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The Power of Conversation

Jennifer Weisberg enters the world of the Jewish woman’s salon at the Jewish Museum in New York

Jennifer Weisberg  |  Spring 2005  -  Number 197


It seems hardly fitting that the final efflorescence of German-Jewish culture should have taken place in a living room in Santa Monica, California, but, most remarkably and tragically, it did. Providing a home from home for the myriad émigrés who found themselves adrift in a strange land, Salka Viertel’s Los Angeles salon in the 1930s and 40s was a beacon of Central European civility and culture for Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Arnold Schoenberg, amongst others. A successful actress on the Austrian stage, Viertel left Europe with her director husband Berthold in 1928 to pursue a career in Hollywood. Her extraordinary warmth and hospitality - she was called ‘a hearth, a human fireplace’ - eased the sense of alienation and isolation that many of her salon’s habitués, new to the United States, and often new to the English language, felt.

Yet as distant as Viertel’s modest living room on Mabery Road seems from the coffeehouses of Berlin, Vienna and Paris for which it provided some semblance of a substitute, the emphasis on conversation, intellectual exchange and the quality of her coffee functioned as a bridge between the old world and the new. Christopher Isherwood wrote to her that ‘those days in your great salon have become a legend, and I often have to tell the young about them’.

Sadly, however, though the participants in Viertel’s salon are remembered and revered, she herself, for the most part, has faded into obscurity, a fate shared with many of her fellow salonières. The very essence of the salon, the wit and intensity of its conversation, is ephemeral, lasting only until the last guest leaves. A lively new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York seeks to bring back into clear focus the role that 14 intelligent, impassioned and witty Jewish women played in the origins of modern culture. The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons traces the development of the salon from its earliest days in seventeenth-century France under the aegis of Madame de Rambouillet through the drawing rooms of late-eighteenth-century Berlin, the heated discussions over l’affaire Dreyfus at the home of Geneviève Straus in Belle Époque France, ‘at-homes’ at Gertrude Stein’s apartment on the rue de Fleurus to Salka Viertel’s house in Southern California.

Originally private gatherings that provided an alternative social space to the formality of the French court, salons, more often than not led by aristocratic women, drew a broad range of regular attendees and guests, serving to break down formerly insurmountable social barriers and stereotypes. Women, in particular, benefited from this erosion of convention. Barred from higher education, voting or holding public office, as hostesses they acted instead as arbiters of social taste and change, exerting an influence that belied their status as second-class citizens.

The burden of exclusion was a heavier one for Jewish women, at an even further remove from participation in the public sphere as a result of their religion. The liberation afforded by the salon was profound and bittersweet, as exhibition co-curators Emily Bilski and Emily Braun adeptly demonstrate. For though the salons of Rahel Levin Varnhagen in 1790s Berlin and Geneviève Straus in 1890s Paris attracted a coterie of celebrated habitués, their background was never far from many of their guests’ minds. Indeed, Wilhelm von Humboldt, considering the social options available on a particular evening, noted in a letter that, though he preferred to attend the salons of countesses to Jewesses, he would ‘sink down to Israel. I suggest Levin.’

Yet all the same the Jewish salonière flourished, as attested by the portraits of the illustrious regulars frequenting the various salons hanging in a circle in each room of the exhibition. Bilski and Braun, in an attempt to convey the liveliness of discussion on offer, the intensity of the intellectual dialogue, have used the audio guide to great, indeed essential effect. Each portrait is paired with the words of its subject, Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm gazing down in the room celebrating Ada Leverson, Niccolò Paganini and˙Heinrich Heine in the ersatz music salon devoted to Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

The late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Berlin salons of Amalie Beer, Rahel Varnhagen, Henriette Herz and Fanny Hensel were, for the most part, apolitical forums, revelling in discussions of music, poetry and art. It is striking that, just as the Revolution and Napoleon were transforming the political sphere in France, intimate gatherings such as these in Germany remained almost completely disengaged from political issues, drawing instead on the compatibility between the Jewish emphasis on education and the very German quest for Bildung, or moral, aesthetic and intellectual cultivation.

