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Lotte Lenya

Lotte Lenya

Award-winning Austrian actress and singer Lotte Lenya (b. Vienna-Penzing, Austria-Hungary, October 18, 1898; d. New York City, November 27, 1981), transplanted to the United States for the latter part of her career, is best remembered by music-lovers for her interpretations of songs by her husband Kurt Weill (1900–1950), and by moviegoers for her performances in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and From Russia With Love (1963). She was nominated for an Academy Award® for the former film; from her Broadway performances, which spanned over three decades, she had one Tony Award® (The Threepenny Opera 1957) and was nominated for another (Cabaret 1967).

Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer was born into a working class family in an outlying district of Vienna. At the age of sixteen she moved to Zurich in Switzerland, where she studied classical ballet, singing, and acting, and made a stage debut under the name of Lotte Lenja. In 1921, against the cosmopolitan but precarious backdrop of the Weimar Republic, she moved to Berlin and began rounds of theatrical auditions. In 1924, through playwright Georg Kaiser, she met composer Kurt Weill – actually he had played the piano for her at an audition two years earlier but she had taken no notice of him – and they married early in 1926.

In collaboration with Bertholt Brecht, Weill wrote the leading part of Jenny in Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) as a vehicle specifically for Lenya, and the first performance in 1928 was a big breakthrough for both of them. Soon she was very busy in the theatre, especially in works created by the Weill-Brecht team: Happy End (1929), Der Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny 1930), and Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins 1933), produced in exile in Paris.

In 1933, with the rise of Nazism and the banning of Weill’s works in Germany, both Lenya and Weill fled to France – although they were now estranged and going through a divorce (Weill was a workaholic and not especially communicative). Weill began work on an unprecedentedly ambitious spectacle-opera with text by Franz Werfel entitled Der Weg der Verheißung (The Promised Road), in the midst of which, in 1935, Lenya and Weill came to be reconciled. They emigrated together to the United States and were married again in 1937.

Lenya sang the roles of Miriam and the Witch of Endor in Weill’s new opus, now called The Eternal Road, for 153 performances at the Manhattan Opera House in early 1937. The cast included 245 actors and singers, wearing a total of 1,772 costumes, and the show – a frightening depiction of Jews hiding from a pogrom in a synagogue that included several generous slices of Biblical history – lasted over six hours. It has not been staged since.

Two successful musicals, Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson and introducing the immortal “September Song,” and Lady in the Dark (with Ira Gershwin, 1941) established Kurt Weill’s reputation on Broadway, and the couple was able to move upstate to New City in Rockland County. Their marriage would last until Weill’s death in 1950.

Lenya meanwhile appeared in Anderson’s Candle in the Wind (1941). Her next role was in a Weill “operetta,” The Firebrand of Florence (1945), that was such a box-office disaster that Lenya decided to quit the stage. But in 1951, a little more than a year after her husband’s death, she returned as Xantippe in Maxwell Anderson’s short-lived Barefoot in Athens.She starred again as Jenny in the English-language revival of The Threepenny Opera (1954, 1955), winning the 1956 Tony® for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. 

Lotte Lenya’s American film career began when she was sixty-three, with The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961), and hit a high point in 1963 when she played Rosa Klebb, the Spectre agent with poisoned blades in the toes of her boots, in From Russia with Love. She played the title role in Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder on German television in 1965, and the Gypsy in Tennessee Williams’s sleeper Ten Blocks on the Camino Real on National Education Television in 1966. The same year on Broadway she originated the role of Fräulein Schneider in Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret.

Lenya was married three more times in the thirty-one years between Weill’s death and her own. She established the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, which is still active in the promotion of Weill music and theatre, in 1962. Cancer was the cause of her death in 1981; she is entombed alongside Weill in a mausoleum in Mount Repose Cemetery in Haverstraw, New York. A musical play, Lovemusik, a meditation on the relationship of these two musical and theatrical greats, was produced on Broadway in 2007.