The German actress and writer Erika
Mann was born on this day in 1905. She is most well-known for her fearless
anti-fascist artistic and journalistic work during World War II and for starting the cabaret Die Pfeffermühle,
which was a safe haven for Munich’s LGBT community during the 1930s.
During her lifetime, Erika Mann wrote three different novels and multiple plays (x).
Erika Mann was born on November 9,
1905 in Munich, Germany. She was the first child born to Thomas Mann and his wife
Katia. Although she was Jewish on her mother’s side and named after her
maternal uncle Erik, she was baptized Protestant. Her father was a Nobel-prize
winning author and afforded Erika a comfortable and privileged upbringing, but he
confessed to his brother in several letters his disappointment at having a
daughter as his first-born. A son named Klaus would follow soon, however. Klaus and Erika would have an incredibly close relationship for
their whole lives and were bonded by their shared experiences of same-gender attraction. Although not a strong student, Erika was interested
in theater and the arts from a very early age and even started a theater troupe
at her high school. After graduating by the skin of her teeth, she moved to
Berlin and began to further her studies in theater.
“Klaus und Erika Mann, Berlin,” 1930 by
Lotte Jacobi. Often nicknamed “the twins” by family members, Erika (right) and her younger brother Klaus (left) were kindred spirits in a multitude of ways. Klaus was a gay man and Erika was a lesbian and their shared experiences bonded the two for life (x).
Throughout the 1920s, Erika moved
between Berlin and Bremen working with two different theater troupes. She was
married twice in her lifetime; first to the famous German actor Gustaf
Gründgens and then later to the iconic poet W.H. Auden, but they were both lavender marriages – marriages between a gay man and a lesbian that
allowed them to conveniently move about the world of the early 20th century. One of her first lovers was an
actress named Pamela Wedekind who she met while performing in her brother Klaus’s
play Anja und Esther. While Klaus, Pamela,
Erika, and Erika’s first husband Gustaf worked on Anja und Esther, Klaus was engaged to Pamela and Erika was engaged
to Gustaf. These engagements were cover-ups for the real relationships: Klaus
and Gustav and Erika and Pamela. The foursome eventually parted ways in
Erika Mann, Klaus Mann, and Pamela Wedekind photographed in the 1920s. Although Pamela was briefly married to Klaus, it was a cover-up for her relationship with Erika (x).
Erika’s other notable affairs would include Therese Giehse, Annemarie
Schwarzenbach and Betty Knox. Erika was in the landmark lesbian
film Mädchen in Uniform in 1931 and
founded the iconic cabaret establishment Die
Pfeffermühle with her lover Therese Giehse in 1933. Most of the material performed
at the cabaret was penned by Erika herself and was staunchly anti-Fascist. It
only lasted two months before being shut down by the Nazi Party, but during its
short lifespan, Die Pfeffermühle
became a hub for the underground resistance fighters and LGBT community in
Erika (far right) poses with other female war corespondents in 1944. One of Erika’s lovers who was also a popular war corespondent, Betty Knox, is pictured fourth from the left (x).
Erika eventually fled Germany and
worked as a journalist and war corespondent for the majority of World War II. After the
war, she, her parents, and Klaus moved to America. Tragically, Erika and Klaus
would soon come under FBI investigation for their illegal “homosexual
activities” and socialist political leanings, the stress of which would result in
Klaus committing suicide. The grief of losing her brother and closest confidant
would never leave Erika. For the rest of her life, she was dedicated to
preserving the work and memory of both her brother and father. Erika herself
passed away on August 27, 1969 from a brain tumor.