And indeed the idea of the kulturbeflissene or assiduously cultured Jewish salonière reached its apex in Berta Szeps Zuckerkandl, in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The daughter of newspaper editor Moritz Szeps, she grew up in a well-to-do, progressive environment, exposed at an early age to the highest corridors of power through her father’s friendships with Crown Prince Rudolf and Georges Clemenceau. Intimately connected with the creation of the Vienna Secession and a close confidante of Gustav Klimt, she introduced Gustav Mahler to Alma Schindler. Zuckerkandl was a successful art critic and journalist, and hosted a salon that became a refuge for the avant-garde, decidedly in opposition to the social culture of the Habsburg aristocracy. Finding Viennese social life to be needlessly ‘correct and boring’, Zuckerkandl yearned to create ‘a meeting place for all intellectual stirrings, a rallying point for all modern thinkers and strivers’.

The London and Paris literary salons of Ada Leverson and Geneviève Straus proved to be similar havens for those on the fringes of good society. A champion of Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm and, most importantly, Oscar Wilde, Leverson - dubbed ‘the Sphinx of Modern Life’ by Wilde - possessed a wit as sharp as his legendary one. When he boasted of an Apache in Paris who followed him everywhere with a knife in one hand, she replied, ‘I’m sure he had a fork in the other!’ Straus, a model for Marcel Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes, with her infallible bons mots and expertise on Victor Hugo, ‘flattered and caressed’ her guests with ‘her delicate feminine antennae on the latent desires of the mind and hearts’.

Straus’s salon, however, was not devoted solely to literary pursuits. Daughter of Fromental Halévy, composer of the opera La Juive, and widow of Georges Bizet, she embarked upon a second marriage to Rothschild family lawyer Émile Straus, which enabled her to expand the scope of her gatherings. Yet it was political events that solidified her salon’s place in history, for it was there that attorney Joseph Reinach revealed that Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been unfairly framed. Indeed, her home on the boulevard Haussmann became the de facto headquarters of the Dreyfusard camp, causing many of her salon’s former habitués to decamp to that of the Comtesse de Loynes, one of the founders of the anti-Dreyfus Ligue de la Patrie Française.

Yet it was in Italy that the political salon really flourished. Alone among her fellow salonières in having served time in prison, Russian-born Anna Kuliscioff, a founder of the Italian Socialist Party, for three decades hosted ‘the salon that led Italy’. One of the first women to practise medicine in Italy, she grew increasingly frustrated at not being able to hold political office or vote, watching instead as her husband, Filippo Turati, emerged as the public leader of the party. Her salon enabled her to manoeuvre behind the scenes, promoting workers’ and women’s rights to the vibrant and glittering assemblage of Italian politicians that gathered at her house.

Also politically engaged, though decidedly at the other end of the spectrum, was Mussolini’s mistress of twenty years, Margherita Sarfatti. A one-time socialist and former habitué of Anna Kuliscioff’s salon, she worked tirelessly to promote Il Duce’s image at home and abroad. She was, in the words of writer Virgilio Brocchi, ‘if not the mother, then the incubator and nurturer of Fascism’. Of both Sephardi and Ashkenazi descent, she was an unabashed Italian nationalist and claimed the Jews to be part of the same ‘white’ Mediterranean culture that had produced Fascism. Her salon showcased the Futurist and Symbolist artists, such as Umberto Boccioni, Mario Sironi and Adolfo Wildt, whom she felt were reflective of the ‘modern classicism’ Fascism demanded. With the passage of the Italian Racial Laws in 1938, however, she became a specifically ‘Jewish’ salonière and could no longer invite whomever she liked, so she fled to Argentina for a decade in exile.

Which brings one back to Salka Viertel’s home in Santa Monica, the final outpost of the salon culture which thrived so brilliantly in so many different locales. What links all these Jewish women, from Rahel Levin in Berlin to Florine Stettheimer in 1920s New York and, ultimately, Viertel, was an impassioned and somewhat utopian belief in the power of ideas and the possibility of effecting substantial change through mere conversation and conviviality. Poised as they were in the vanguard of modernity, they adeptly manoeuvered between worlds, Jewish and gentile, male and female, public and private, and created an astonishingly fruitful synthesis of them all. Measured in the light of their guests’ achievements, they appear merely as midwives to the creative process. Yet, without their hospitality, their charismatic energy and, above all, the power of their conversation, the birth of the modern world would have been a much more arduous one.

The Power of Conversation will run until 10 July 2005 at the Jewish Museum, New York. The accompanying book, Jewish Women and Their Salons, by curators Emily D. Bilski, Emily Braun and others, is published by the Jewish Museum and Yale University Press at £35.00

Jennifer Weisberg is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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