Operetta Research Center
12 August, 2014
Take a deep breath and prepare yourself: there will be – finally – a new and English language biography of the greatest 20th century operetta diva, Fritzi Massary. She was a superstar of Lady Gaga and Madonna format in Berlin during the Weimar Era, she appeared in London in an operetta Noel Coward wrote for her, and she spent the last decades of her life in Hollywood where she was looking for roles, yet turned down an offer to be in her friend George Cukor’s My Fair Lady. Robert Wennersten met Massary in Los Angeles in 1963 and talked to her, her friends and colleagues for many years. He has now finished writing half of his book on Massary, and shares some truly remarkable, and very personal, insights with us here.
You have decided to write a new biography of the legendary Berlin operetta diva Fritzi Massary, the first in English. Is Massary known in the USA or England?
She appeared in England in only one production. That was Noël Coward’s Operette 76 years ago. So it’s doubtful anyone there still recognizes her name aside from Coward fans. She never appeared in the United States and was known here mainly by the German-speaking exiles, and they are mostly gone now. Some of her recordings are reissued occasionally, and they help keep her name alive. But Massary does have a presence to this day in New York City.”The Diva” by Nancy Spero. About 10 years ago, the subway station at Lincoln Center was renovated, and an artist named Nancy Spero was commissioned to do art for the walls. One of the pieces she created is a large and dazzling mosaic called “The Diva,” which is clearly a depiction of Massary in one of her costumes for Perlen der Cleopatra, something Spero admitted was the inspiration. Thousands of people walk past that mosaic every day, and I’m sure not one of them knows “The Diva” was once a real person and who that person was.
She spent her last decades in Hollywood, surrounded by a great many friends. That part of her life has never been fully described yet. Will you change that with your book?
I can say yes, because I’ve already written that part. A lot happened during the last 30 years of her life. For example, when she came to the United States she put an extended effort into continuing her career, going to New York to look for Broadway roles and talking to Hollywood directors about film roles. To no avail, unfortunately, and she later regretted she didn’t put even more effort into it. She and Salka Viertel worked on a script for a musical film called Die Fritzi Massary Story, which was supposed to star Maria Schell as Massary, and she twice started to write her autobiography, but never finished it. She spent a lot of time, too, doing ordinary things, like tending her flower garden, which she loved showing to visitors, and watching westerns on television. She read a great deal, mostly philosophy, and for a while became engrossed with the Christian Science religion, which worried Liesl, her daughter, no end.
You are probably the first Massary biographer who has actually met Massary in person. Can you recall when and where that was? And what made Massary, the woman, special in your eyes?
I met her in early June of 1963. I’d heard some of her recordings when I was in college and thought they were wonderful. I found out she lived in Beverly Hills, and I wrote her asking if we could meet. She said yes, so the day after graduation I flew to Los Angeles and spent about an hour talking with her at her home in Beverly Hills. Then she poured us two stiff bourbons and we talked some more. She took a liking to me, and I visited her maybe three or four times a year during the last six years of her life. I was enchanted by her, as was everyone else who met her. I’ve never come across anyone who didn’t like her. She was small, perhaps 5’4” tall, and slender with white hair and dark, inquisitive eyes.
There was an aura about her that made you feel you had better sit up straight and pay close attention to what was said because you were in the presence of someone absolutely extraordinary, and of course you were.
She was famously offered the part of Queen of Transylvania in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady. She turned the part down because she wanted to be remembered differently. Can you understand that? Do you think she would be a greater star in the US today – at least with hard-core musical fans – if she had played that role?
Actually, she accepted the role but without discussing money. Then the situation at Warner Brothers soured for her and she wanted out of her commitment. So Robby Lantz, who was one of her closest friends and also a talent agent, asked a huge salary for her for what would have been a few day’s work – more than Rex Harrison, the leading man, was being paid per week – and Warner Brothers refused. Cukor was extremely disappointed, but it’s probably just as well it didn’t work out. I doubt it would have made any difference for her in the United States, because hardly anyone remembers, the woman who replaced Massary in the role. But how would Massary’s one scene in the movie have been received in Germany? If it had been anything less than brilliant it might have looked like an old woman trying to reclaim her past glory. That would have been sad, because Massary did not live in the past. She had several brushes with Hollywood and none of them turned out well.
She was great friends with Cukor and many other famous gay men in Hollywood of the time. Did you ever speak to her about sexuality or homosexuality?
We never talked about anything sexual. But how could Massary have worked in theatre for 30 years without at least being tolerant of gay people? And she did two productions for Erik Charell, who was flamboyantly gay. Here’s a story that will intrigue you. There was a Jewish woman in Berlin who was a medical doctor. Her practice ended with the advent of Hitler, and she moved to London, where she met Massary, who was there rehearsing Operette. This woman was slender, attractive and an “out” lesbian who cut her hair short and dressed in men’s clothes. She and Massary became fast friends and saw each other every day. Massary took her to plays, they had dinner with Ivor Novello – another gay man! – and she accompanied Massary to Manchester for the Operette tryouts. Seeing these two women together must have raised eyebrows, but we’ll probably never know if their friendship turned into a sexual affair.
One of the most glowing appraisals of Massary comes from Noel Coward, who adored her and wrote about their meetings often in his published diaries. Why do you think someone like Coward was drawn to Massary the way he was, when she was not even a British or American singer he would have known from the stage in her glory time?
