Twain in Vienna

Quoted by Freud, Mute for the Emperor; He Wrote Some of His Finest Work Here

News | Candy Fresacher | March 2008

Above: The garden next to Twain’s house. Below r.: The plaque stating“the famous American” lived in the house during 1898. Bottom r.: A note from Twain found on the premises (Photo: C. Fresacher)

When the Wollmans ripped open the walled-off fireplace in the living room of their apartment in Vienna’s 8th District, they were surprised to find a stash of old bank notes, account books, diaries and photographs hidden inside, preserved for many years in the dry space.

Among other personal papers, Jörg Wollman came across what looked like the tail end of a letter, penned in ink in a flowing hand:

"It is best to tell the truth when nothing else occurs to you." Jörge looked puzzled, but his American wife, Anne, laughed.  The signature was Mark Twain – testimony to the nearly two years Twain spent in Austria from September 1897 to May 1899, longer than he lived in any other country outside of the United States.

Twain had come to Austria so his daughter Clara could study piano under the famous teacher, Theodor Leschetizky.  They took up residence in Vienna at the Hotel Metropole on the top floor overlooking the Danube Canal near Schwedenbrücke.

Only a few days after arriving at the hotel, Twain started to work on a piece he called Conversations with Satan, that described his impressions of Vienna. In it, Satan appears as an aristocratic Austrian who arrives at the hotel:

"It was past midnight," Twain wrote, and "I was standing at the window of my work-room high aloft on the third floor of the hotel, and was looking down upon a stage-setting which is always effective and impressive at that late hour… the Morzin Platz…and beyond...the far-reaching curve of the Donau Canal."  As Twain talks to Satan, conversation turns to cigars and Twain complains he can not buy his favourites in Vienna.

"You must be mistaken about that," Satan responds. "You must remember that this is one of the most superb cities ever built; and it is very rich, and very fond of good things, and can command the best of everything that the world can furnish; and it also has the disposition to do it.  This is my favourite city…"

Through his daughter’s teacher, Twain was introduced to many prominent Viennese, and his own fame granted him entry into the city’s most distinguished circles. Twain and Sigmund Freud, for example, probably met on at least two occasions, when they were at the same functions.

"I treated myself to listening to our old friend Mark Twain in person," Freud wrote to a friend on Feb. 9, 1889, "which was a sheer delight." And Freud uses a number of Mark Twain’s stories as examples in one of his books, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, published in 1905.

In late May, 1898, Twain took his family to a small village 15 miles outside of Vienna called Kaltenleutgeben, a village renowned for its cold springs, so that his wife and second daughter Jean could benefit from a new form of hydrotherapy promoted by Dr. Wilhelm Winternitz, a prominent Austrian physician at the medical college at the University of Vienna.

Kaltenleutgeben was also a pilgrimage site whose St. Jacob’s church housed a special black Madonna that attracted thousands of visitors each year. The church, built in 1732, had replaced a chapel which was set atop two sacred Celtic circles.  It could accommodate the many pilgrims coming to view the statue and those who wanted to drink or bathe in the holy waters of the spring beneath the church.

Dr. Winternitz was the third in a line of doctors who saw the advantages for patients of the soothing cool water and the rural atmosphere, and his patients came from all over the world (including other parts of Europe, America, South Africa, and Egypt), arriving there on a special railway connection from Vienna.

According to local historian Erich Kailer, Dr. Winternitz was both charismatic and ambitious, and promoted the "positive energy" of this new form of treatment with the patronage of many important people, including the Queen of Romania at that time, building hotels and other facilities to treat up to 400 people at a time. And in fact, later science has proven the positive energy claims were real: the area exudes 16,000 Bovis bio-photon energy units, nearly as many as the pyramids of Egypt.  For Kaltenleutgeben, a small village of about 1,500 people, Dr. Winternitz’s spa became astonishingly big business.

So Twain thought it was a possibility for his wife: Olivia had long suffered from poor health and took a number of water cures in an attempt to ease what is today thought to have been heart problems. Also for his daughter Jean, who was diagnosed with epilepsy and taking large amounts of bromide, the spa was considered as medical treatment. Neither Twain nor his elder daughter Clara participated in the cure, but all came to stay at Paulhof, a villa they rented just around the corner from the town hall and across the main street from the church, the Eiswiese (ice meadow) and the springs.

Twain wrote an enormous amount during their four-month stay at Villa Paulhof, a place pleasing enough to have inspired a writer less talented. Perhaps it was the "positive energy," as he saw less countryside than he might have wished.  It rained constantly – often preventing the walks and bike rides he so enjoyed.  When he reached the top of one mountain trail out of the village, he complained:

"I viewed the mist and missed the view."

This time is said to have been the most productive of his later years.  Surely the scenery also had a positive effect. Within the small town, time seemed to have stood still, similar to the atmosphere in the village called Hadleyburg in his famous short story "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" and the novella widely known as The Mysterious Stranger. Both these late works, considered among his best, were written while Twain was in Austria. Kaltenleutgeben was calm, peaceful and conducive to writing. When the weather was clear, Twain’s view would have encompassed hills and woods, and he could gather his strength from nature, a powerful force for him throughout his life.

Today, the town of 2,700 hasn’t changed a lot, and much of the charm of the small spa resort still remains. A plaque tells of Mark Twain’s stay as well as that of the Nobel prize-winning writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of Quo Vadis, who attended the spas at various times between 1885 and 1896. A nearby trail is named after the Empress Elisabeth ("Sissi") who also enjoyed visiting the area.

In May of 1889, shortly before he left Austria, Twain was granted a private audience with Emperor Franz Joseph. He met the Emperor in his study, and although he had spent hours memorizing a speech in German, when the moment came, he was speechless. The Emperor was understanding:

"He was amused that I couldn’t now recall what had taken me so many hours to memorize, and he assured me such a speech was quite unnecessary," Twain later told a reporter. And when he had regained his composure, the Emperor asked him how he had liked his stay in Austria. He replied in glowing terms:

"I can truthfully say that, in all my travels, I have never felt so well as in this wonderful gemütlichen Vienna, a city from whose splendid yet graceful proportions I have derived so much inspiration that I could put to good use." Twain apologized for his clumsy pronunciation, but the Emperor said that he understood him well.  The interview lasted only 15 minutes, but Twain described it as "one of the finest moments of my life."

The next day he left for London.

And the spa at Kaltenleutgeben? Although the cure itself only brought temporary relief to his wife and child, Twain seems to have soaked up the positive energy of the place that visitors often report today.

And it is still only a 40 minute ride by S-Bahn and bus from downtown Vienna.

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    the vienna review March 2008