A History of Infidelity: How the Famous Sinned and Loved, From Picasso and Hesse to Riefenstahl, the Nymphomaniac Elitist


In the book Love in a Time of Hate: A Chronicle of Feelings 1929–1939 Florian Illies, translated by Tomáš Dimter, has just been published by the Brno publishing house Host, mainly artists and thinkers appear, but there are also politicians (Josef Stalin) and activists (German student and Christian pacifist Sophie Schollová, executed by the Nazis). Colorfully and with a bit of fictional pretension, Illies describes what their first meetings looked like and the impressions they took away from them (Jean-Paul Sartre seemed “small, bespectacled and ugly” to Simone de Beauvoir), or what the first declaration of love might have sounded like. For example, Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg told the unmarried Mrs. Nina von Lerchenfeld at a Frankish noble ball in October 1929: “I would like you to become the mother of my children.” After which, according to Illies, she guesses that this is probably the most sincere and intimate declaration of love that there is von Stauffenberg able. And the confession of a philosopher, such as Heinrich Blücher (1899–1970) to Hannah Arendt, looked different: “Darling, I am happy when I think about the fact that you are mine. And I think about it a lot.” And for some philosophers, at least in this book, confession never happens. As with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is torn between the desire for women’s kisses and the fear of sensuality, which he already perceives as a threat and which nevertheless still awakens in him: “He thinks about how to live in a marriage that would be guided by the commandment of chastity. But this remains a logical problem that even Wittgenstein cannot solve.’

Models of Inequality

Above all, the book presents a diverse range of different types and models of partnership. They are mostly dominated by men. An extreme case is Ninon, the third wife of Hermann Hesse, who adored him for over twenty years before they got married. She worships him almost indiscriminately, for her Hesse is either Zeus or Saint Francis, in any case “her lord and ruler”. After the first night of love, Ninon is said to solemnly declare: “I cannot address you by name, because the Jews are not allowed to speak the word of Yahweh.” And after the second night, she declares: “When I had your head in my lap, I felt as if I was holding the Crucified One.” Under this the level doesn’t work, comments Illies dryly. But at the same time it shows how Hesse abuses his position and how insensitive he is towards her. Although at first he allows her to move into his house in Montagnola in Ticino, but only in a dark ground-floor apartment with mold-covered walls. He continues to live upstairs in the sun-drenched right wing with a panoramic view of Lake Lugansk.

The settings and circumstances are different for the other couples, but this basic pattern is often repeated, with Florian Illies, especially the rather amused observer in the first book, occasionally not holding back and expressing his completely unironic disapproval. At the blunt, brutally heartless, parasitic or arrogant behavior of men, they shake their heads in amazement and exclaim: “Unbelievable!” Most often, men expect that the main task of their wives is to provide them with a background before and after their extramarital adulterous trips. Which the author explicitly formulates in this way in connection with the marriage concept of the conservative legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt, but apparently many of his other male heroes would also willingly sign it. Some women are aware of their men’s flirtatious behavior, while others are not. At the same time, the thousands of ways of obvious god-forsaken lying by the infidels first seem tragicomic and then rather tiresome: they claim to several other partners that they are currently living like in a monk’s cell and are bored, while they are enjoying themselves with the one they currently favor.

Strong women

In the book, we also find cases of women who have parallel relationships, but as if they were trying to behave respectfully. This is, for example, how one quite perfunctory day of the writer Anaïs Ninová (1903–1977) looked. Her lover Henry Miller wants Anaïs to spend the night in his new apartment, as he does every Saturday. Because when she is with him on Saturday night, Henry feels that he is her number one. This Saturday, however, her other lover, Gonzalo Moré, becomes so jealous of Henry that he demands that Anaïs come to see him. And so, on Saturday afternoon, Anaïs puts sleeping pills in Henry Miller’s tea so strong that he soon falls asleep. She quietly sneaks out of the house and spends a passionate night with More. At six o’clock in the morning he hurries back, crawls under Henry’s warm blanket, and the writer notices nothing. When he wakes up, Anaïs is tending to him. After a good breakfast, she goes to her husband Hugo Guiler’s new apartment and brings him a bouquet of flowers. And in the evening, Ninová notes in her diary: “No guilt.” No regrets, no guilt feelings. Only love.” Threefold, let’s say.

Illies paints some heroines in less bright colors. For example, Alma Mahler, who openly expressed her anti-Semitism and anger to her last husband, Franz Werfel, in French exile, because she had to leave her beloved Vienna because of her Jewish spouse and that now, at the age of fifty-nine, she “suddenly has to go buy baguettes and foreign fruit in a kind of god-forsaken town by the Mediterranean Sea, without a servant and without anyone recognizing her on the street and paying her respects”.

Leni Riefenstahl is depicted in the book as a particularly amoral, even diabolical intriguer, who, according to other sources, did not spare herself by using tricks and deceptions to achieve that her colleague Willy Zielke was hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic and declared insane, after which she took possession of all his photographs and negatives and claimed them as her own creations. Regarding the lovers, the author quotes a contemporary statement that “her partners were always the best in their field, her nymphomania had elitist features”.

