The title of Frederic Spotts’s new biography of Klaus Mann is Cursed Legacy, and on the book’s first page he enumerates the “jinxes” that defined Mann’s life. He was an exile, one of the thousands of intellectuals forced out of Germany when Hitler took power in 1933. He was a drug addict who alternately fought and surrendered to the lure of morphine and cocaine. He was unashamedly gay, at a time when homosexuality was still a crime and a scandal almost everywhere. He was suicidal, confiding endlessly in his diary about his longing for death. When his death finally came, in a Cannes hotel room in 1949, it’s impossible to say which of his demons was responsible — it could have been suicide, an accidental overdose, or simply the surrender of a body and spirit beaten down by decades of misfortune.
But the number one jinx that Klaus Mann suffered, the “legacy” that Spotts considers the worst of all, is that he was the son of Thomas Mann. Being a Mann meant that Klaus had opportunities almost anyone would envy. He became a published author in his teens, a European celebrity in his twenties, and spent his whole life among the cultural elite of Europe and America. Yet, as in a Greek myth, literary fame was dangled in front of his nose only to be snatched away when he tried to grasp it. He wrote many books, but few of them were successful, and he never came close to matching his father’s achievements. Even today, when Klaus’s name is recognized at all, it is primarily for being his father’s son.
A biographer usually turns into either his subject’s enemy or his defense attorney. Spotts adopts the latter approach: all of Klaus’s misery and failures, and they were numerous, are chalked up not to his own tragic flaws but to the baleful influence of his father. There can be no doubt that, as a father, Thomas Mann left as much to be desired as most other great writers, from Dickens to Bellow. His six children mostly feared and hated him; the family atmosphere can be deduced from the fact that they referred to him not as Father but as Der Zauberer, “the Magician,” an uncanny name for a remote and powerful figure. Klaus seldom confronted his father openly, but he did confide his feelings of hurt and rejection to his diary: “I feel very strongly and not without bitterness The Magician’s utter coldness toward me. Whether sympathetic or petulant (in a very strange way ‘irritated’ by the existence of a son) never interested, never in a serious way concerned about me. His general lack of interest in human beings is especially strong toward me.”
Things might have been easier for Klaus if he had chosen, like several of his siblings, to pursue a career in music or law — fields remote from his father’s domain. But as Spotts shows, the one thing Klaus never doubted was that he was born to be a writer. He was hired by a newspaper as a theater critic at the age of eighteen, and he never looked back. He wrote voluminously, even under the most adverse circumstances — plays, memoirs, novels, biographies, and journalism. Today, virtually none of this work is known outside Germany, with the exception of his roman à clef Mephisto, a portrait of a careerist actor under the Third Reich. Spotts does not make much of a case that things should be otherwise: he acknowledges that Klaus’s work was marked by “haste” and “carelessness.” (Interestingly, in this way Klaus’s literary career echoes that of Nathanial Hawthorne’s equally prolific son Julian, discussed in these pages two years ago.)
One pattern that does emerge is that Klaus’s great subject was himself. He wrote his first autobiography, A Child of These Times, in his mid-twenties, and his second, The Turning Point, ten years later. Even when he was writing historical novels about figures like Tchaikovsky or King Ludwig of Bavaria, he was drawn to themes of his own experience: homosexuality, depression, isolation, and tragedy. But even if Klaus had been as talented a writer as his father, he would never have enjoyed his father’s level of fame and success, simply because he was born at the wrong time.
During the Weimar Republic, Klaus and his sister Erika — who sometimes called themselves twins, though they were actually born a year apart — became tabloid celebrities, thanks to their exploits on the stage and off. If reality television had existed at the time, there is no question they would have been stars. In particular, Klaus, who wrote openly about his own experiences with sex and drugs, became to many Germans a symbol of the frivolity of the younger, post−World War I generation. (Indeed, his own father cast him in this role in his great story “Disorder and Early Sorrow.”)
All this, combined with his vocal anti-Nazi politics, meant that Germany became a dangerous place for Klaus once Hitler took power. Before six weeks had passed, Klaus and Erika fled for Paris. Thomas Mann, as luck would have it, was abroad at the time and simply never returned to Germany. Spotts draws a sharp contrast between the way Thomas and Klaus conducted themselves during the first years of their emigration. Thomas, with a huge readership at home, was hesitant to make any political statement that would get his books banned in the Third Reich; it was not until 1936 that he openly attacked Hitler and lost his German citizenship. Klaus, on the other hand, had nothing to lose, and he was immediately and vocally critical of Nazi Germany. “In this hour,” he wrote in an open letter to the poet Gottfried Benn, “anyone who wavers will never again be one of us.”
By “one of us,” Klaus meant the true Germany, the nation of Dichter und Denker, poets and thinkers. But it was Klaus who was no longer considered “one of us” by the far larger number of Germans — and German writers — who stayed home. Life as an exile, even for one as famous as Klaus, was bitterly hard. His books, published by émigré publishers, sold just a few hundred copies. He got two magazines off the ground, one in German and one in English; they had stellar contributors and the highest literary standards, and they lasted only a few issues apiece. At moments Klaus was totally destitute, without even enough money to buy food. His romantic life, which Spotts is able to reconstruct from his extensive diaries, was grim and lonely, a succession of pickups and one-night stands. Even when he gave up hope of living as a writer and decided to enlist in the U.S. Army, he was initially rejected. He had been denounced to the FBI as a Communist, and it was only after an extensive, intrusive investigation that he was granted U.S. citizenship and allowed to wear a uniform.
During the war, Spotts shows, Klaus enjoyed one last burst of glory. He worked as a reporter for Stars and Stripes, hobnobbed with aristocrats in liberated Italy, and even worked on a film script for Roberto Rossellini. But after the war, all his problems returned: no work, no love, no place to call home. Returning to Germany was unthinkable — he was convinced that the Germans had learned nothing and were still Hitlerites at heart — and living with his parents in Los Angeles was only marginally better. The chronicle of his last years is a bitter account of fruitless trips, jobs that didn’t materialize, books that were never finished.
“Klaus had judgment, talent, experience, and a dozen other outstanding traits, but no luck,” Spotts concludes. Another biographer might come to a different conclusion — people make their own luck, to a certain degree at least, and other émigrés survived harder experiences than Klaus’s. But by the time he died, virtually no one who knew him was surprised. That included his mother, who had the final word on Klaus Mann’s tragic end: “It was necessary to be prepared for it constantly, and I was.”