Death in Venice, Birth of Celebrity

Gustav Mahler’s very public demise marked the beginning of a new age of fascination with the private lives of the famous

Features Modern Life Music
Turning point in the fame game: Gustav Mahler's death mask

The cast of characters could have walked out of the pilot for a television period serial. The great musician is dying, his trophy wife at the bedside with a letter from her lover. One of the doctors romances her. Another makes the cover of Time magazine. 

They travel to Paris to consult a scientific genius. Reporters throng his doorstep, opposite the Bois de Boulogne. The great scientist graciously drops them a soundbite, twice a day. In Venice, a novelist reads the newspapers and models his anti-hero on the dying man. In Vienna, the cultural elite crowd his deathbed. The wife, now widow, is nowhere to be seen. Cue the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth symphony.

The death of Gustav Mahler 100 years ago, at the dawn of the mass media age, marked the end of personal privacy for public figures and its replacement by a celebrity cult in which no medical confidence was sacrosanct and death itself was a springboard for survivor fame and media fortunes.

In February 1911 Mahler was the most talked-about musician in New York and Vienna, two cities whose culture he transformed. In ten years as director of the Vienna Opera he deposed the dominance of singers and aimed for an equal collaboration of all art forms. In America he demonstrated that orchestral concerts could be more than just a seasonal repetition of family favourites; he played for workers and students, introducing a gamut of unheard works. His utopian idealism did not make him popular with the paying classes but he was the talk of both towns, so much so that cab drivers would point him out to their passengers as an eccentric attraction.

He fell sick in New York after being waylaid in a legal ambush by wealthy ladies who tried to bludgeon him into signing a new Philharmonic contract. Against doctor’s orders, he conducted a concert of new Italian works with a serious throat infection and barely made it back conscious to his hotel. The family physician, Joseph Fränkel, suspected the onset of endocarditis, a heart disease incurable at the time, and called in the world authority from the nearby Mount Sinai Hospital. 

Emanuel Libman, 38, had already stamped his name on an intestinal germ and was working on a theory that endocarditis might not be triggered by bacterial infection; it could be verrucous or viral, a variant soon to be known as Libman-Sachs endocarditis. A bachelor workaholic famed for on-sight diagnoses, Libman practised at the hard-pressed Mount Sinai (formerly Jews Hospital) because well-endowed Columbia would not employ a Jew. His patients included Sarah Bernhardt, Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein. It is said of Libman that he once looked down a White House dinner table at President Warren Harding, and whispered to Vice-President Calvin Coolidge that he would succeed within two months. A man of monolithic certainties, he saw from the blood-test results that Mahler was doomed to die.

The patient demanded to be told the truth, then asked to be taken home, to Vienna. Libman suggested he stop off in Paris to see the Pasteurian bacteriologist, André Chantemesse, who might stall the infection and buy him some extra time. While the consultation took place, Doctor Fränkel in the next room was making moves on Alma Mahler. Alma, for her part, was trying to arrange a Paris rendezvous with her lover, the future Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. Nobody in this melodrama was in the least bit obscure. Even the assistant who took Mahler’s blood, George Baehr, was the pioneer who persuaded the future Mayor La Guardia to found New York’s first group health insurance plan.

The first the public knew of Gustav Mahler’s illness was a perjurious Philharmonic press release, announcing his temporary withdrawal with “a light case of grippe”. The Philharmonic, playing on under concertmaster Theodore Spiering, was urgently trying to interest the Austrian Felix Weingartner and the Englishman Henry Wood in Mahler’s job. Neither took the bait and the local press quickly lost interest.

Viennese newspapers, by contrast, donned full hunting gear the moment Mahler disembarked in France. Stringers doorstepped the Chantemesse clinic, pestering all who entered and left for news of the famous patient. The Neue Freie Presse, a liberal paper, obtained daily health bulletins from Mahler’s Umgebung, the people around him (presumably Alma). The details it received and published included the patient’s temperature measurements and food intake, with a product-placement emphasis on Metschnikoff’s Bulgarian Milk, a kind of yoghurt that had been recommended to Mahler in New York. Brand and celebrity were in the process of forming a powerful marketing coalition.

