of a noted author, it seems expedient, Klaus writes in the third person, “to exploit his father’s prestige and contacts. But his vanity, or his sense of honor, prevented him from doing so—at least, for a while.” The last, telling phrase expresses his lifelong conflict. When Klaus began to make his mark, an Oedipal cartoon in Simplicissimus portrayed Thomas, full of grief and suspicion, looking askance at Klaus, who observes: “I am told, Father, that the son of a genius cannot be a genius himself. Therefore, you are no genius.”

Thomas’ attitude to Klaus was, as usual, distant and ironic. When Klaus decided to leave school and (following a short-lived impulse) become a ballet-dancer, Thomas, who had no prejudices against the profession, quite reasonably “wondered if I was fit for it. Wasn’t I rather on the gawky side?” When Klaus wrote a play, he unwisely imitated Thomas by reading it aloud to the family. After the reading there was a long and dismal silence. Thomas, summoning up all his tact and mercy, murmured: “Strange. Very strange, indeed.” Always eager for his father’s approval and constantly disappointed by not getting it, Klaus sadly confesses: “He never seemed to remember exactly with whom I lived, which book I was working on, or where I had been spending the time since he had seen me last.” The most Thomas could offer, with a solemn jocularity that seemed to foresee failure, was: “Good luck, my son! . . . And come home when you are wretched and forlorn!”

In a key passage Klaus tries to define himself in opposition to Thomas, yet ends by submitting to his profound influence: “I prided myself on being disorderly and eccentric, as my father is punctual and disciplined. I reveled in mysticism, for I thought him a skeptic. . . . He is by instinct and tradition a Protestant: I was attracted to Catholicism. With the one exception of Nietzsche, most of the great men in whose works and characters he took particular interest left me rather cool”—Wagner, Frederick the Great, Goethe, Ibsen, August von Platen, and Theodor Fontane. While dissenting from Thomas’ specific tastes and opinions, Klaus could not help accepting his general evaluations, intellectual attitudes, and concept of the psychology of the artist, which “has essentially influenced my own views of the artistic mission and conflict. . . . I had his terminology in my fingertips, his images in my blood. The contradictions of my feeling could not prevent me from seeing through his eyes the great developments of cultural history.”

Two aspects of The Turning Point help explain Klaus’ tragic death: his almost incestuous attachment to Erika and the high proportion of suicides among his family and friends, Describing Katia’s relationship with her twin brother, for whom Klaus was named and whom Thomas satirized as an ineffectual aesthete in “Blood of the Walsungs,” he observes: “Hand in hand with her twin brother, Klaus, a young musician, she roved the streets of Munich. Everybody was struck by their peculiar charm and puzzled by their rapid dialogues bristling with secret formulas, tender allusions, enigmatic jokes. . . . [The] two bewitched infants knew and loved each other exclusively.” Without acknowledging the similarity, Klaus himself attempted to strengthen his own identity by establishing the same sort of intense and rather perverse relationship with Erika. Though born a year and nine days after his sister, Klaus always celebrated his birthday on her day—November 9. They dressed alike, not only as children, but also as adults, when Erika adopted a man’s short hair, jacket, tie and trousers. During their American lecture tour they told the press they were twins, and narcissistic photographs show them gazing into each other’s eyes.

In Escape to Life they call Thomas’ sister Carla “an actress [who] died young,” but in The Turning Point Klaus describes the glaring flirtations and inadequate talent of his fleshy, voluptuous aunt and admits that in July 1910 she “committed suicide before her theatrical career really started.” He also writes that he has “lost more friends through suicide . . .than through diseases, crimes, or accidents.” He specifically mentions, in addition to the ghastly examples of the painter Jules Pascin and the writer Ernst Toller, the daughter of Arthur Schnitzler and the son of Hugo von Hoffmansthal, and prophetically concludes: “It is no easy job to be the child of a genius.” It is highly ironic that Heinrich and Klaus are now mainly remembered as the brother and son of Thomas, and for the successful films that were made of their commonplace novels: The Blue Angel and Mephisto.