Only one of them was worshiped by Riefenstahl purely platonically. In her apartment, she built a small altar of Adolf Hitler with countless photographs in gold frames. When she first met him in a secret location by the North Sea, she used an orgasmic image from nature to describe the moment: “I felt as if the earth had split open before me, like a hemisphere suddenly split in the middle and from which a huge stream of water poured out , so strong that it touched the heavens and shook the earth.”

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Ideal/symbol versus reality

One of the themes of the book is the contrast between ideal and reality, or between a symbol and a concrete individual. For example, at one point the coexistence of director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich in Hollywood proved increasingly complicated because he “sees her too often brushing her teeth” in the evening. Therefore, Sternberg has to resort to his imagination to let her “grow up” again in front of the camera during the day, and she regains the lost aura: “He has to try hard to make her what the title of her last silent film proclaimed: The Woman After men covet.’

In the book, we also find the case of the British writer and political activist Nancy Cunardová (1896–1965), whose partner was the African-American jazz pianist Henry Crowder. Cunard is an obsessive collector of African tribal art; her entire Paris apartment is full of statues, masks and weapons from Africa. She is working on an extensive book on black culture to prove its equivalence with white culture. But despite her intelligence, according to Illies, she does not understand that her husband Henry is black, but he does not identify with his ancient African ancestors as much as with his New Orleans parents, with the new African-American America, with jazz. Henry feels that Nancy Cunard “loves him not as a person but as a symbol” and therefore breaks up with her. In 1934, after he left her, however, Cunard issued her own Negro Anthology, which he dedicates to Crowder, his greatest love.

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Strange love entanglements

The book connects the intimate and professional lives of the heroes in many ways: sexuality speaks to political events and, above all, artistic or philosophical works, which the people in question created at the time and under the influence of experienced loves, betrayals and disappointments. So, for example, he describes how Picasso “absorbs his women” and the likeness of his current favorite is quickly reflected in his paintings. Or how the poet and physician Gottfried Benn deliberately but falsely diagnoses a certain man as infertile because he would like to marry his wife himself.

Sometimes the author shows how the artist’s work, or rather the opinions and attitudes he expresses, is in conflict with the life practice of the given personality. So with Louis-Ferdinand Célin, at least in the early 1930s, his anti-Semitism “always ends at the bedroom door”, he has no problem maintaining relationships with Jewish women. At other times, Illies shows a strong autobiographical nature of the works in question. So in 1931, Erich Kästner writes a novel Fabian: A Moralist’s Tale (Czech Václav Petr, 1933). According to Illies, it is actually a transformation of Kästner’s own story: “The hero, who has not come to terms with his first love and manically clings to his mother, forgets his father and wanders aimlessly from one bed to another in anonymous Berlin.”

From the life of the

Sartre’s “Crisis of Masculinity”

And similarly to Kästner, most of Illies’ other heroes also live: they crave new and new experiences, and one partner is usually not enough for them. A typical case of Jean-Paul Sartre: in 1935 he experiences a “crisis of masculinity” and his constant companion Simone de Beauvoir cannot help him, because he is sure of her love, which he simply takes for granted: “His ego and testosterone levels need a new boost from somewhere else.” Illies’ heroes change partners, partners and their own sexual orientation, but this does not seem to bring them long-term satisfaction. That is why in one of Kurt Tucholský’s books from this period, a cynical, or at least very skeptical, question sounds: “Love in this day and age?” Does anyone love today?’

Alternatively, people of that time try to live in marriage, but like Gottfried Benn, they find that the practical issues of money or eating eliminate any eroticism. This makes the man impotent, although it is said that “this impotence in marriage is a celebration of the wife as a human being”.

Examples of those who nevertheless managed to create a stable balanced marriage in the book act as bright exceptions, whose unusualness Illies highlights: “Veira and Vladimir Nabokov are a very unusual couple because they are happy together and will stay that way.” (Although they also have to overcome the crisis caused by Nabokov’s infidelity.) There are no more than about three such successful couples in the entire book, which is not a lot in terms of percentage, but by Illies’ standards it is, one might say, a significant increase. In the previous two books, the author told (and mainly ended) love stories in such a way that none of them had a happy ending.

Even in this book, we cannot take Illies as a 100% reliable witness: sometimes he reaches for a traditional legend that accentuates the emotional urgency of the scene, even if it is untrue. His claim that RM Rilke pricked himself with a rose thorn and died of blood poisoning (actually leukemia) falls into this category. Overall, however, it is again an engaging, intellectually sparkling and colorful kaleidoscope of a time when people from the social class that the author describes often changed gender and sometimes even apparently lived in polyamorous relationships. They just didn’t call it that yet…

The article is in Czech

Tags: History Infidelity Famous Sinned Loved Picasso Hesse Riefenstahl Nymphomaniac Elitist


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