Arts: One octave below laryngitis

Lotte Lenya was Kurt Weill's muse, sang like a cement mixer and defined an era. Robin Baker marks her centenary
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The Independent Culture
The pneumatic rasp of Louis Armstrong singing "Mack the Knife" regularly blasted through our gramophone. With gleeful relish he crooned Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's most famous song, turning a ballad about rape, arson, prostitution and the murder of seven children into a chart hit. I could recite all of Mack's conquests - Suky Tawdry, Jenny Diver, Lotte Lenya, Sweet Lucy Brown - and did so with all the tedious repetitiousness that under-eights can muster. Later, when James Bond offered a little more glamour and excitement, I was allowed to stay up and watch From Russia With Love.

"Who's thaaat?" I asked, as Sean Connery was attacked by a particularly unattractive assassin with daggers secreted in the tips of her sensible shoes.

"That," Dad replied, "is Lotte Lenya."

Her portrayal of the Soviet agent Rosa Klebb was bad PR for lesbians, shoemakers and hotel maids, but it gave the Bond series its finest villain, and also gave Lenya an international profile befitting a living legend. But few cinema audiences were aware that this Iron Curtain killer was the widow of the composer Kurt Weill, the most famous exponent of his music, and the possessor of a sensationally unorthodox singing voice, accurately described by a friend as "one octave below laryngitis".

Back in 1928 (and recently married to Weill), a girlish-voiced Lenya had played the prostitute Jenny in the premiere of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, bludgeoning Berlin audiences with Brecht's most famous sentiment - "food first, morals later" - and achieving enormous fame throughout Germany. In 1931 she reprised her performance in GW Pabst's film version of the work. Pabst constructed a demi-monde of sexual deviancy and corruption via close-ups of lustful glances and pained grimaces. And at its heart is Lenya - sweet, swaggering and dangerous - a young woman secreting world-weariness from every pore. It was a role that she would play throughout her life.

To understand her contribution to The Threepenny Opera, you need only compare Pabst's film to the French-language version he shot simultaneously, but with a different cast, which entirely lacks an anchor as ambivalent as Lenya. Alongside Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box and Peter Lorre in M, Lenya's is one of the defining performances of the Weimar period. Later in 1931 she starred in Weill and Brecht's opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, again as a whore named Jenny.

"How difficult it must be to play a ravaged prostitute from nowhere," wrote one critic of Lenya's performance, little realising that it might not have been too far removed from reality.

Born into poverty in Vienna on 18 October 1898, she was frequently beaten by her alcoholic father and, according to Donald Spoto's genital-warts- and-all biography, was a prostitute before the age of 12.

Whatever the truth about that first "career", Lenya's love life was both unconventional and tragic. Married twice to Weill, she maintained a succession of lovers throughout their relationship, including the founder of the surrealist movement Max Ernst, and Paul Green, Weill's collaborator on his first American musical, Johnny Johnson.

Although devastated by Weill's premature death in 1950, Lenya found time for three further husbands over the next two decades: all her junior, all self-destructive, all gay, and all dead before their mid-fifties. Yet her role as Mrs Weill was paramount.

The complex nature of their relationship is revealed in their letters. Weill showered her with such endearments as Schwammi (little mushroom) and Mistblume (dung blossom) while, seemingly without irony, sending his "warmest regards" to her various lovers.

She became the greatest progenitor of her own myths - both in her stories and her work - most of which she stuck to right up until her death in 1981. Many of the legends concerned her association with Weill. She told of how they escaped Nazi Germany together in 1933, whereas in truth she slipped away to gamble in Monte Carlo with her new lover, Otto Pasetti.

Lenya appeared in only five films of variable quality, and never in a lead role, and it wasn't until 30 years after the release of The Threepenny Opera that she returned to the screen. At 63, she was still playing the prostitute on stage but had progressed to the pimp on celluloid and received an Oscar nomination for doing it so well. In a role that had been mooted for Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert, Lenya played a Rottweiler of a procuress (the aptly named Contessa Magda Terribili- Gonzalez) in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, an enjoyably tawdry adaptation of Tennessee Williams's first novel.

After her Bond antics, she returned to procuring in the deservedly forgotten The Appointment (1968), and finally, in 1977, gave a spot-on cameo in Semi-Tough, as the brutal masseuse Clara Pelf, informing Burt Reynolds: "All American men have sexual problems."

The films, songs, performances and stories all succeeded in promulgating the legend of Lenya as the echt voice of Weimar Germany's divine decadence. It was an image the public wanted, though it had little grounding in reality. Weill's songs were theatre songs, not alcohol-drenched cabaret numbers from Berlin's Kit Kat Klub, but in 1966 Lenya for ever blurred history, biography and mythology by appearing as Fraulein Schneider, Sally Bowles's landlady, in the Broadway premiere of the musical Cabaret.

There's a recurrent image in Woody Allen's Radio Days of a bleak, windswept Coney Island suburb. As the waves lash the beach, a plangent instrumental version of Weill's "September Song" haunts the sound-track: Weill's desire to become part of the American cultural fabric seems complete. Lenya also recorded the song in 1957. Suffused with painful nostalgia and without any cloying sentimentality, Lenya's Viennese-inflected accent harked back to the past, singing about getting older and wanting to be with the one you love: "Oh the days dwindle down to a precious few/ September, November/ And these few precious days I'll spend with you."

Although dogged by self-doubt throughout her career, she was not above declaring her own greatness, and seemed to have little difficulty in comparing her art to that of Maria Callas. In fact, like Callas, Lenya couldn't always hold a note, and, like Louis Armstrong, she produced a sound that was sometimes closer to a cement-mixer than to conventional lyricism. But that unique, danger-tinged sound can take an emotional grip on listeners that transcends the stuff of legend.

A Lotte Lenya centenary season is at the NFT throughout October (0171- 928 3232)