In A Writer’s Notebook Somerset Maugham, who was trained as a doctor, urged writers to do justice to the end and extinction of the lives they describe: “In most biographies it is the subject’s death which is most interesting. The last inevitable step has a fascination and even a practical interest which no previous event can equal. I cannot understand why a biographer, having undertaken to give the world details of a famous man’s life, should hesitate, as so often happens, to give details of his death.” Erika’s The Last Year of Thomas Mann, written in German (like the next three books) and published in 1956, seems to follow Maugham’s injunction. Partly modeled on Thomas’ The Making of “Doctor Faustus”, it gives a detailed, poignant account of his intense creative life in this brief period of time and of the disease that finally killed him.

Erika’s filial memoir, the first to be published after Thomas’ death, still maintains a conventionally reverent attitude by stressing his modesty, kindness, and humor. As if to soften the pain of his death, she emphasizes, at the beginning and end of her memoir, that his demise was gentle and “warmed by grace.” During his final year the energetic octogenarian, having left America for Switzerland during the McCarthy witch-hunts, continued to write, lecture, and travel as he had always done.(Five hundred words a day for 60 years adds up to a long shelf of books.) He completed major essays on Chekhov and Schiller (both of whom had unusually sweet and sympathetic characters, and died in their mid-40’s of tuberculosis). He also wrote an introduction to his early play, Fiorenza, began an introduction to an anthology of short stories, and wrote 46 pages of a new dramatic work, Luther’s Wedding.

An accomplished speaker and performer of the highest rank, he read the Schiller essay—cut by Erika from 120 to 20 pages—in both West and East Germany. He was made an honorary citizen of Lübeck; celebrated his last birthday, to worldwide acclaim, in Switzerland; and after receiving the gold-and-enameled cross of the Commander of the Order of Nassau-Orange in Holland, had a private audience with Queen Juliana. On holiday in Noordwijk he worked, like Gustav von Aschenbach, while sitting in a chair on the seashore. In the face of nuclear destruction and in conjunction with other prominent intellectuals, he also launched an idealistic “appeal and warning to governments and peoples of the world. The doctrine [he] sought to inculcate was that not only was the physical continuation of human life at stake but also . . .the moral justification for man’s existence.”

The first sign of his fatal illness occurred in Noordwijk, three weeks before his death, with a dragging pain in his left leg that was originally diagnosed as a thrombosis, or a dangerous blood clot. He was flown back to Zurich for more specialized treatment, and his appearance, after his holiday, seemed to Erika reassuring. His narrow head was bronzed by the sun, he suffered no pain and did not complain of feeling ill. Two weeks later, on August 8, when she came home from her own rest cure, he had lost both weight and appetite, and had visibly deteriorated.

He collapsed on August 11, and was given intravenous drugs, blood transfusions, flasks of oxygen and finally morphine. His last words to Erika were “I can’t cope with visits. I am so weak.” He died so quietly on Aug.12, 1955 that Katia, at his bedside, did not realize that he had stopped breathing. The autopsy report, which provided morbid details worthy of The Magic Mountain, explained the reason for his sudden collapse, after he seemed to be making good progress, and for the failure of the most drastic and powerful remedies. His last illness, in fact, was misdiagnosed. The cause of death was not thrombosis, a secondary symptom, but sclerosis of the arteries of the legs, which led to a small tear in the arterial wall and to a fatal hemorrhage.

Like all his children, Monika confessed that Thomas was the most important figure in her life. In Past and Present (1960) she writes that he adored Christmas, dogs, and music, especially Wagner (his one bond with Katia’s father). He was particularly fond of soup, which he ate “majestically” with a silver spoon, as well as of ice cream, both of which soothed his nervous stomach. On summer afternoons he would lie on a deck chair with a handkerchief over his face and even play tennis in the garden (Thomas Mann as jock!). His family nickname, the Magician, came not from his superhuman insight, magical powers with novels, or creation of The Magic Mountain, but rather from a costume he once wore to a fancy dress ball, complete with a fez and magician’s wand held in fingers glistening with rings. Monika also describes Thomas, in more negative terms, as a strong, controlled personality—distant, aloof, and withdrawn—who constantly turned inward on himself. He had a light step but an overwhelming presence, “dominated [everyone] in a passive way” and “had an intimidating and repressive effect on us children.”

