Two Women, a Ford, and a Rolleiflex

Published in: May-June 2020 issue.


THOMAS MANN called her “the ravaged angel.” Writer Carson McCullers fell for “the face of a Donatello.” Another laureate, Roger Martin du Gard, described her as an inconsolable angel. In Berlin’s lesbian bars of the 1930s, women were falling over each other to meet her. Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s wayward son, introduced her to morphine, kick-starting a decade-long battle with addiction. She hooked up with a gay French diplomat in a “lavender marriage” and thereby acquired a diplomatic passport. During the Great Depression, she went on a road trip across the U.S., reporting for Swiss newspapers on the General Motors strike of 1936, on sharecropper poverty in the South, and on Jim Crow segregation. But by 1941 Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908–1942) had been committed to a psychiatric hospital in White Plains, New York. She was released, persona non grata, on condition that she leave the country.

            Schwarzenbach came from a distinguished, wealthy family of Zurich industrialists and army leaders—Prussian, horsy, and well-connected. Her formidable mother Renée was related to the German statesman Otto von Bismarck. Renée’s brother was a chip off the old block, a right-wing militarist who maintained friendly relations with Hitler during the 1920s. How did such a family produce a left-wing rebel angel like Annemarie?

            She came to the U.S. in 1936 at the invitation of American photographer Barbara Wright. They had met in what was then Persia, where Schwarzenbach’s husband was posted as a diplomat, and the two women traveled together to Isfahan and Persepolis in a Packard car. Schwarzenbach always had a weakness for classy cars and forceful women. Wright was from Washington, D.C., and turned the Swiss journalist’s attention to the New Deal and the intractable problem of race in America. Roy Stryker, in charge of documentary photography at the Farm Security Administration, gave the 28-year-old journalist access to the archive, so that her first reports for Swiss magazines made use of FSA photos.

            Her journalism from the 1930s doesn’t pull any punches. She saw through the America First mantra right from the start. “The two-faced WASP world and the hardscrabble single-mindedness of the immigrant, the pioneer and the self-made man are at the root of this American self-satisfaction, and have always nourished it. Americans believed—I kid you not—that their country was the best, their institutions the most enlightened, and that morally and materially the US was superior to all other nations. They saw their country not only as the best governed but also the richest on earth.” Sound familiar? Schwarzenbach’s observations on Depression-era America have at their back the rise of fascism in Europe.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach on the road in the U.S., ca. 1937

            Wielding Rolleiflex cameras, the two women drove a Ford across the industrial belt to Pittsburgh. In “Meeting the Union of American Miners,” published in Switzerland in 1936, she captures immigrant America: “Ranged on narrow benches were Irish and Scottish side by side with Slavs and Hunkies—Hungarians; a tow-haired miner’s son arms over shoulders with his friend, a small black man with crinkly hair. The mood was festive and at the same time serious and restrained—for three hours we listened carefully, patiently, to the speeches delivered with clarity and purpose.” At a time of renewed interest in socialism, Schwarzenbach’s reports remind us that the threadbare “American Dream” of material prosperity is not the only dream in town. Labor activism pushback once thrived and met resistance in what is now Trump’s heartland.

            They journeyed south, to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee, to Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, to the Smithfield Negro Project in Birmingham, Alabama, and to the Pine Mountain Valley Project in Georgia. Hanging out with miners, lumberjacks, sharecroppers, and their downtrodden women, the two journalists sported boyish haircuts (“the aviatrix style”) and mannish clothes, looking like a cross between Bonnie and Clyde. They were no pushover. In a 1937 piece about American democracy for Zurich radio, Schwarzenbach is on the money: “Puritans, bankers and businessmen of New England, the Boston Brahmin, Southern plantation owners who had never really recovered from the Civil War, all asked themselves with dread: ‘What’s to become of America?’—which in their minds was the old WASP mother-country blueprint. Even today, this demographic constitutes a world apart, a conservative, intolerant minority hanging on to its self-serving views.”

            Wright’s photographs, now in the Library of Congress, preserve a record of Pennsylvania mining towns during the fall and winter of 1936 and the Deep South in late 1937. Schwarzenbach’s photographs in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern snap the same territory. In Washington, she wrote about cocaine out by the airport and panhandlers by the port. “Skinny young black guys wander around the port precinct, picking up cigarette butts, dancing barefoot or tap-dancing in tattered boots. They accompany their movements with a low-whistled ditty, waiting on a nickel or a dime tossed from the deck of the port restaurant.”

            Writing from Knoxville, Tennessee, she is drawn to the hardscrabble slum community under a bridge spanning the Tennessee River. “The ideal of a better life, old American dream that it is, becomes more of a pipe dream the further south you venture.” Child labor, exploitative hours, company monopolies, unfair dismissals, unions, and the techniques used against agitators—all come under the knife of a Swiss social democrat dissecting the New Deal. Why didn’t FDR’s social programs achieve the kind of economic leveling and social justice that the democracies of Western Europe would eventually achieve? Schwarzenbach’s answer was that “the American economy no longer functioned ‘freely’ but was dominated and controlled by a small number of consortiums and their banks, their millionaires and shareholders.” Her journalism reminds us that America’s dog-eat-dog business practices and labor exploitation have been there from the start. “Only one principle mattered,” she writes: “survival of the fittest, the merit of success. Success went hand in glove with ruthlessness, and the Puritan mind saw to it that this was pleasing to the Almighty. To become rich therefore took on a moral dimension.”

