Vienna, 1882 — Stamford, Connecticut, USA, 1972
Translator, writer, feminist, social activist, precursor of the Stefan Zweig cult.
One of the first women to graduate from the University of Vienna, née Burger, the descendant of two non-observant Jewish families: the Burgers and the Feigls (apparently the mother, Theresia, was not Jewish).
The brothers and sisters (five boys and one girl, Leopoldine, Poldi) all had a higher education and were kept away from churches and temples, something they carried into adulthood with the exception of Friderike, who at the age of 23 converted to Catholicism, acquired the middle name Maria (as was the custom in the Austrian Empire), and also a great religious devotion which she never abandoned. (q.v. Burger, Siegfried/Ferdinand; Störk, Alix/Höller, Susi)
Her first marriage was to Felix von Winternitz (1877-1951), whom she had met at secondary school, also a Jew who had converted to Catholicism four years previously and whose dream was to follow a diplomatic career under the wing of his father, Jakob, who held a high-ranking post at the Foreign Ministry. In the end he had to make do with a lesser post at the Ministry of Finance.
It was an empty marriage which soon produced a daughter, Alexia Elizabeth (Alix, born 1907) and two years later saw the arrival of Susana Benedictine (Susi). An unambitious, absent womanizer, Felix left the upkeep of the family to his father and wife. Friderike tried working as a literary journalist, but not managing to earn enough, she turned to teaching French and history.
The romance with the elegant poet and playwright Stefan Zweig began at a Viennese garden party one summer’s night in 1908 (Alix still a newborn baby): they saw each other and simply didn’t forget. About four years later (she now the mother of a second daughter), on another summer’s night at an open air restaurant, they exchanged glances again. This time with an intensity neither could ignore.
The initiative was left to Friderike, as it was over the next two decades: she wrote him a letter, they began meeting and talking a lot. The first appearance of his future companion in his diaries read: “...a truly sensitive woman, the most delicate being imaginable, endowed with great emotional energy...a fragile and delicate creature, but touching, infinitely touching...”
Six months later: “...Visit from Friderike. Suave and affectionate. I wish she could free herself of the sensuality which perturbs her, coming precisely from her, the sensation I have of her admirable universe. She spent the night here: makes me happy, I recover my lucidity...”
He took her to Paris to introduce her to his friends, above all the recently inducted master, Romain Rolland, and when the war began they began living in semi-detached houses in Kalksburg, on the outskirts of Vienna. It being impossible to divorce in the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire, the arrangement of these two houses suited them both: it wasn’t a marriage, or even cohabiting: it served the appearances and Friderike’s religious convictions, leaving her free to look after her daughters while giving Stefan complete autonomy to immerse himself in literature without domestic concerns.
Due to complications from dysentery suffered by Susi when a baby, Friderike took her to paediatric clinics and sanatoriums, leaving her companion free to travel to conferences and book launches.
“I was able help him in so many ways, as well as interest myself in the progress of his work, and occasionally suggest new themes. My main task, however, was to maintain an atmosphere of peace around him, dig trenches around his spiritual stronghold. He didn’t allow me to help him with typing or shorthand, he always said that I could be of more use doing research, translating quotations, reading and summarizing books received and thanking the senders,” Friderike recorded in her memoirs. “As the guardian of his inner world I was engaged in protecting him from the demands of the outside world. My range of duties was broad, but insurmountable.”
This scheme crystallized from 1915, towards the beginning of the Great War, when Zweig launched himself into the composition of his first great work, Jeremiah. Friderike doesn’t mention it, but her main achievement during that period was helping Stefan to release himself from his first attack of depression provoked by the conflict, and the contradictory emotions it caused. Warned by her, Romain Rolland encouraged his pupil from Geneva, helping him face the idea of remaining against the tide, thus strengthening a friendship which endured for over 25 years.
In 1917, during a visit to Salzburg, the couple thought it the ideal place to live. Later, Friderike by chance found a ruined mansion on Kapuzinerberg, in woodlands. Stefan bought it in her name. After the war, she also revealed herself as extraordinary work foreman capable of overcoming the shortage of builders and material. By 1919 the small palace was comfortably habitable.
The establishment of the Austrian republic eliminated all restrictions of a religious nature and the divorce between Felix and Friderike von Winternitz was quickly approved. However, the fervent Catholic preferred not to attend the civil marriage ceremony herself and appointed as proxy one of Stefan’s best friends, Felix Braun, a former Jew and also a convert.
During the next 14 years the routine continued to be unshakable, despite successive political, social and economic crises, both in neighbouring Germany and Austria itself. Successive literary successes brought excellent financial gains. Zweig was a bestseller not only in the German-speaking world but all over the world. As well as widely translated, his novellas began to be adapted for the screens with quite some success.
The house at Kapuzinerberg 5 became a point of reference during the summer when the crème de la crème of Europe’s intellectuals came to Salzburg to watch, take part in or be inspired by the celebrated music and theatre festival. From administrator of the “factory”, Friderike took on the role of hostess fully integrated into her husband’s circle of friends. In the intervals she had to be the first to detect his moods, explosions and depressions, quickly addressing them with the most suitable antidote.
The first signs of shockwaves in this apparently unshakable structure were recorded in Stefan’s diary in late October 1931, when he was involved – with customary anxiety – in writing the biography of Marie Antoinette. On the eve of turning 50 this tireless worker couldn’t bear the idleness of his by now grown-up stepdaughters (aged 24 and 21, respectively).
In defending his daughters, Friderike only inflamed the quarrelling. She didn’t perceive that her husband’s decision to rent an apartment in London to work on the biography of Mary Stuart masked an existential crisis on the part of the restless, mercurial author, as well as a conjugal one. Stefan had transformed the sensual girlfriend into an efficient manager of the domestic-professional Betrieb, the firm. And when she caught her husband groping the London secretary, Lotte Altmann, when they were all in Nice, on the Côte d’Azur, the consternation didn’t arise out of her wounded self-esteem at the double betrayal (she herself had hired her at an organization of German refugees), but the realization that the grey hair and extra weight she had acquired as jack-of-all-trades at the service of the man she adored were now worthless.
The three years which passed between the initial infidelity (1935) and the final divorce (1938) were very painful for Friderike. It was all reasonably amicable, settled through lawyers, but Stefan’s natural vacillations were answered by Lotte’s family (mainly her brother, Manfred Altmann [q.v.]), with very severe pressure indeed, ignoring the fact that they were all refugees, the victims of Nazi terror.
Romain Rolland, who was always close to Friderike, tried to interfere on her behalf when she was expatriated in Paris without documents, asking Stefan to include her as consort in his naturalization request to the British government. This meant that from France she would have to move for a time to England until the passport was issued. Zweig reacted extremely rudely to Rolland’s appeal, something which may have compounded their disaffection, which up to then had been limited to ideological spheres.
From Paris, Friderike foresaw Stefan’s growing pessimism from the day the Second World War broke out. She guessed what would follow, mobilized his Parisian friends and soon Stefan received invitations to conferences in the French capital. He bid Europe farewell before its ruin.
The decisive efforts by Stefan to guarantee the escape by Friderike, her daughters and sons-in-law, from France to New York, wiped out the violent transformation Stefan had recently suffered. The unexpected reunion of the former couple in the lobby of a building on Broadway, New York, on 23rd January 1941, impressed them just as much.
During the following months Friderike, Lotte and Stefan met innumerable times, among them at the cocktail party which Stefan and Lotte held for their refugee friends in New York, at the Wyndham Hotel.
The typing of Stefan’s autobiography brought the triangle together for the last time for a few weeks in June and July 1941. In order to escape the inclement New York summer, Friderike had rented an apartment in Ossining, on the banks of the Hudson. Feeling insecure about events and people, and not being able to rely on documentation, Stefan turned to his ex-wife’s memory (with whom he had lived closely from 1912) and rented a nice villa nearby.
Anxious about the developments in the war and his own situation as an expatriate without a home (returning to England at that stage in the conflict was impossible), he decided like many times before to fight depression by launching himself into his work.
He wrote during the morning and in the afternoon recounted the facts to Friderike, then reviewed the texts typed by Lotte and Alexia, the elder ex-stepdaughter who had been called upon to help. It was a tense, insane routine for all concerned, except perhaps Friderike.
The work was abruptly curtailed before they finished. Friends visiting Ossining later recalled how dejected Lotte seemed. The intense correspondence with her sister-in-law, Hannah, wasn’t published in its entirety, which heightened doubts and suspicions which arose following Friderike’s second book of memoirs, Spiegelungen des Lebens [Life’s Reflections], published in 1964.
The decision to return to Brazil was taken to please Lotte. The choice of the United States (should they have obtained residency visas), even if they had gone to live in distant California (which Stefan liked and where Thomas Mann was living), wouldn’t have prevented Friderike from exercising the powers of affection she had recently won back.
Back in Brazil, Stefan returned to corresponding assiduously with his ex-wife, generally with a P.S. by Lotte. On the day of his 60th birthday he received from her and her daughters a loving telegram and a gift of a collection of works about Michel de Montaigne, his last spiritual guide.
Of the more than 20 farewell letters written by Stefan, the last was to Friderike, on the Sunday itself, 22nd February 1942, hours before ingesting the morphine which killed him. He wrote in English, to prevent the American and Brazilian censors from restraining a text in the German language. He didn’t have time to send it: he left it among the papers to be handed to his publisher and executor Abrahão Koogan. He lovingly refers to Friderike’s daughters as in the old days -- “the children” – and bids farewell to his former companion “with love and friendship”.
Alfred Zweig (q.v.), Stefan’s only brother, was offended by the role of widow which Friderike took on. Above all when she published one of the four valuable works which she left about the life and work of her author-husband. She took on this role thanks to the legion of friends which were also hers. She maintained friendships with all of them.
And particularly with Scholem Asch (q.v.), the great Yiddish language author, whom Zweig held in great admiration. She visited him many times when they lived in Stamford, Connecticut, and liked the place so much that Asch and his wife, Mathilde, found her a nice house to buy. She died there. During the time they were neighbours (Asch later moved to Israel), Friderike supplied him with references for the last volume of the trilogy which caused such an outcry in Jewish circles, the main character of which is her patron saint (Mary, of 1949).
The book celebrating her 70th birthday (Liber Amicorum Friderike Maria Zweig, 1952) is inscribed with an exemplary web of affections which time, wars and forgetfulness were never able to unravel.
Adress listed: 228 West 11th Street [crossed out]; 1 Sheridan Square, New York. Tel. c/o Hoeller Chelsea 2-7895.