I just sent in book four in the Viennese Mysteries to my editor in London and began thinking about one of the main characters in this series installment, the famous Viennese courtesan, Josephine Mutzenbacher.
Well, perhaps famous is a bit too strong. This mythic prostitute was introduced to Viennese readers in the 1906 novel, Josefine Mutzenbacher – Die Lebensgeschichte Einer Wienerischen Dirne, Von Ihr Selbst Erzählt (Josephine Mutzenbacher – The Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself). This first-person pseudo-memoir was written–the experts finally concur–by Siegmund Salzmann, better known by his pen name of Felix Salten, and, if known at all to readers outside the German-speaking world, as the author of Bambi.
In the novel, Salten depicts a strong-spirited woman in her fifties–Pepi to her friends–looking back with candor and sometimes even humor on her sexual adventures.
Modern readers, of course, would call these incidents abuse rather than adventures, for her initiation into matters sexual came at the hands of an aged roomer, or Bettgeher, in her humble working-class apartment when she was only five. By twelve she had graduated to the streets and then soon to the plentiful brothels of the Austrian capital in the waning years of the nineteenth century.
By the way, for those troubled by the the contrasting genres Salten chose to write in, there is a bit of a moral to the tale. Though Salten’s later work, Bambi, became a bestseller in Europe and in the U.S., the author foolishly sold off the film rights in the early 1930s for only $1,000–hardly chump change at the time, but compared to what Disney would do with the franchise…?
I portray Mutzenbacher as an actual person in my fiction. It is 1901 and she has now become an infamous madam and proprietor of her own house of ill repute, The Bower. Not to give too much away, but my fictional protagonist, Karl Werthen (pronounce it “VAIR-tun”) , a wills and trusts lawyer as well as a private inquiries agent, is employed by Mutzenbacher to find the killer of her favorite young “employee” at the Bower, Mitzi. The police have better things to do than track down the killer of a prostitute, it seems. Salten is also in attendance, already beginning his anonymous biographical efforts.
This is not the first time I have written about Josephine Mutzenbacher. I first came across her story while researching my nonfiction work, Hitler in Vienna. I wanted to portray all aspects of fin de siècle Vienna and decided to use this novel as a bit of a backgrounder into the sexual life of the city at the time.
Problem was, I could not lay my hands on a copy of the novel. There were German editions available, but I confess that my smut German was and still is not quite up to par. Nor were there dictionaries available at the time–this was the late 1970s–that dealt with sexual slang. I was doing most of my research at the National Library in Vienna and discovered that they actually had in their collection an old Obelisk Press edition in English. Hurray! Problem solved.
Except that it wasn’t.
The only copy in all of Vienna’s vast National Library was kept under lock and key, like some “eyes-only” holy grail of national defense. I queried the harried book porter at the library–these white-coated gents actually fetched books from the closed stacks and brought them to you in the elegantly appointed reading room. He squinted at me as if I had just made a pass at him, and then blurted out that I would have to see the Herr Direktor about such a request.
What can I say? I was young. I had many years ahead of me and thus there was time for such battles in my life. I slowly crept up the bureaucratic food chain at the National Library until I did, indeed, arrive at the office of the Herr Direktor. I look back and wonder how I did that. A combination, I suppose, of stubbornness and American naiveté, neither of which were going to get me far with Herr Direktor, a wizened little fellow with round tortoise shell reading glasses that lent him an owlish appearance as he sat behind his massive rococo desk. He peered at me over the top of his glasses as I was ushered in by his secretary–I can still hear the swish-swish of her nylons as she walked.
He seemed vastly unimpressed by my jeans and turtle neck sweater. The fact that I was not affiliated with any university also made him wince.
But I had an ace to play. I had just gotten a contract with a major German house for the book–how was I to know that the Germans were quite eager to pass the blame for Hitler on to the Viennese?
I handed him the contract and he did everything but hold it to the light in search of a forgery. One could almost hear the cognitive dissonance ratcheting in his mind: How could this be-jeaned Ami secure a contract from such a publisher?
He sighed, handed the contract back, and right then and there had his secretary fetch the prized copy of the erotic novel, and lead me to a cubicle where I had two hours in which to peruse it and take whatever notes I could.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Pepi since then: outliers, the both of us, in Viennese society.