The Arty Semite

Those Scandalous Mendelssohn Siblings

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

1920s Berlin was a wild place, and two of its wildest celebrities were descendants of the German Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn. The biography, “‘Is There Anything More Beautiful Than Desire?’: The Siblings Eleonora and Francesco von Mendelssohn,” is a diverting look at two arts madcaps. Its author, Thomas Blubacher, explains how Eleonora, an actress, dissipated her family’s collection of Old Master paintings to fund her amorous and artistic affairs. She sold an El Greco to pay for a theatrical tour by one lover, the Austrian Jewish director Max Reinhardt, and, to woo another paramour, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, she took a painting by the 18th century Venetian Francesco Guardi off her wall and handed it to the maestro.

Francesco (nicknamed Cesco), a cellist who played in the Klingler-Quartett and with the amateur fiddler Albert Einstein, was also a stage director and biographer of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse, his sister’s namesake. Cesco put even more energy into a romantic fling with the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, with whom he shared, as Blubacher explains, a “fondness for muscular boys in sailor shirts, seedy bars, and the slippery slope into idiosyncratic and effeminate eccentricity.” Cesco forgave Horowitz when the latter had an affair with the Hollywood silent screenstar Ramon Novarro, and Horowitz pardoned Cesco for making a pass at Horowitz’s personal chauffeur/male prostitute, a “broad-shouldered blond German man officially called a servant and secretary.”

Forced into exile by the Nazis, the siblings fled to Manhattan where they helped other refugees despite their own reduced circumstances. Eleonora stated: “If your name is Mendelssohn, you can’t avoid being on the Jewish side when Jews are in danger.” There, critics carped about Eleonora’s German accent during her stage performances, and Cesco worked with Reinhardt on the 1937 Kurt Weill spectacle “The Eternal Road,” about Jewish history, although Weill dismissed Cesco as a “dilettante.”

Eleonora acted in the 1943 anti-Nazi pageant “We Will Never Die,’ alongside such Jewish stars as Edward G. Robinson, Sylvia Sidney and Paul Muni. For the siblings, exile led to depression and addiction, in Eleonora’s case to morphine, and for Cesco, to sex and drugs. Eleonora’s death in 1951 was ascribed to suicide, although her friend the journalist Leo Lerman claimed suspicious circumstances. Cesco lived until 1972 on Central Park West, after breakdowns, hospitalizations, and a lobotomy. Sad endings that would have scandalized their primly proper ancestor Felix.

**Listen to Vladimir Horowitz play Dohnányi’s “Concert Etude (Capriccio)” in 1928, around the time of his association with Francesco von Mendelssohn here.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Vladimir Horowitz, Thomas Blubacher, Felix Mendelssohn



Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.