The family’s “shameful” secret

A good many stories didn’t make it into “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre”. One of these was about the lovely illegitimate Martha. Born of unmarried Adelheid’s brief love affair, she was ostracised by most of the Flatter family. My great-grandfather Siegmund was of legendary generosity but refused to welcome her into his home. At 22, she committed suicide.

My grandmother Emma was a young woman by the time she asked her mother to tell her more about the mysterious Martha. Josefine sat down and wrote a long letter in her tidy and almost illegible gothic script, using a florid literary style to narrate a tale all too common in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna, a city where the battle between sexual desire, convention and social class appears to have been particularly fierce. Martha was one of its many casualties.

The top-selling Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, himself a compulsive womaniser, coined a name for the young women from the suburbs who became entangled with men from Vienna’s elegant centre: Süsses Mädel (sweet girls), seduced and abandoned by more affluent men. Neither prostitutes nor unattainable girls from the higher classes, they provided romance before or after marriage.

My great-grandfather Siegmund’s many siblings left their native Moravian town to find employment in Vienna and Brno. Among them Adelheid found work in Vienna as a freelance cook (she was apparently not good enough to secure a permanent job).

A pretty, lively young woman, she met a student and soon fell pregnant. He didn’t offer marriage, pleading poverty and family pressures, and no doubt saw himself as a social cut above Adelheid. She gave birth to a baby girl, Martha and, having no choice, left her with a wet-nurse.

Siegmund knew of the child, but waited until his wife Josefine had given birth to their five children before he finally told her. “I was at last mature enough!”, she writes sardonically. A meeting was organised with 16-year-old Martha, and “Never before had I seen such a beauty! Impeccable stature, dark hair, beautiful eyes, a gentle voice, demure and exquisite manners and intelligent conversation.”

At 14, Martha had been raped when she sat as an artist’s model. She later got a job in a music store, where among her many admirers the Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark brought her flowers. Eventually, a young Jewish businessman, Rudolf Hlawatsch, fell in love with her. He courted her assiduously; they were seen at the theatre and over candle-lit dinners, and next thing she was pregnant. In love though he was, he then stalled, afraid of his family’s reaction to a shotgun marriage to a girl born out of wedlock.

But Rudolf was truly in love, so they married in secret. For a while he led a double life between the couple’s modest apartment and his comfortable family home.Two babies were born, a boy and a girl, but shortly after the birth of the second child Martha started behaving strangely, using foul language in the presence of visitors. She was hospitalised in a private “nervous” clinic.

Rudolf’s family by then knew the truth and were looking after the children, and things could have ended well. When Martha left the clinic, Rudolf installed her in a handsome apartment. All seemed to be taking a positive turn, but one April day in 1902, while the maid was cleaning the windows and the cook making coffee, Martha took the revolver she had hidden in her night table, and shot herself in the mouth.

She left no suicide note, just a message asking Rudolf to take care of her mother. He did so, renting Adelheid a small apartment and paying her a stipend that allowed her to stop work. But she too went mad. Sinking into an incurable depression, she ended her days at the Steinhof psychiatric hospital.