Other papers whipped up a blame game in which Alma happily pointed the finger for Mahler’s collapse at those hard-headed New York ladies. Twenty-six Viennese personages led by Baron Rothschild composed a private get-well telegram to Mahler, which they duly leaked to the press. Bruno Walter, Mahler’s protégé, wired a journalist that his mentor’s illness was “protracted but not dangerous”. Chantemesse, alert to his own prestige, dropped airy hints of a false remission. Every casual word from the clinic doorstep was reported as medical fact and then heavily masticated by well-padded columnists. 

The feeding frenzy around Mahler’s sickbed was of an unprecedented indecency, the like of which was possibly not seen again in Paris until the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997, when many of the same conditions prevailed — the conflicting clinic reports, the hopeless fight to save a life, the frantic search for a cause, the exotic brands, the wild accusations and the self-exculpation of the mass media from any moral responsibility for fomenting public hysteria. 

Across Europe, dispatches on Mahler’s condition were read around breakfast tables. Thomas Mann, holidaying on an Adriatic island, imprinted Mahler’s features on Gustav von Aschenbach, the protagonist of his novella Death in Venice. Mahler’s train journey to Vienna was covered as if it were a monarch who was dying, not a musician. “Journalists came to the door of the coach of every station in Germany and Austria, eager to obtain the latest bulletin,” noted Alma. At Salzburg, his condition was reported “unchanged”. In Vienna, editors telephoned the hospice every two hours for updates. One newspaper, the Wiener Bilder, published a prurient sketch of Mahler on his deathbed. 

The renowned dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, castigator in chief of Viennese hypocrisy, hung around the hospice grounds in search of inspiration. He ran into the essayist Hermann Bahr and the composer Alban Berg on similar missions. Voyeurs, poseurs and every kind of cultural-intellectual parasite and paparazzo converged in their hundreds, literally hundreds, every day of Mahler’s dying. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which once sacked Mahler as its conductor, sent a massive bouquet of flowers to his room — and an even bigger one to his funeral. 

The city whose functioning ethos was Schein über Sein — appearance above substance — outdid itself in the run-up to Mahler’s death, late on May 18, 1911. Newspaper prose turned purple and every man in the street had a quotable response. A railway porter, scoffed the satirist Karl Kraus, “(who) has often seen Gustav Mahler when he was Director of the Opera […] sadly wipes his eyes with his begrimed blue sleeve”. Thomas Mann ended Death in Venice with the words: “And later that same day, the world was respectfully shocked to receive the news of his death.”

More than just the passing of a great musician, Mahler’s death signifies a turning-point in the evolution of the fame game, the moment when the public seizes the right to know everything about fallen heroes and the secondary right to voice an opinion. Mahler, who stubbornly proclaimed “my time will come”, did not expect the price of fame to be higher than the wages of sin or the focus to be so acutely intense.

It would be hazardous for a historian a hundred years later to ascribe the abolition of traditional reticence around Mahler’s death to any of his attributes or shortcomings. With the advent of telegraphy and the competitive appetites of big newspapers, press conduct was bound to change and it was only a matter of chance who would become the first victim of the new prurience. 

Nevertheless, there is something to be learned from the pusillanimous conduct of the varied Umgebung who attended Mahler’s death and the howling of the wolf-pack beyond, if only as a template for human behaviour much later at the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and the Big Brother magnet, Jade Goody, all of which are obsessively and continually exploited in print, on film and online. 

Fame has changed, of course. Down the century it has been devalued from a reward for creative achievement to a triumph of silicon implants. Its recent deconstruction in Mark-Antony Turnage’s Covent Garden opera Anna Nicole suggests that the art-life-art imitation has taken yet another fresh turn, that reality is no longer an objective consensus but a virtual, selective state of consciousness invented by mass media. 

In the ironic alternatives he planted through all his symphonies, Mahler anticipated the possibilities of unstable realities. As a conductor, his interpretation of the same symphony varied to great extremes of speed and colour from one night to the next. Music, he told players in his orchestra, must reflect changing circumstances and spontaneous mood.

Mahler was also sensitive to the vapidity of celebrity. Given the choice, he would have preferred to confine his fame to those who appreciated his music. Ordering a tombstone, he asked for just one word on it, his surname. “Those who come looking for me will know who I was,” said Mahler, a casualty of the first celebrity chase, “and the rest don’t need to know.”