Posts Tagged ‘Vienna’

150thI  had the honor to contribute an essay to a Festschrift for the 150th anniversary of the opening of Vienna’s Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard that encircles the Inner City: Vienna’s Champs-Élysées.

Recently, I read this essay at a Vienna Salon organized by the Vienna Tourist Board at San Francisco’s Ritz Carlton. I include the essay below for those interested.

My connection to Vienna has always been a visceral one: I came of age in that city; it is my second home. Thus, my addition to the essays from thirteen writers around the world is much more of a personal anecdote than a historical reflection.


It was the time of the big change in Vienna. The fortress mentality, bred into the populace for centuries as the outpost against eastern invasion, was being traded in for openness and inclusion. Vienna was no longer a bastion but a window on the world. By imperial decree, the city’s medieval walls had been razed, the Glacis, a no-man’s land formerly separating the city and its suburbs, was being developed in one of the biggest, most grandiose real estate development schemes the world had yet witnessed. Emperor Franz Joseph officially opened the boulevard on May 1 of that

The Parliament under construction

The Parliament under construction


Meanwhile, my forefathers were battling seasickness and fleas as they voyaged across the Atlantic from Wales and Norway, making their way to the Midwest, where they settled for several generations. And then my immediate family later finished the journey, trekking all the way to the limits of the continental U.S. to a tiny beach town in Oregon.

I was raised in that sleepy hamlet. Its population of a few thousand from September to the end of May doubled during the summer months with Portland tourists flocking to the beach.

Just as the town’s population was circumscribed by the seasons, so was its length and breadth delimited by a headland to the south, the peaks of the Coast Range to the east, and the mouth of the mellifluously named Necanicum River to the north. The two miles between the southern headland and the river mouth were connected by a concrete walkway called the Prom. It fronted the town: ocean to the west and rows of delightfully lumbering old beach houses to the east.

The Prom

The Prom

The Prom was my introduction to traffic articulation in its most modest and fundamental form. I loved that Prom. As a youngster I rode my bike along it to golf courses where I caddied or mowed greens; I made up tales about the musty Victorian houses along its eastern edge–my first efforts at fiction.

The Prom also formed the top of a ‘T’ with the town’s other main street, Broadway, a Coney Island paradise of bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, miniature golf, cotton candy stands, and arcades full of zinging and dinging pinball machines where our summer overflow crowds of tourists could be found thronging.

Those carnival delights and the beach houses along the Prom delineated my architectural world.

Going away to college did little to broaden my perspectives: though large, my university and the town it overshadowed only multiplied in quantity, not quality, the grid of streets I had grown up on.

And then I was fortunate enough to go to Vienna my junior year.

It changed my life: it ruined me for the little Oregon town in which I had quite happily grown up, never understanding my older sisters’ carping complaints of how dead the place was.

I resisted her at first. Vienna seemed so old, so monumental, so Viennese.

But slowly on walking expeditions around the Ringstrasse, a boulevard of

The Court Opera

The Court Opera

3.5 miles circumference and broader even than the Necanicum of my youth, I came to feel a curious rhythm, a tingling sense of place, a kinship and desire for belonging. Vienna, My first urban experience, became my template for what a city should be.

This came about in stages. The Volksgarten was my first revelation, with its bowed roses, tied down and mulched in chilly late autumn against winter freeze, the garden’s fountains boarded in cone-shaped hats. Yet the regal Dackels still pranced about its grounds in their knitted mantels as if it were eternal summer.

Buildings came next. The twin museums with their prizes inside–the Brueghels, one-third of the painter’s surviving works; the Venus of Willendorf, at 20,000 years the oldest representation of a human figure; the butterfly collection! And the Opera with its tragic story of a misspoken comment by Franz Joseph resulting in the suicide of one of its architects.

These buildings, I discovered, had stories, just like the Prom houses I pedaled past as a boy. And what stories they were. Even buildings no longer standing had tales to tell, such as the Ring Theater on the Schottenring where fire broke out during a performance in 1881, killing almost four hundred. Franz Joseph ordered an apartment house, the Sühnhaus or ‘house of atonement ‘, built on the site of that theater, but it proved an eternally unlucky address. Freud lived there but moved out after one of his patients jumped to her death in the building’s stairwell. The Sünhaus did not live much longer, either, destroyed in World War II. There was a silver lining, however: the invention of the fire curtain came about as a result of that 1881 disaster.

Along the Ringstrasse

Along the Ringstrasse

With the attention of an archivist, I painstakingly learned such stories for each section of this boulevard, the Ringstrasse. And these stories ultimately led me to the tail end of the Ringstrasse era, to the amazing renaissance of Vienna 1900. That culture and epoch created the modern sensibility through the works of such seminal artists, writers, and thinkers as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among so many others. Yet Vienna 1900, and the world it engendered, was also a breeding ground for such future tyrants as Trotsky, Stalin, and Hitler, all of whom also spent time in the city.