            She met good-ol’-boy Southerners and had this to say: “They spoke of the war they lost as though it was fought yesterday, of the family silver, of their precious Swiss watch and of the three hundred slaves that General Sherman inveigled off them when he passed through Georgia with his Union troops.” She met coal miners and lumberjacks in the Cumberland Mountains, “suspicious of the boss, lord of the coal mines and the forest, since he too is an outsider, a townie who turns up in their hills rarely … at the wheel of a big shiny automobile, wearing a tie even on workdays.” She played cards with Swiss immigrant settlers in Grundy County, Tennessee, and picnicked with a young Miles Horton, the civil rights activist and founder of the Highlander Folk School. There she met a textile factory worker from Cleveland on trial for protesting against vested interests and sacked when she joined the Textile Workers union. “When the Bedaux system was introduced, they had a man shadow me with a stopwatch and a clipboard, noting everything down: how long to knot a thread, to cut it, to sew a pocket. … But it will take a while still before the whole country is organized. … They gang up on us hand in glove with the police: tear gas, bullets and prison. People are intimidated and point the finger, calling us troublemakers.”

     By winter of 1936, refugees were beginning to arrive from Germany, where legislation against Jews and Communists had begun to bite. The Mann siblings—Klaus and Erika—settled into the Bedford Hotel on East 40th Street, where the better-heeled German and Jewish intellectuals billeted in New York. Schwarzenbach joined her old friends. There was frequent recourse to “tuna”—their code word for morphine. “Lavender marriages” were in the air in the run-up to World War II, as well as a brisk business in foreign passports. Erika Mann had married the poet W. H. Auden in order to facilitate her passage. “What are buggers for?” was Auden’s response, urging the writer John Hampson to marry Erika’s friend, Munich actress Therese Giehse.

     Schwarzenbach spent half of 1938 in and out of Swiss clinics, undergoing further sessions of cold turkey but inevitably going back on the drugs. A journey to Afghanistan in June 1939 with the Swiss traveler Ella Maillart was an attempt to get Schwarzenbach clean of her habit but ended with the pair separating.

            Her third visit to America, in 1940, quickly raised old demons. This time the woman in her life was Margot von Opel, a baroness married to Fritz, a wealthy car manufacturer. When Germany invaded the Low Countries on May 10th, the three of them were mid-Atlantic on the Manhattan bound for New York. On June 10th Mussolini brought Italy into the war, and on June 14th Paris fell to the Germans. Schwarzenbach reported on American preparations for war and her own misgivings. There was more “tuna,” late night parties, and a new drug—Benzedrine—which had been developed in the U.S. and used at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

            Schwarzenbach reviewed Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and met its 23-year-old author. The Swiss sophisticate with the face of an angel turned McCullers’ head. The encounter precipitated McCullers’ split with her husband and a move into the infamous rooming house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, where Auden, the stripper Gypsy Lee Rose, composer Benjamin Britten, and his partner, opera singer Peter Pears, kept the artsy side of Brooklyn’s gay culture simmering.

            Summer 1940 at Siasconset on Nantucket brought matters to a head. Photos of Schwarzenbach show her emaciated, blue under the eyes, wearing a natty blazer at the wheel of a Ford coupe. A noisy scene with alcohol and drugs at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue had sounded the alarm. Benzedrine had been added to her pharmacopoeia. An attempt by Schwarzenbach to strangle Margot von Opel in her sleep, the death of Schwarzenbach’s father in November, and her own suicide attempt conspired to unhinge a mind bewildered by addiction. In December, following three days in a psychiatric clinic in Greenwich, Connecticut, she smashed the windows with her feet and had to be restrained in a straitjacket. At Christmas she escaped to New York, where the Mann family cold-shouldered her. In the new year her brother committed her to a private clinic in White Plains. Her doctors declared her insane, perhaps as a way of having her deported from the U.S. with no possibility of return. On February 1, 1941, she set sail for Lisbon.

            She continued to report from Portugal and the Congo, but war had curtailed her movements. Carson McCullers wrote to her from Georgia in June 1942. “I am glad you are going back to Switzerland. I wonder if you ever remember any of our talks in New York. You told me once about Sils, the house with the trap door and the ladder leading up to your bedroom, the room with the great stove. I never forget anything. Or at least I never forget anything about you. Let us try to believe in the world after this war.” Sils, a tiny village in the Engadine in southwest Switzerland, is where the “ravaged angel” was seriously injured in a fall from her bicycle. She died on November 15, 1942, at the age of 34.


Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s work is widely available in its original German and translated into French and Italian. Two of Schwarzenbach’s books, in English translations by Lucy Renner Jones and Isobel Fargo Cole, have been published by Seagull. Her photographs are in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern and in the public domain.



Padraig Rooney is the author of The Gilded Chalet: Travels in Literary Switzerland. Based in Basel, he has translated Schwarzenbach’s U.S. journalism into English, and is working on her biography.



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