Coward did see her in her prime. He told Massary he saw her 10 times in the 1922 Madame Pompadour production when he was in Berlin. Coward occasionally became enthralled with actresses and wanted to write something for them. The Russian actress Alla Nazimova was one, but he never wrote anything for her. Yvonne Printemps was another; he wrote Conversation Piece for her. Then, in 1937, Coward met Massary for the first time when they were guests at Eleonora von Mendelssohn’s castle in Austria. He was, once again, totally charmed by Massary and decided to write something for her. That of course was Operette. Coward and Massary were good friends until she died. It was a friendship she was very proud of, though she didn’t like Operette.
Would you see her as a feminist, of any kind, fighting for more rights for women? Would you consider her a ‘modern’ woman in her political and societal views?
She was not a feminist. I think she would have been considered a modern woman during the Weimar Era because she was incredibly ambitious at a time when most women probably had little ambition – or possibilities – beyond getting married and raising a family. In 1904 she became a star overnight in Berlin, but she wanted more than that and she got it through hard work. At the height of her career – say, from about 1918 until 1933 – Massary wielded tremendous power. She asked for and was given complete control over her productions. Everything – the supporting cast, the costumes, the sets, the props and lighting – was subject to her approval. In 1925 Bruno Walter offered her the role of Carmen, and I think one of the reasons she turned him down was because she would have to relinquish too much control.
Only once did she mention Hitler to me. She said, “When Hitler came, I couldn’t go on with my career anymore, and I didn’t want to go on with it.”
I think that meant she’d washed her hands of the Germans of the time. Likewise, when she occasionally talked about moving back to Europe, it was to England, not Germany. She loved the English people.
How do you go about getting your information together: who do you interview, which archives are you able to use etc.?
I’ve combed through many archives, including Marbach, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and the library at the University of Southern California, which is a great source for information about the émigrés who lived in Los Angeles. One of my best sources was Robby Lantz, who was originally a “Berliner” and had often seen Massary on the stage. He and Massary became close friends when they both lived in the United States. In fact, Massary was godmother to Robby’s son, Anthony. Robby and I talked off and on over a period of years until I’m sure he told me everything he knew about Massary. Massary’s friends and colleagues were incredibly co-operative, and I spent afternoons with Gottfried Reinhardt, Siegfried Arno, Gina Kaus, Georg Froeschel, Marta Feuchtwanger, George Cukor, Lothar Frank, who was Bruno’s brother, and many other people whose names aren’t famous but who knew Massary well. I also corresponded with her colleagues in Europe: Ellen Schwanneke, Maria Paudler, Hermann Thimig, Elisabeth Bergner and most of the principal actors from Operette. The list of people who have helped with this book is four pages long.
What are the greatest obstacles in writing a Massary biography?
The biggest obstacle is that Massary left nothing behind for a researcher to work with. For instance, a lot of letters from her survive in various places, but no letters to her have ever come to light. All during her career she kept a scrapbook and late in life gave it to her friend Ludwig Marcuse. It was not part of Marcuse’s estate so what became of it is a mystery. She put a trunk in storage in Switzerland when she lived there, and it was still there in the 1950s because she mentioned it in a letter.
Her costumes, photographs and probably a lot of other things that would be a terrific find for a biographer were in that trunk, but no one knows what happened to it.
Massary was a very private person, and my guess is that toward the end of her life she destroyed her personal papers and career memorabilia hoping to preserve her privacy even after her death.
There are already two famous German biographies, one by Otto Schneidereit, one by Carola Stern. What will differentiate your book from their accounts?
For one thing, as you mentioned earlier, neither of those books covered the last third of her life nor did either one adequately explain the My Fair Lady story. I’ve done both of those, but aside from a more complete story of Massary’s life I’m going to add a lot of details her friends told me. For example, I know what happened the first time Massary and Max Pallenberg, her future husband, slept together and what Massary was doing when Alexander Moissi told her Pallenberg had been killed. Of course, I’m going to talk about Massary the prima donna, but I hope details of this sort will help illuminate Massary the woman.
How would you describe the magic of Massary?
Her singing voice was not exceptional, but her delivery of the songs certainly was. Take “Oh-la-la” from Der Letzte Walzer: every time those syllables came around she sang them differently, and every variation was funny or slightly salacious. (She had to encore that song three or four times at the premiere, and Ludwig Marcuse called it her “Hamlet’s Soliloquy.”) In some recordings she made a raised eyebrow almost audible, and she was famous for inserting a laugh at the perfect place in the lyrics.
Her stage presence is difficult to explain. I said she was a diminutive woman, but onstage she looked like a giant, and there could be 100 extras on the stage with her, but somehow she made the audience watch her. The actor who made his entrance with her in Operette said when she heard their cue she made herself look 20 years younger. He said through some sort of willpower she tightened her sagging chin, tightened the bags under her eyes and her bust came up and filled out her dress.How can you explain these things? The actor from Operette said it was a miracle, and maybe it was.
Can the famous recordings of Massary, from Berlin in the 1920s and 30s, still capture an Anglo-American audience today? What could young singers learn from these recordings about how to perform operetta?
I think they can find an English-speaking audience, but only to a limited extent because you have to understand German to appreciate the artistry in her recordings. Perhaps they could teach potential operetta students “subtlety,” but is anybody interested in subtlety anymore? Plus, much of Massary’s artistry was in her movement, she flirted with the audience. There is no way to study that because there are no films of her on the operetta stage.
Do you have a title for your book yet? When is it going to be out and available?
I do not have a title and suggestions for one are welcome. The book is almost 50 percent done, and I estimate another year and a half of writing.
Thank you so much for this interview. I cannot wait to read your finished book!