With some dogged digging, the internet can sometimes divulge the most unexpected stories. It recently revealed Hilde Loewe, wife of my great-uncle Otto Flatter of Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre, as the lover of Sigmund Freud’s most flamboyant student.
I had known my gentle great-aunt as a concert pianist in pre-war Vienna, but had been unaware of her role in the exciting early days of psychoanalysis, and her love affair with Freud’s brilliant and tragic disciple Viktor Tausk.
Hilde (born Löwi) features only briefly in my book. A photo taken in London shows my sister Lucy sitting on her lap at the piano (above). My father remembered her as the first beautiful woman he fell in love with as a boy in Vienna. He recalled sitting enraptured under the grand piano while she played.
Hilde was an accomplished musician who gave solo recitals of works by Schubert, Chopin and Liszt, and also Rachmaninov and Max Reger. She was Vienna’s top accompanist in the inter-war years, partnering violin virtuoso Vása Prihoda, and expressionist dance legends Gertrud Bodenwieser and Gertrud Kraus.
She toured Europe with the famous violinist Alma Rosé, and paired with Burgtheater actor Raoul Aslan in chanson and recitation evenings. It was he who encouraged her to compose chansons, which she published under the pseudonym Henry Love. Her Das Alte Lied features in The Third Man, and was sung by Marlene Dietrich, Peter Schreier and Rudolf Schock.
What I hadn’t know about this remarkable woman was her near-mythical status in the history of psychoanalysis. Victor Tausk was exploring the benefits of psychoanalysis on psychotics when Freud concentrated on neurotics. Dashingly handsome but afflicted by spells of depression, he collected powerful women as lovers – among them the psychoanalyst Lou-Andreas Salomé.
Hilde first met him as a patient enquiring about the psychological roots of creativity, an area Tausk had explored, and he promptly seduced her. She was 24 and he 40; the Great War had just ended, and she was reviving her promising early career.
Seducing a patient is never kosher for a psychoanalyst, but Tausk was a troubled man. He unnerved Freud with slavish admiration tinged with aggressiveness, and also by his brilliance and his ease with women.
Tausk had asked Freud to take him on as a patient, but Freud instead suggested the fledgling psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch. To complicate matters, Deutsch was Freud’s patient; the triangular relationship would be noxious for all three.
Freud was irritated by Deutsch’s fascination with Tausk, as she would often bring Tausk’s complicated feelings about Freud into their therapy sessions. He said she could either keep Tausk as her patient, or continue her work with him, the great master. She stayed with Freud, and that was a huge blow to Tausk.
This traumatic rejection by two therapists took place in 1918, a few months before Tausk met Hilde. Full of self-loathing, Tausk’s record was of abruptly abandoning his lovers. The pair’s passionate affair lasted a few months, and culminated in Tausk’s marriage proposal. But this was not to be.
Kurt R Eissler, a colleague and ardent defender of Freud’s, was no friend of Tausk’s. He claimed that Hilde had been a virgin, and was pregnant when Tausk committed suicide, miscarrying later. Historian Paul Roazen says there is no evidence of this, and that Eissler wanted to blacken Tausk’s reputation.
The couple had their last evening together at one of Hilde’s concerts, and Tausk then went home. The next morning he tied a rope around his neck and shot himself through the head, leaving two letters: one to Freud, the other to Hilde.
Nobody seems to know the contents of Hilde’s letter. Tausk also left a will saying: “The recognition that I can only keep myself and my beloved fiancée in conflicts and torments, is the true conscious motive of my suicide.” He instructed all his papers to be burned.
Hilde attended Tausk’s funeral in the Jewish section of Vienna’s central cemetery, alongside his ex-wife and his two sons. Later that year she began working with the actor Raoul Aslan, and her career took off. She met my great-uncle Otto in the late 1920s, when he was working as a portrait painter and set-designer. They settled in a Czech village for a while, seeking to stay out of the limelight before returning to Vienna. But Vienna’s political climate alarmed them, and they emigrated to Britain in 1934 to continue working as artists.