Monika makes some interesting connections between Thomas’ life and work. The bearskin rug on which the incestuous twins make love in “Blood of the Walsungs” actually existed in his own bedroom. Like Hans Castorp in the “Fullness of Harmony” chapter of The Magic Mountain, Thomas cranked the victrola, with natural authority, patience, and care, during musical evenings at home. The teenagers’ dance, with Negro jazz music, was realistically described in “Disorder and Early Sorrow.” Though Thomas did not join the eccentric merriment, “he did stand in the doorway. . .his arms crossed, a smile on his lips, and patent-leather slipper tapping rhythmically.” And, like Aschenbach with Tadzio in “Death in Venice,” he joyfully observed the nimble body of a tanned, well-built boy who practiced gymnastics on the beach from morning to night.

According to Monika, “a near-fanatic liking for uniformity and continuity always characterized his being.” He was devastated by the loss of his homes when he went into exile. Golo found that the summer house at Bad Tölz, sold during wartime austerity in 1917, had been turned into a residence for nursing nuns. Another summer house, amidst the pine woods and high dunes of the Baltic coast, became the hunting lodge of Hermann Göring, who killed all the wild elk in the surrounding countryside. The luxurious Munich house on Porchingerstrasse, Klaus discovered after World War II, had been taken over by the S. S. and turned into an establishment for Aryan “Hitler-brides,” who produced illegitimate but racially pure children for the Nazi state.

The core of Monika’s book, like all the memoirs, concerns her relations with her father and her attempt to create an identity of her own. In the summer before the Great War, when she was only a few years old, she noticed him staring at her long, silky, “provocative hair.” “I pretended not to notice his glance and the slight twitching of his [magician’s] hand,” she writes. “Then I felt an imperceptible movement in my hair and, before I knew what was happening, the knife-rest had become hopelessly entangled in my curls. . . . I was torn between despair and delight. Papa pretended amused outrage.” In this cryptic incident, Monika flirts with her father, then “pretends” not to notice his reaction and feels ambivalent about arousing him. He also “pretends” amused outrage after awkwardly entangling the knife-rest in her hair—a strange paternal response to her provocation.

In school, later on, the classmates’ query, “”Are you the child of [Thomas Mann]?” had flattered and intimidated us simultaneously.” Like Klaus, she didn’t know if it was a blessing or a curse. Desperately seeking (again like Klaus) her father’s approval, she records his disappointing dismissal, “Moni is roguish, nothing more.” She rather pathetically remarks of his godlike judgment: “The “nothing more” indicates that, though Papa had pronounced against my being anything “more,” he had considered the possibility.” Eager for any praise, no matter how limited and qualified, she treasures his description of her writing as “saucy little pieces” and his hopeful inscription in Doctor Faustus: “For Moni. She’ll understand it all right.”

Only when Monika observes her aged European father out of place in New York after the war, does she seize the advantage of youth: “the shoulders really did sag a little, and his neck was inclined a little to one side—he seemed a little sad, a little on guard, a little withdrawn in the face of this city’s power,” Monika never expresses in her own book what she finally confided to Thomas’ biographer Donald Prater in the 1990’s. The neglected daughter of a father who had openly preferred her two sisters, she remained bitter about her role as outsider in the family, and could not recall ever having had a real talk with her father.

In her charming and chatty, amusing, and anecdotal Unwritten Memories (1974), the practical and commonsensical Katia, who justly compares herself to Leonore in Fidelio, conveys with Wilhelmine propriety the public image of her husband. Her conventional memoir, like her description of Thomas’ essay on Wagner, portrays her husband “as an ambiguous and remarkable figure with his great gifts as well as his human weaknesses and peculiarities.”

The nervous, sensitive, and melancholic Thomas never got along with Katia’s ailing, gruff, and impatient father. Alfred Pringsheim was reluctant to lose his youngest child and only daughter, and disapproved of her marrying a “rather frivolous” writer. Her older brothers always mocked their buttoned-up brother-in-law as “the liverish cavalry officer.” All of which explains why “Blood of the Walsungs” was originally suppressed by her father, who strongly objected to the satiric portrayal of his Jewish family.

