Annemarie Schwarzenbach: Tragic and Transcendent – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

I first learned of Annemarie Schwarzenbach from a NY Times article a friend of mine shared on Facebook titled “Beautiful Tomboys of the 1930’s.” The photos of Annemarie were striking and intriguing. I instantly wanted to know more about her. Then I did as many do after reading an article, I saved it and added it to my “things to look into later” category. And there she sat, waiting to share her story with me. I’m incredibly grateful this writing project presented itself as I knew without a doubt who I wanted to research. 

Annemarie was born into the Swiss aristocracy on the 23rd of May, 1908 in Zurich. Her father, Alfred, was a successful businessman in the silk industry. Her mother, Renee, was the daughter of Ulrich Wille, a general for the Swiss army. From a young age, Annemarie was dressed both in stereotypical girls and boys clothing. As she grew older, she maintained her preference of wearing “male” clothing. Annemarie’s gender fluidity was completely accepted by her parents, which given the time period and their stanchion in society, was rather unheard of. Her confidence in knowing who she was, regardless of which garments she felt like wearing is what drew many would-be suitors to her. Friend and photographer Marianne Breslauer, who traveled with Annemarie and did a portrait series of her over the years of their friendship, once described Annemarie stating, “She appeared neither man nor woman, but more an angel, an ArchAngel.” Another friend and fellow novelist, Thomas Mann, would refer to Annemarie as “a ravaged angel.” 

Annemarie was an accomplished journalist, novelist, photographer and world traveler. She earned her doctorate in history at the age of 23 from the University of Zurich. In the 10 or so years following this achievement, she produced more than 300 articles and an estimated 5,000 photographs for various Swiss publications from her journeys across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the US. Being a photographer myself, the 5,000 photographs seems both reasonable but also insane at the same time given the fact that she obviously shot with film. Annemarie loved the Bohemian lifestyle Berlin offered and was described by her friend Ruth Landshoff stating, “ She lived dangerously. She drank too much. She never went to sleep before dawn.” It was during this time period she befriended the children of author Thomas Mann, Klaus and Erika Mann. Annemarie fell head over heels for Erika but her affections were unrequited. Something she never fully got over. She spent much of her time with Klaus in Berlin. Klaus however was the one to first introduce her to morphine. Annemarie would spend the rest of her life battling her on again/off again addiction. 

As WWII began and Nazi Germany started to take over, Annemarie found her carefree lifestyle coming to an end. Her mother was a Nazi sympathizer and demanded Annemarie cut ties with her Berlin friends, especially the Mann family. Annemarie was devoutly anti-fascist and refused, which caused a severe strain between herself and her family. She helped Klaus Mann finance an anti-fascist literary review called “Die Sammlung.” This review helped writers in exile from Germany by publishing their articles and short stories. But the complications and strain of being pulled between what she knew was right and her family took its toll on her mental health and Annemarie attempted suicide. It’s at this point that she decides to travel.

Over the next several years Annemarie travels to France, Italy and Scandinavia with Klauss. To Spain, with fellow photographer Marianne Bresleaur. She visited Moscow with Klaus for the Soviet Writers Union Congress. She embarks on a daunting 4,000 mile road trip from Geneva to Kabul, Afghanistan with her friend Ella Maillart. The trip was taken in part in an effort to help cure Annemarie of her addiction to morphine. And it worked… until it didn’t. She eventually found her way back to the drug. Ella eventually becomes so frustrated with Annemarie for wasting all her talent on drugs that she abandons her in Kabul. In 1935 Annemarie returns to Persia. Here she meets French diplomat Claude Clarac. After just a few weeks they decide to marry. Their marriage was one of convenience as they were both gay. She stays with Claude for a while but has an affair with the daughter of a Turkish diplomat that does not end well. Ultimately, she leaves Claude, although still married, and travels to America. This is the first of two trips to the US for Annemarie. She spends her time there as a freelance photographer and reporter. She is completely taken with capturing the social dynamics and everyday life for those in the mining and steel industries during the Great Depression. On her second trip to America she has an affair with fellow writer Carson McCullers. Carson fell madly in love with Annemarie saying “She had a face that I knew would haunt me for the rest of my life.” But the relationship became rather one-sided. Annemarie’s depression rears its head again and she makes her second attempt at suicide. This time she’s admitted to a psychiatric hospital. When she’s finally released it is with the agreement that she leaves the US. Carson never quite gets over Annemarie. She dedicates several books to Annemarie. Flash forward to 2016 and their story is still being told. This time by Suzanne Vega in her song “Lover, Beloved.”

Annemarie returns home to Switzerland and, in the Autumn of 1942, while goofing around riding her bicycle, she falls and severely injures her head leaving her in a coma. When she awakes she has amnesia. Her mother brings her home to care for her but refuses to let Claude or any of her friends see her. She keeps her cut off from the ones she loved until she passes nine weeks later. Upon her death, her mother collects all her letters and diaries and burns them in one final assertion of authority over Annemarie. 

Annemarie’s presence and style still have an impact on today’s society. Her great-nephew Alexis Schwarzenbach said “She knew very well what effect she had on people and cultivated her public persona carefully.” Annemarie was the inspiration for Clare Waight Keller’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection for Givenchy. She may have cultivated her persona carefully, but I doubt she knew that more than 75 years after her death, she’s still be captivating everyone. Alexandra Julienne says it perfectly. “With her short hair and understated wardrobe, her beauty sat in stark contrast to what was deemed glamourous in the 30’s and 40’s. And she was all the more enigmatic for it.” 


Written by Kate Sharp (she/her) from New Hampshire, USA. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.


Sources: Ai-ap.com, swissinfo.ch (5/23/08), CR Fashionbook (1/8/19), Wikipedia, NYT article “Beautiful Tomboys of the 1930’s” (10/10/18)
All photo credits belong to Marianne Bresleaur.
Song “Lover, Beloved” written by Suzanne Vega c. 10/14/2016

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