First Encounters: When Lotte Lenya met Kurt Weill

Illustration by Edward Sorel Text by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Next week: Henry James and Rupert Brooke
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In the freewheeling Berlin of the Twenties, the unconventional was the norm, the bizarre commonplace. There, a solemn, bespectacled cantor's son might very well be attracted by a Viennese Catholic of lower-class parentage and dubious past. A serious young composer/intellectual might even meet and marry - twice - a redheaded, husky-voiced cafe dancer.

Lenya always made light of their initial contact: she was on stage auditioning; Weill was playing the piano in the pit; she heard his voice but never saw him. Their meeting in the summer of 1924 was another matter. With postwar inflation running high, a hungry Lenya gratefully accepted an invitation from the playwright Georg Kaiser to live with his family at their villa outside Berlin. One Sunday, Weill, who was working with Kaiser on an opera, came out by train. He was told to get off at the station by the lake, and Lenya was sent across to collect him. Of course she would recognise him, Kaiser said, all composers looked alike, and indeed, there he was - thick glasses, receding hairline, typical round musician's hat. Later she would remember the sun on the waves, and how he kept staring at her as she rowed. Lenya was not beautiful, but she was vibrant and interesting, and underneath his mocking facade Weill was a romantic. Before the opera was staged, they married.

They were faithful to each other - Berlin style. He was her dear "Weillchen". When, in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, Weill wrote the music for Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera, there were parts for Lenya - brassy, woman-of-the-streets roles for which her warm but abrasive voice was superb. If she, seeking variety, went off from time to time with a lover, and if he took comfort in a mistress - if they even divorced - well, all that passed. So, for them, did Berlin, thanks to Hitler. America was the haven, the place where her fame grew with his - which was only fair, since, as Weill once told a friend, "my melodies always come to my inner ear in Lenya's voice"