Cursed Lega­cy: The Trag­ic Life of Klaus Mann

Fred­er­ic Spotts
  • Review
By – June 20, 2016

Nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist, and play­wright Klaus Mann (19061949) left Ger­many with the rise of fas­cism in 1933 and wan­dered the émi­gré cities of Europe before land­ing in Amer­i­ca, which even­tu­al­ly grant­ed him cit­i­zen­ship. His writ­ings addressed a wide range of cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal affairs; he is most famous for his 1926 nov­el, Der fromme Tanz, which explored themes of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty; for auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal works like The Turn­ing Point; and for scan­dalous roman à clefs, like Mephis­to. Biog­ra­ph­er Spotts tells the sto­ry of Mann’s life in a straight­for­ward, chrono­log­i­cal fash­ion, draw­ing from Mann’s let­ters, diaries, man­u­scripts, and pub­lished works. 

The Klaus Mann who emerges is a free-think­ing, uncom­pro­mis­ing aes­thete strug­gling to cre­ate an uncon­ven­tion­al sort of lifestyle for him­self in the first half of the twen­ti­eth century…rather than the first half of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, which might have been a bet­ter fit. Mann was open­ly homo­sex­u­al; on rare occa­sions (when he was des­per­ate to enlist in the US Armed Forces, for exam­ple) he had to deny engag­ing in per­verse acts,” which to him was not untrue. Rumors of inces­tu­ous over­tures from his father or sis­ter did not both­er him par­tic­u­lar­ly. What was depress­ing to him was his own inabil­i­ty to main­tain any long-term roman­tic relationships.

While com­fort­able with his sex­u­al­i­ty, Mann found the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of his time appalling. He watched the rise of fas­cism in Ger­many, as oppor­tunists infil­trat­ed key insti­tu­tions and then seized pow­er by appeal­ing to the fears and frus­tra­tions of the mass­es. Unlike some fel­low artists who thought they could work with the more open-mind­ed” Nazis, Mann knew it was impos­si­ble to com­pro­mise with such evil. After the war, he was not delud­ed that the prob­lem was over. Ger­many was not de-Naz­i­fied; Klaus’s own Nazi neme­ses were recy­cling them­selves into post­war posi­tions of pow­er. His new home, Amer­i­ca, was retreat­ing onto insu­lar­i­ty and worse — anti-Com­mu­nist cleans­ing” campaigns.

Klaus Mann’s per­sis­tent death wish, his drug use, his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty — these are not prob­lems for a biog­ra­ph­er, as Mann him­self was rel­a­tive­ly open about them. The one issue Mann him­self could not con­front was the prob­lem of liv­ing his life as the son of writer Thomas Mann. This was a father who con­sid­ered him­self a genius, the very embod­i­ment of a great writer. His chil­dren were incon­ve­nient nui­sances. While they might have their occa­sion­al uses — Thomas did find the young Klaus phys­i­cal­ly appeal­ing, and Thomas allowed daugh­ter Eri­ka to care for him and man­age his lit­er­ary estate in his old age — the idea that any of his chil­dren could be great at any­thing was absurd. His many chil­dren wait­ed all their lives in vain for their father’s com­pli­ments, small kind­ness­es, or approval. It is hard to com­pre­hend the pain this father inflict­ed on his children.

Fred­er­ic Spotts has a spe­cial mis­sion in this biog­ra­phy: to eman­ci­pate Klaus from Thomas Mann’s over­whelm­ing rep­u­ta­tion, to allow the son to be seen as an artist on his own mer­its. So skilled is Spotts as a biog­ra­ph­er, that — apart from the title of the book and a rather heavy epi­logue — he lets the facts of Thomas Mann’s par­ent­ing” speak for them­selves. Spotts writes with humor and style, and a great admi­ra­tion for his sub­ject, which makes this biog­ra­phy valu­able for lit­er­ary his­to­ri­ans but also quite acces­si­ble to the gen­er­al reader.

Relat­ed Content:

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions