Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Wittgenstein Family

In this, the last post in the series on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his siblings, I shall write about how it ended for the Wittgenstein siblings.

Paul Wittgenstein's life in America

As a person, Paul Wittgenstein, according to his friends, was charming, energetic, and erudite; however, he was also very short-tempered, and despite having many admirable qualities, was not an easy person to get on with. He was aware of these foibles in his character, and chose to lead solitary existence. For example, he never ever stayed in other people’s houses, even those of his close friends; and insisted on booking himself (and his valet) into a nearby hotel whenever he was visiting his friends. 

One of his pupils—after Paul had immigrated to America and was teaching students—remembered that Paul had ‘a shell around him, like a suit of armour that did not permit him to interact with other people’. 

Paul's three children  mostly grew up in America—his son was born in America while his two daughters were very young when they went to America. The children did not meet, during their early years, anyone of Paul’s family.  Much later the children called that their father rarely, if ever, spoke about his illustrious family. 

One of his closest friends wrote shortly after Paul’s death: 

‘Paul’s personality is unforgettable. Those who met him felt it instantly; frequently the impression warded off contact. Highly sensitive to his physical disability, he made self-contained independence his rule of life and met tragedy with fortitude. For those whom he admitted to his friendship, he was the staunchest of friends.’

Paul Wittgenstein married Hilde, his 'Aryan Mistress', in America, and in 1941 their son (also named Paul) was born. Despite the great difference in their age the marriage of Paul and Hilde, for all outward appearances, was successful one. In 1946 he and his family were accorded full American citizenship. 

In the 1950s—by this time he was in his sixties—Paul lived a life of semi-retirement, and published three books of piano music for the left hand. 

Paul's children later remembered him as ‘a stern, incomprehensible, and a somewhat distant and imposing figure’ who was exceptionally enthusiastic about Christmas. 

All of Paul's children spoke English at home and could not understand when their parents spoke to each other in German. 

Paul very rarely spoke about Ludwig Wittgenstein or any of his family to his children. 

Paul and Ludwig, who were very close to each other in their childhood and young adult years, severed all contacts with each other in the last thirteen years, until Ludwig’s death. In 1949 Ludwig Wittgenstein was in America on a visit. On an impulse he went to Paul’s house on Long Island. He found the house empty except for a maid, and left without living a note. 

On the occasions when Paul visited his friend Marga Denke in England, she attempted to reconcile the two brothers by inviting Ludwig, invitations which he declined. 

In 1953 (by this time Ludwig Wittgenstein was dead for two years) Paul wrote to a common friend:

 ‘I kept out of contact with my brother from 1939; he wrote me one or two letters when I was visiting England, in response to Ms Denke’s invitation; I did not answer them. I do not know whether I would have done anything if I had been aware that he was terminally ill.’

Death of Hermine Wittgenstein

                                         (Hermine as a young woman)

Hermine Wittgenstein died in Vienna, in Palais Wittgenstein which was her home for all of her 76 years, in 1950, after a long battle with cancer. 

Hermine (pronounced Hermeena) was the eldest of the Wittgenstein children and remained unmarried until her death. 

Named after her grandfather, Herman, Hermine was her father's favourite. Karl Wittgenstein whose business fortunes changed for the better after Hermine's birth considered her to be his lucky mascot.

Hermine was an introspective person of nervous temperament. Like one of her brothers, Konrad (Kurt), she was markedly ill at ease in the company of strangers. Her nervousness frequently took the form of aloof, abrupt and outwardly arrogant demeanour. According to one family story, when composer Brahms visited the family, Hermine became so wound up with nervous tension that she had to leave the room. She spent most of the evening in another room, vomiting.

Like many of her siblings Hermine was a talented pianist and could also sing very well. But her main hobbies were painting and drawing. In the 1890s, when her father bought the Winter Palais in Vienna, Hermine helped her father collect his formidable art collection. Karl Wittgenstein used to jokingly refer to Hermine as his art director.

In her later years Hermine wrote a memoir of the Wittgenstein family (which was privately circulated amongst the family members) in which (as mentioned in previous posts) she wrote lovingly of many members of the extended family. She devoted a whole chapter to Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'the most worthwhile' of her brothers. She also left behind a loving account of Hans,  who had disappeared in 1902. Konrad (Kurt) Wittgenstein, who killed himself on the battlefields of the First World War, was dispatched in one paragraph. The remaining two brothers, Rudi (who had also killed himself, probably over his sexuality) and Paul (who was alive at the time but was estranged from the family) were not mentioned at all.

                                        (Hermine in her old age)

In 1949, Paul Wittgenstein, who had stayed away from Vienna for more than eleven years, was invited to play in two concerts. Hermine, with whom his only correspondence in the preceding years was through lawyers, lay dying in Palais Wittgenstein. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to Marga Denke (Paul’s friend) to inform Paul that Hermine was dying. Paul spent more than a week in Vienna, but did not visit his ailing sister. 

Hermine Wittgenstein died on 11 February 1950. Her most favourite brother, Ludwig, himself diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, was in Vienna at the time. Ludwig visited Hermine every day for two months until her death; however, she was not in a fit enough state to even recognise him. 'A great loss for me and for all of us,' Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote after Hermine's death. 'Greater than I would have thought.'

The once magnificent Palais Wittgenstein (it was in the Russian sector at the end of the war), the family home of the Wittgensteins for two generations, was razed and demolished by developers after her death.

(The Wittgenstein Winter Palais which Karl Wittgenstein bought in 1890 was an imposing structure that stretched for 50 yards along Alleegasse. It had nine bays on the first floor, seven below, with high arches at either end. In the forecourt was a colossal fountain statue. The hall was somewhat gloomy with high ceiling and mosaic floor, carved panelling and frescoes depicting scenes from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.  The most splendid saloon on the first floor was Musiksaal where most of the private concerts were held. These musical soirees were, as Hermine Wittgenstein recalled later, grand, festive occasions.)

                               (The front staircase in Palais Wittgenstein)

Death of Ludwig Wittgenstein

                                     (Ludwig Wittgenstein as a baby)

                                            (As a young man)

                                     (On his death bed)

Ludwig Wittgenstein died of prostate cancer in Cambridge on 30 April 1951, three days after his 62nd birthday. 

Four years before his death, in 1947, Ludwig resigned his professorship in Cambridge, and, from then onwards, led a peripatetic existence that took him to Ireland (Dublin), New York (where he tried to meet his estranged brother, Paul), London, Vienna, and Norway. 

It was Cambridge, however, where Ludwig returned to die, in November 1950. He moved into Storey's End, at 76 Storey's Way, the house of his doctor, Edward Bevan. By this time Ludwig knew that he had only a few months left to live. He did not want to die in a  hospital, and Dr. Bevan agreed for him (Ludwig) to move into his (Bevan's) house.

In January 1951 Ludwig made a new will. Having donated his vast share of the Wittgenstein fortune years ago to his siblings and charities, he did not have much in the way of material wealth. In the will he named his literary executor. In the same month he wrote to a friend:

'My mind is completely dead. This isn't a complaint, for I don't really suffer from it. I know that life must have an end and mental life can cease before the rest does.'

Nevertheless in the last two months of his life Ludwig began work on his final manuscripts. (These would be published posthumously as Remarks on Colour and On Certainty.)

On 26 April 1951 Ludwig celebrated his 62nd birthday. He had three more days to live.

The morning after his birthday Ludwig composed his last philosophical thought:

“Someone who is dreaming says ‘I am dreaming,’ even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream ‘it is raining,’ while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of rain.’

That afternoon Ludwig went for a walk. In the evening his condition deteriorated. Dr. Bevan told him that he might have only a few days to live. His response was: 'Good!'

Dr. Bevan's wife, Joan, stayed with Ludwig through the night. On 28 April Ludwig went into a coma from which he did not wake up. His last words, just before he lost consciousness were: 'Tell them, I've had a wonderful life.'

Ludwig Wittgenstein died on 30 April 1951. Four of his former Cambridge students were at his bedside when he died. Two of them were Catholics. None of them was sure what kind of funeral Ludwig would have wanted. Some of them remembered that he had once said that he hoped that his Catholic friends would pray for him. 

Ludwig was given a Roman Catholic burial at St Gile's Church, Cambridge. (One of the Catholic students admitted years later that he had been troubled ever since whether it was the right thing to do.) 

None of Ludwig's family or friends from Vienna was with him when he died.

(The plaque outside 76 Storey Way, the house in which Ludwig Wittgenstein died.)

Death of Helen Wittgenstein

Helene Wittgenstein died of cancer in 1956. Known in the family by the nickname Lenka, Helene would appear to have been the most low profile of the Wittgenstein siblings. 

Plump, plain, and always smiling, Helene was known to be of placid temperament. 

Helene was married to Max Salzer, who belonged to a high-ranking Protestant family in Vienna. Salzer, who, at one time, held a high-ranking position in the Austrian government’s finance department, was chosen by the Wittgenstein family to manage their finances, a job he did with distinction for many years, before he became senile and demented. 

With her children, though, the otherwise placid Helene was exceedingly strict. 

Helene and Max had four children. 

The eldest, a daughter named Maria, died of cancer in the 1940s, while Friedrich, her eldest son, died at the age of 21 because of paralysis caused by polio. 

Helene's second son Felix went on to become a distinguished musicologist; however, he became estranged from the family at an early age and did not keep in touch. 

The youngest daughter was named Clara, whose husband (Arvid Sjogren) was involved (and arrested) in the business of obtaining fake Yugoslavian passports for the family, in 1938. 

Helene became estranged from Paul (like her other siblings) around the time of the dissolution of the family’s trust in Switzerland, although she was not directly involved in the negotiations. 

At the time of her death, Helene had not seen Paul for eighteen years.

Death of Gretl Wittgenstein

(The above portrait of Gretl Wittgenstein was painted by Gustav Kilmt in 1904. Gretl loathed the painting and believed that her mouth was inaccurately depicted by Kilmt. Years later she had it repainted by a relatively unknown artist. In the painting Gretl appears self conscious in a fancy shoulderless gown that appears ill-fitting.)