Just as I learned this peculiar double-sided nature of Vienna history, I also began to see the Ring itself in a new and more discerning light, its magnificent buildings often having more symbolic import than architectural functionality. The court theater, Burgtheater, was lyre-shaped as a tip of the hat to the origins of Greek drama, but its acoustics were so execrable that its auditorium had to be redesigned. The neo-Gothic Rathaus allowed scant light in for the functionaries of city hall. The magnificent Court Opera cost six million gulden to build at a time when thousands were homeless, sleeping in warming rooms, sewers, and park benches.

Facts of history. But still the Ringstrasse beckoned me.

Later, living and working in Vienna long after my student days, those

The Ring today

The Ring today

houses on the Ring and street junctions with the Ring took on personal connections. In the 1970s I worked in one of these elegant Ringstrasse houses, the former Grand Hotel on the Kärtner Ring adapted as the first home of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). When it opened its doors in 1870, that hotel had 300 rooms, 200 bathrooms, and was equipped with a telegraph office and steam-powered elevators. Thus, a century later, most of the offices of the IAEA were still neatly appointed with Belle Époque bathrooms. Decades after I worked there, the Grand once again opened as a 5-star luxury hotel. Points of the compass along that Ring also became meeting places: Schottentor, Karlsplatz, Schwarzenbergerplatz. Each had is personal history now for me beyond historical ones: a chance meeting here, a sad farewell there.

Burgtheater on the Ring

Burgtheater on the Ring

And later still, the Ring–its physical self as well as the world and era it represents–would become a presence in both my nonfiction and fiction. I sent tourists on walking tours along its breadth. And now, residing thousands of miles away from Vienna, I relive my own years there by setting my fictional protagonist off on a stroll along the Ring from the Hotel Imperial to the Kunsthistorisches Museum or on a wild nighttime fiaker ride over the boulevard’s uneven cobbles.

Thus, the Ringstrasse strangely informs and encompasses my life–a circle not a line like the Prom of my youth. A continuity, not a simple destination. And I live with and enjoy its special irony: That walls once meant to keep out barbarians like me, demolished more than 150 years ago, were replaced with the Ringstrasse: an open, welcoming expanse beckoning me and a multitude of others to the city of dreams.

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w552873My newest mystery/thriller comes out this April, the first of a new series set in Europe in the 1990s.

Here’s a brief synopsis:

Expat American journalist Sam Kramer is burned out: too many dead bodies, too many wars covered, too little meaning in it all. He’s got a dead-end job at the Daily European as the correspondent for Vienna, where nothing happens now that the Cold War is over. And that is exactly how Kramer likes it.

But his private neutral zone is shattered with news of the suicide of Reni Müller, a German left-wing firebrand and Kramer’s long-estranged ex-girlfriend. To his surprise, Kramer suddenly finds himself the executor of Reni’s literary estate—but the damning memoir named in her will is nowhere to be found. Tracking down the manuscript will lead Kramer to the unsettling truth of Reni’s death, drawing him back into the days of the Cold War and showing him the dark side of the woman he loved.

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9780727882691The fourth novel in the Viennese Mystery series, The Keeper of Hands, has just been published in the U.S., to strong reviews. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly dubbed it “masterful,” and further praised the “top-notch detecting and characterizations.” Booklist also gave it a thumbs up, noting: “As much an exploration of prewar [WWI] Vienna as it is a mystery yarn, the book is full of striking visual imagery that helps conjure up the landscape…this series is well worth a look.”

In tandem with that publication, I had an interview with journalist Guy Bergstrom for the Big Thrill, the monthly online mag of the International Thriller Writers. He asked me an interesting question about the moment I knew as a student in Vienna in the late 1960s that I wanted to stay on there for a number of years and write about the city. It brought to mind this tale of Cold War Vienna:

As a student, I frequented a dive of a café near my lodgings in the third district. It was dodgy and not gemütlich at all. A worker joint with a perpetual haze of blue smoke overhead, a zinc bar, and a jukebox on which someone was always playing “Rock around the Clock.” I would take my small orange-covered, graph lined Rhodia notebook and a pocketful of Staedtler HB pencils with me when I went there, order an achtel of gut-burning Vetliner, and imagine I was another Hemingway in the making.

One evening a rather drunken man at the next table asked me what I was scribbling. I humored him–he seemed a pleasant enough type–and said I was trying to write a short story about Vienna. He immediately got up, came to my table, and sat down without being invited, breathing rank fumes in my face as he leaned in toward me. “I’ve got a story,” he all but hissed. Then he cast his eyes about the room to make sure no one was watching.