Thomas based his works more on reality than imagination and never worried about the effect they would have on the people who inspired his characters. The bizarre minor figures in The Magic Mountain were the same people Katia had described in her letters to Thomas from a Swiss sanatorium. Katia writes that Gerhart Hauptmann’s aura of vagueness, inarticulate speech, and convincing gestures inspired Pieter Peeperkorn in that novel, and gives a vivid account of his impressive incoherence: “Well, Herr Mann—I mean—we two, we are after all—we are brothers after all, so we could . . .couldn’t we? In short, enough.” She also told Thomas the pathological story that became the basis of The Black Swan. One day a friend of Katia’s, in love with a much younger man, revealed her triumphant secret: “”Just imagine! I’ve been menstruating again.” It turned out to be cancer of the uterus.” Besides the Pringsheims in “Blood of the Walsungs,” Thomas used other members of his family in his fiction. Katia was the model for Imma in Royal Highness and for Rachel in Joseph and His Brothers; Elisabeth for Ellie in “Disorder and Early Sorrow”; and Michael’s son Frido for Nepo, who dies a ghastly death from spinal meningitis in Doctor Faustus.

Katia also tells two dramatic stories of threats to Thomas’ life in the Nazi period. During an anti-Nazi lecture in the Beethoven Hall in Berlin in 1930, the Fascist audience became extremely hostile. His friend the conductor Bruno Walter, who was familiar with the concert hall, warned him: “I wouldn’t go out by the main stairway now. You never know what might happen. I know my way around here. I’ll take you down the back stairs.” When they were flying from Sweden to London after the outbreak of war in September 1939, Katia learned that they had to fly very low while crossing Nazi territory. “Yesterday they even forced us to reduce our speed,” the stewardess told her, “and they flew so close beside us that they could look in through all the windows to find out who was in the plane.” Protecting him as always, Katia insisted on exchanging seats and taking her husband’s place next to the window. The following day someone on the same flight was shot to death by a Nazi pilot who was probably trying to kill Thomas Mann.

Golo Mann, the most brilliant and intellectual of the children, published Reminiscences and Reflections (1986) 30 years after Thomas’ death and six years after Katia’s. Taking advantage of the passage of time and the far freer cultural climate, Golo pries open the vault containing the family secrets and gives a more realistic, probing, and convincing picture of Thomas. Golo records that when he was only three years old, in his father’s study but being very good and quiet, he suddenly (and characteristically) asked: “I’m not disturbing you, Papa, am I?” That same year, having seen the Kaiser at a royal funeral, he told Thomas that the King hadn’t worn a crown. “Instead of explaining,” Golo writes, “that nowadays kings wore their crowns only on special occasions, he waved me off in annoyance. A defeat”—like those slight but wounding dismissals that Klaus and Monika had suffered. Caught stealing sugar at the age of four, the solemn little Golo was glad to have his guilt assuaged by Thomas’ gentle reprimand. “He was trembling,” Golo writes in the third person, “his little heart pounding, his eyes large and frightened. . . . He was immensely relieved and grateful and followed [his father] with wide, thoughtful eyes for a long time.”

All the children mentioned Thomas’ angry yet mild remonstrance when they disturbed his work. But Golo describes, for the first time, the “terrible outbursts” of the wrathful Jehovah and his frightening change of personality during the Great War: “he could still project an aura of kindness, but for the most part we experienced only silence, sternness, nervousness, or anger. I can remember all too well certain scenes at mealtimes, outbreaks of rage and brutality that were directed at my brother Klaus but brought tears to my own eyes.”