Gretl outlived Helene by a couple of unhappy years. A strong minded and energetic person—according to Hermine Gretl was the only one amongst her siblings who at times showed the energy and initiative of their father—she lived the high-flying lifestyle of the rich in the 1920s and 1930s, and, in her own way tried to save the family from the clutches of the Nazis during the war years, with some success. 

In her younger years Gretl was closest to Rudi. She was devastated when Rudi killed himself in a dramatic manner in Berlin. She married within months of Rudi's suicide. By that time, Karl Wittgenstein, the children's father, furious at the shame brought upon the family by Rudi, had forbidden the family members to even utter his dead son's name in his presence. As Gretl came out of the church after the marriage ceremony she asked one of her friends to secretly put a wreath on Rudi's grave.

Gretl's personal life, though, was far from happy. Her marriage to Jerome Stonborough was troubled. Her husband’s family was originally German Jewish—Jerome’s father was an immigrant from Saxony—, though he was born and bred in America. Indeed he was born as Jerome Steinberger. His father, Herman Steinberger, was an entrepreneur, and committed suicide in 1900 when his business of importing kid-gloves went bankrupt. Jerome had a strong family history of suicide; in addition to his father, an aunt and an uncle (both from father’s side) killed themselves. After his father’s death Jerome changed his surname, anglicised it to Stonborough, and travelled to Vienna to study medicine. 

Jerome and Gretl were married in a Protestant church, but it is not known whether he actually converted to Christianity (his sister remained Jewish). His marriage to Gretl was unhappy, marked by Jerome’s violent mood swings. 

It has been speculated that Jerome might have suffered from neurosyphilis, the speculation most probably having arisen from the fact that Jerome was seen by Julius Wagner who won the 1927 Nobel prize for the treatment of neurosyphilis (dementia paralytica) with inoculation of a malaria strain (within a few years of this discovery, Wagner’s treatment would become supererogatory with the discovery of penicillin). It is however very likely that what Jerome suffered from was agitated depression. 

Jerome's mood swings and Gretl's intensity did not make them an easy couple to interact with. In 1913, Jerome and Gretl planned to move to London. Gretl's youngest brother, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was already living in England. 'I am leaving at once,' Ludwig Wittgenstein is supposed to have exclaimed upon hearing his sister's plans. 'Because my brother in law has come to live in London, and I can't bear to be so near him.'

Gretl’s long marriage to Jerome ended in a divorce in 1938, and a few months later he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a rifle. The marriage produced two sons, both of whom were, in different ways, disappointments to her. 

The elder son, Thomas, was not very capable and was a source of constant worry and financial drain. 

The younger son, John (Ji), of whom Gretl had high hopes, inexplicably gave up his high-flying Washington career and spent the post-war years in idleness in Dorset, England. Gretl died in 1958 of heart disease. 

Gretl was the one who fell out with Paul Wittgenstein spectacularly, and there was no question of reconciliation. She never spoke of Paul ever again, but mentioned him in one of her letters to Ludwig Wittgenstein, in which she wrote:

‘For a while I really believed that Paul would get over his attitude, but now I see that we have really lost him. He is not a forgetter and I don’t see that age is going to make him mellower.’ 

Both Gretl and Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that Paul had to estrange himself from his family and Viennese past in order to forge a new identity and life in America. 

At the time of her death Gretl and Paul had not been in touch for almost twenty years.

(Kundmanngasse, the grand villa Ludwig Wittgenstein, who maintained a broad interest in architecture, designed for Gretl. It was built between 1926 and 1928. Gretl lived there until 1939. During the war years, when Gretl lived in America, the villa served as an army hospital. Gretl returned to Vienna and lived there until her death in 1958. After Gretl's death, her son Thomas inherited the villa and lived there until 1971, when he decided to sell the villa, as he lacked the cash required for its repairs. The builder planned to build skyscrapers in the sprawling gardens of the property. This led to protests from architects and historian and the property was declared a protected monument. The property was bought by the Bulgarian government in 1975 and was used as a cultural centre.)

Death of Paul Wittgenstein

(Paul Wittgenstein in old age in the verandah of his house in America)

Paul Wittgenstein outlived all of his siblings. He died in 1961 at the age of 73. Like his younger brother he succumbed to prostate cancer. 

The day after Paul died, a congregation assembled at the funeral home where Paul’s body was placed. There were no prayers and no one spoke. At the front was placed a gramophone and a man put the gramophone needle on the 33 rpm recording of Brahm’s German requiem. Each time a side was finished, the record was turned over until it reached its winding conclusion.

There you have it. The Wittgenstein children seemed to have everything going for them in respect of material wealth. And yet, of the five brothers three killed themselves, and the fourth did not marry. The remaining brother spent the last 23 years of his life estranged from his siblings without exchanging a word with any of them. Of the three sisters, one died alone, a spinster, and the remaining two died unhappy. 

So what went wrong, and when, and where?

Who can tell? In the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein:

‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must keep silent.’