It was early autumn and a warm evening; he was dressed in short sleeves. He quickly pulled up the sleeve on his left arm. There, on the inside of his upper bicep was a black tattoo. It took me a moment to decipher it, for it was in Gothic script. I finally realized that it was the letters “AB”.

I raised my eyebrows; he nodded. An avid reader of thrillers even then, I knew that this was his blood type. It was also his badge: he was a former SS.

“I have stories,” he whispered.

At that moment I realized I was not in Kansas (in my case, Oregon) anymore. I was out in the big world where anything could happen, swept up into the cyclone of history. I remember the frisson of excitement I experienced at that realization. I wanted to keep repeating it.


For more about The Keeper of Hands and the background of the Viennese Mysteries, see my podcast interview with Publishers Weekly. 99-v1-138x.PNG

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Ignaz Semmelweis

I am a great fan of Ignaz Semmelweis. I met him when researching my book on Hitler and his time in Vienna. I found the story compelling. Here was a physician who saw the obvious–not the easiest thing to do. Faced with mortality rates of 10 to 35% for women giving birth in the clinics of Vienna in the mid nineteenth century, he looked for reasons rather than excuses. These women died of what was called puerperal fever following childbirth. In fact, the Vienna General Hospital’s obstetric clinic had three times the mortality rate of the midwife’s ward.

Semmelweis, something of an outsider to Vienna at the time as a Hungarian practicing in Vienna, looked outside of the box. What was the difference here? Well, number one, many of the physicians working in the obstetric wards began their days performing autopsies and dissections in the morgue in the basement of the General Hospital. They were quite literally digging their hands into the viscera of dead bodies teaming with millions of bacteria. But of course at this time the germ theory had not yet been advanced. Bacteria was a word that awaited another century. But using simple empirical evidence, Semmelweis thought that perhaps there was a connection between those doctors dipping their hands into the open cavities of dead people, wiping them off on their soiled white jackets, and then proceeding to assist in the birth of babies, and the subsequent death of the mothers. He proposed a simple experiment: before proceeding to work on healthy individuals, doctors should wash their hands in a solution of lime and chlorine.

The mortality rate in birthing wards dropped dramatically to below 1%. (more…)

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Fans of this blog know that I occasionally post remembrances of Vienna and Europe during the final decades of the Cold War. These have always gotten a good response–good enough that I have gathered some of these together (plus a long short story) for a memoir now available as an Amazon Kindle.

Here is the blue-eyed refugee from the Biafran War, Ubhani, the man in the tower of the title, seeking asylum in the Austrian capital; the Hungarian patriot who pays his own special tribute to the 1956 uprising; the nondescript state police agent commissioned to watch foreigners in neutral Austria to ensure they did not ruffle the feathers of the Soviets; the editor of a prestigious Viennese publishing house none too eager to do business with a brash young Ami.

Travel back to Czechoslovakia just months after the Soviet’s brutal suppression of Prague Spring in’68; to guard towers along the waist-deep waters of a lake on the Austro-Hungarian border; to a cozy armchair at the British Council Library; to an all-purpose Tabak Trafik: to life in a Cretan cave; or to the final voyage of the SS France.

An added bonus is the short story, “Body Blows,” which introduces Sam Kramer, the foreign correspondent protagonist from my new series of novels set in Europe following the fall of the Wall.

Cover art is by a talented graphic artist, Peter Ratcliffe.

And hey, at $4.99, what’s not to like?


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Some facts and figures.  For many of these I must thank Tony Judt, a gentleman and scholar who is sorely missed. His Postwar is an incredibly readable overview of Europe from 1945 to the early years of the new millennium.

I have mentioned elsewhere that Vienna in the 1960s was, in the words of my poet-friend George Vance, arrested in the Moose Lodge stage of development. Some numbers: Car ownership was low at the time: Great Britain had only about 2,300 cars in 1951; Spain just 89,000; and in France only one in twelve households had a car. But between 1950 and 1980, car ownership doubled each decade.  The advent of the Volkswagen Beetle, the Renault 4CV,the Fiat 500 and 600, and the Citroen 2CV transformed Europe from a continent on public transport to one in the private car looking for the next rest stop. (more…)

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I did not grow up in the land of shopping malls. A trip to Portland once a year promised riches at the local Meier and Frank, Oregon’s simulacrum of Macy’s. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (truncated to Monkey Ward in Oregon speak) were our connections to the great outside world of consumerism.

Still we in our small coastal town had our Safeway, we could boast a Penny’s nearby. You knew where to buy things; maybe they were distant, but once you traveled to those stores, you knew where things were. The world was a well-organized place, each aisle to a different good. (more…)

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