Annemarie Schwarzenbach—The Forgotten Woman—Activist, Writer & Style Icon

Women never needed men to tell us what was sexy—We already knew.

Androgynous lesbian fashion icon, writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, in the 1930’s
Androgynous lesbian fashion icon, writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, in the 1930’s

Glamorous lesbian icon, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, was born in 1908. She was a widely published author who traveled the world, battled with depression and drug addiction, and died young, at the age of 34. Buried in the folds of his-story, as so often is the case, information on Annemarie Schwarenbach is not easy to excavate. In ten years she published several novels and produced more than 300 articles and 5,000 photographs from her journeys across the world.

History erased her, but her own family had a hand in her erasure as well—Her mother burned all of her journals after she died. Until 1987 she was forgotten. Her great nephew, historian Alexis Schwarzenbach, didn’t know much about her at all until he discovered one of her novels on a bookshelf:

"I went to my grandmother and said, 'I didn't know grandfather's sister was a writer'. And she said, 'yes, she was a writer, and a lesbian and a morphine addict.' ”Swiss Info

Although historically, many young girls are pushed into ridiculously rigid gender norms, her parents let her roam free in slacks and short hair. She wasn’t forced to play with dolls, nor was she expected to wear a dress—A childhood freedom that would be the envy of many a young lesbian. Her father tolerated his wife’s extramarital affairs with women.

Her family was one of the wealthiest families in Switzerland, but Annemarie spent most of her adult life trying to get away from them. Tensions evolved into major political disagreements with her mother, who had a domineering personality. Annemarie earned her doctorate in History. By the age of 23, she published her first novel, which was very well received.

She met and had an affair with German writer, Erika Mann, which didn’t last long—Erica had her eye on another woman. Annemarie spent the following years in Berlin with Erika’s gay brother Klaus. She started using drugs with Klaus, and was introduced to morphine. She settled in with the Manns, who adopted her into their family. Annemarie Schwarenbach and the Mann family were vehemently anti-Nazi. Her association with the family caused major conflict with her parents—Especially her mother who sympathized with the Nazi regime. A committed anti-fascist, Schwarenbach’s circle included political refugees and Jews.

Though her beauty caught the eye of men and women alike, her androgynous style also baffled people and gave way to cruelty. Throughout history a male-dominated world has enforced a very rigid idea of what women should look like and how a woman should behave. Annemarie Schwarenbach was a trailblazer and a seductress, who dared to challenge the norm.

Women found her painfully attractive—After all there’s nothing more tempting than a beautiful woman who breaks the rules. Androgynous women are often the epitome of female beauty. She was introspective, sensitive and passionate. Stylish and daring—Women never needed men to tell us what was sexy—We already knew.

Butch lesbian icon, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, in the 1930’s
Butch lesbian icon, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, in the 1930’s

Here’s a lesbian secret that the world has yet to crack: While the confidence of an andro-woman is undeniably striking, and we’re all certainly drawn to finding the ying to our yang, lesbians are biologically driven creatures. Female pheromones and innate same-sex attraction. Irrepressible. Undeniable. Ethereal. The real appeal is in the unraveling—the delicacy awaiting beneath the layers of clothes.

Her style both aggravated and fascinated those around her. "She was neither a man nor a woman," Marianne Breslauer once wrote, "but an angel, an archangel.” Constantly having her womanhood questioned, Annemarie often felt lost—A life of being alternately insulted and flattered.

As she traveled the world, addiction haunted her. In her mid twenties she went to the Pyrenees, Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Teheran. In Teheran she had a love affair with the daughter of the Turkish Ambassador—It was a major scandal. She fell into a deep depression and attempted suicide causing her family embarrassment rather than concern. Shortly thereafter, she married French diplomat, Claude Clarac—a marriage of convenience to cover up the fact that they were both gay—but after only five months, she grew restless and left him to continue her travels.

She accompanied Klaus Mann all over Europe. Her articles and photography reflected the social reality of Europe in the rise of fascism. She helped Klaus finance an anti-Fascist literary review, Die Sammlung.

In the summer of 1936, she went to the United States, with American photographer, Barbara Hamilton-Wright. They took a road trip and documented the industrial regions of the north east during the Great Depression. They returned again the following year and traveled to the deep South—Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Anniemarie published several articles depicting the suffering and violence happening there. The pair encountered lumberjacks in Tennessee, who were starting to organize unions—And her support for the formation of labor unions, caused a deeper rift with her family who owned many textile mills in the US.

In 1939, she met fellow writer Ella Maillart. They drove from Geneva to Afganistan in an old Ford cabriolet. The trip was meant to help her overcome her addiction, but Schwarzenbach got hold of a morphine substitute, and the two women parted ways. Another scandalous love affair took place with Ella’s friend, Ria Hackin, a married French archaeologist. The affair left Annemarie forbidden to travel in Turkmenistan.

Thereafter, she went to the United States to meet up with the Mann siblings. They worked with a committee to help refugees from Europe. There she met writer Carson McCullers, who fell head over heels in love with Annemarie.

"She had a face that I knew would haunt me for the rest of my life"— Carson McCullers.

Given the psychological warfare historically waged upon lesbians back then (and still now) it’s incredible any of us can find our way. Although Carson McCullers once told writer Truman Capote, I think I was born a boy, this was (and still is) a common theme with young lesbians, as we try to piece it all together, in a society that wants to cram us into an arbitrarily predetermined one-size-fits-all. And yes, this feeling even goes for the ‘femme’ types (said the girl who once wished she was boy, because she kept falling in love with her girl friends).

Carson McCullers was crazy about Annemarie, but Annemarie didn’t feel the same way about her. She was involved in a troubled relationship with a married woman, Margot von Opel, and she struggled with feelings for Erika Mann. Annemarie attempted suicide again, which landed her in a psychiatric hospital in 1940 where she was held in until 1941. She returned to Switzerland, but left soon after. In the Belgian Congo of central Africa, she continued to write. She then took a two month trip to visit Claude Clarac.

On September 7th in 1942, Annemarie Schwarzenbach tried to ride her bike with no hands in the Alps of Switzerland. She fell and struck her head. She was in a coma for three days and woke with amnesia. Her mother wouldn’t permit Claude or any of her friends to see her. She was kept in the family home in Switzerland, where she didn’t recognize anyone, and died nine weeks later, in November of 1942. Her mother set her daughter’s most intimate letters and diaries aflame.

Androgynous fashion icon, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, in the 1930’s
Androgynous fashion icon, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, in the 1930’s

Julia Diana Robertson is a journalist and author of Beyond the Screen Door. You can find her (and her fiction) at www.juliadianarobertson.com

*edited to add links/quote

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS