Maud Rosenthal: Oscar Levy's 'daughter-secretary'

Tuesday 22 January 2008 01:00

Maud Ruth Levy: born London 22 April 1909; married 1947 Albi Rosenthal (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Oxford 18 December 2007

In 1921 Maud Levy, as she then was, became the most famous child in Britain. Her father, Oscar Levy (1867-1946), well known as a physician and scholarly editor of the complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche, was expelled from Britain, his second home, as an "undesirable alien" under the short-lived Enemy Aliens Restriction Act (1919). The pretext was the preface he had written for George Pitt-Rivers's The World Significance of the Russian Revolution, a violent denunciation to which Levy had responded with cautious courtesy. The Home Office characteristically confused the two, and the 12-year-old Maud, no alien, since she had been born in Britain, went with her parents into exile. Asked as she was leaving why she was quitting the land of her birth, and where she was going, she replied: "Please ask the Home Secretary."

The public uproar was universal, but the only result was the repeal of the Act next year. Oscar Levy had fled the Prussianisation of Germany in 1894, was sent back unwillingly in 1915, and had returned home, as he thought, to Bloomsbury in 1920. He had been an habitué of the old Vienna Café, his elegant figure as familiar there as at the British Museum, where, through one of his patients, he discovered Nietzsche. He knew most of European literature already, but he now found what seemed the summation of all that the classical renaissance had meant. Inherited wealth enabled him to fund as well as edit the complete Nietzsche between 1909 and 1913. At the same time he was an early contributor to A.R. Orage's New Age, and could quote Samuel Butler and Blake; he also translated novels by Disraeli and Gissing into German.

Maud's beautiful mother came from Hanover, but unlike her anglophile husband was devoted to her fatherland, teaching the infant Maud to pray for German victory. It says much for the bonds of family love that in 1921 the three drew even closer, now living in the house at Wiesbaden, still after many vicissitudes the family's German home.

Maud Levy left the Gordon Square School for Girls for the Lycée Français de Mayence, as Mainz now became, taking the baccalaureate with distinction in 1929. She went on to the Sorbonne, where she pursued further literary studies, then to the universities of Florence, Freiburg and Heidelberg, and finally to the newly founded Courtauld Institute in London to embark on art history.

Throughout this time she remained her father's "faithful daughter-secretary" in his campaigns to preserve the "intellectual aristocracy" that he sought for Europe, before and after his flight, foreseeing exile yet again, first to France and then back to Britain. She did as much for Ernst Toller, the playwright, and for the novelist Heinrich Mann, who shared Levy's beliefs; she drew the line at Willi Münzenberg.

It was while she was at work researching Richard Parkes Bonington at the Wallace Collection that she met Albi Rosenthal, son of the great Munich bookselling family. His father, like Oscar Levy, had seen the Nazi peril early and clearly, and Albi moved to London in the autumn of 1933. Next spring he started work under Fritz Saxl at the Warburg Institute, also newly arrived from Hamburg.

He met Maud in December 1935 – their first date together was to see Charles Laughton in the film Rembrandt – and they drew closer while he rebuilt the family business. "A. Rosenthal" had begun to do well when the shop in Curzon Street was bombed. They then moved to Oxford, where Oscar Levy was now living. In 1947 Maud and Albi, thwarted hitherto by the naturalisation regulations, were able to marry; their growing family led to the purchase of Half Acre on Boars Hill, their home for the rest of their lives.

Albi Rosenthal had always been interested in music, playing the violin to professional standards, and music remained the staple of the Rosenthal business. Asked to appraise the collection of Alfred Cortot, a great collector as well as pianist, he became better acquainted with Otto Haas, who had succeeded to the great Berlin business of the antiquarian music dealer Leo Liepmannssohn. The acquaintance grew warmer and in 1955, shortly before Haas died, Rosenthal bought first the business and later the premises in Belsize Park.

To Maud this was a natural progression, and she threw herself into it, as she had into Albi's other new interest, inspired by his father-in-law, the collection of Nietzsche's letters, forbidden to German libraries. She took as lively an interest in local affairs, the Oxford University Orchestra, Magdalen College School, where their son, Jim, now a television commentator, first earned his sporting spurs, and the Boars Hill Association, of which they were founder members.

In 1913, as a little girl, Maud was taken to Sils-Maria in the Engadine, where Nietzsche had spent the most creative decade of his life in the 1880s. There she went again, with her husband, as soon as they could after the war, and thereafter regularly. In 1960, with help from a group of friends, the Nietzsche-Haus Trust was set up in the building where he always stayed, to be a haven for intellectuals to whom real freedom was in the mind.

In 2004, aged 95, she journeyed there with Albi formally to present the trust with her father's papers and their joint collection of Nietzsche's letters. As a result, a six-volume collection of Oscar Levy's writings and letters is now in progress. The preservation of the name and business of Otto Haas was a matter of equal importance to her, and it was a great pleasure for her to know that, despite Albi's death in 2004, this too was assured.

Nicolas Barker

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