Besides revealing that Thomas had more food than the children during the war, Golo also mentions that Katia had two miscarriages, and had confessed that she married not for love but “only because I wanted children.” Katia suggests that Thomas did not get on well with her family. Golo explains, more bluntly, the considerable animus behind “Blood of the Walsungs”: “he was not fond of his mother- and brother-in-law and could not stand. . .his father-in-law.” Katia states, unconvincingly, that since “my husband and I never quarreled, and since the atmosphere was very harmonious, it was not unfavorable for the children.” Golo, contradicting this idyllic picture, describes the horrific effect of the quarrels on the children: “any kind of friction was excruciatingly painful to my tender soul—my father’s outbursts of anger, of which there were more than enough during those [war] years, a quarrel between my parents. . . . I writhed in silent agony. . . . Their clashes caused me considerable sorrow.”

Golo discusses two vital issues that the others shoved under the carpet: the great number of suicides in the family and Thomas’ secret homosexuality. The wife of Katia’s brother Heinz killed herself and so did Heinrich’s second wife, an ex-bargirl, in 1944. Thomas’ sister Carla had committed suicide in 1910 and his sister Julia in 1927. Golo, who writes that Thomas condemned suicide on moral grounds, describes his father’s response to Julia’s death: “TM was deeply shaken, not because the death of this sister, long since [like Heinrich’s wife] become an embarrassment, meant a loss, but because, as I heard him tell my mother, it was like lightning striking very near him.” Both Klaus and Michael, genetically disposed to follow their relatives’ example, took the same way out when confronted with overwhelming depression.

After Thomas had gone into exile, he asked Golo to pack his diaries in a suitcase and send them to Lugano, then added: “I am counting on you to be discreet and not read any of these things!” Unlike Erika, who took great risks to rescue the Joseph manuscript, Golo naively handed the suitcase over to their chauffeur, who offered to take it to the train station but gave it instead to the Nazi authorities. Fearing the worst, Thomas exclaimed that the Nazis would publish excerpts in their newspaper: “They will ruin everything, they will ruin me. My life will never be right again.” In the end, Thomas’ lawyer managed to recover the diaries, which were published from 1977 to 1995. When Golo, who “had never really been able to part” from his mother, finally read the dangerous diaries, he learned that the homosexual attraction and longing described in “Tonio Kröger” and “Death in Venice,” in The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, were based on Thomas’ secret feelings, and he, Erika and Klaus (like J.R. Ackerley) had much more in common with their father than they had ever realized.


Most major 20th-century writers found children incompatible with artistic creativity. Authors from James, Shaw, Proust, and Woolf to Lawrence, Eliot, Auden, and Iris Murdoch were homosexual or never married, or did not have children or never recognized them if they did, or (like Pound and Wyndham Lewis) simply gave their offspring away. And the children of writers like Frost and Joyce had disastrous lives. Though Thomas Mann did not believe marriage and art were mutually exclusive, he was, as Yeats put it, “forced to choose, /Perfection of the life or of the work.”

The family memoirs of Thomas Mann portray the difficulty of being an artist’s child, and the conflict between revelation and repression mirrors their ambivalent attitude to their father. Thomas appears in these generally reverent memoirs as a reserved and forbidding figure. Except for Elizabeth, his favorite, he feels no fondness for young children and often seems unaware of their existence. He is usually working or exhausted from his efforts. Critical and dismissive, he judges his children with implacable severity. They enjoyed the advantages of Thomas’ culture, wealth, fame, prestige and influence. But as they grew up they found it very difficult to free themselves from their father, to establish independent values and a separate identity. As one of Tolstoy’s children explained: “Nothing can be worse than being the son of a great man. Whatever you do, people compare you with your father.”

All memoirs are self-exploratory. They reshape experience as they describe the personalities and arrange the events of a life. These books demonstrate the continuing struggle in Mann’s children between a natural desire to venerate their world famous father and to create their own self-image. Despite their wealth of detail, the man and artist remain enigmatic and elusive. Erika was closest to Thomas and remained the true keeper of the flame. Klaus could not resolve the conflict between respect and rivalry. Monika, despite her nostalgic tone, remained embittered to the end. Michael withdrew into scholarly objectivity and concentrated on Thomas’ work. Elisabeth, the most beloved, felt no need to work out her feelings in a memoir. Golo, a trained historian, provided a more perceptive and penetrating portrait. Their memoirs help us understand the world in which Mann lived and thought, and measure the effect of his character and art on his family.


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