Hannes Richter

Frederic Morton

Hannes Richter

by Suzanne Derringer

Frederic Morton had just returned from Budapest where a new musical, Rudolf, based on his book, A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889, had received its world premiere at the Operetta Theater Budapest in May. The Vienna-born octogenarian author told me about his latest success over dinner at Elaine’s, Manhattan’s legendary literary restaurant.

“It was great for ego-gratification,” he reported. “It got a standing ovation on opening night, and it’s sold out for the whole run in Budapest.” Rudolf - which also enjoyed a run at Hungary’s Szeged Open-Air Festival this summer - will be performed in Vienna in 2007.

The musical, centering around the love affair and double suicide of Austria’s Crown Prince Rudolf and the seventeen year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera in January 1889, was written by American composer Frank Wildhorn, whose previous Broadway musicals include Jekyll & Hyde and Dracula. But Morton’s book is not merely a retelling of the tragic Mayerling affair; it is a richly-detailed description of the late 19th century Imperial capital’s social and cultural milieu.

Frederick Morton. Thomas Jantzen

The new musical reflects this: the opening scene shows the opening of the Court Theater in October 1888, when Emperor Franz Joseph threw a switch which illuminated the theater with 4,000 lights - the first public building in Europe to be electrified. This, said Morton, was an important symbol for Austria at the time, demonstrating that Vienna was at the very center of the modern world.  

Rudolf is not Morton’s first experience with theatrical adaptation. His 1962 book, The Rothschilds, enjoyed a two-year run as a Broadway musical and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1971. “I wrote an article about it for the New York Times,” Morton recalled. “It was called, ‘The Rothschilds Singing and Dancing on Broadway.’ There’s something absurd about that, but something even more absurd about Sigmund Freud or Anton Bruckner dancing” - in Rudolf. Happily, these most serious historical figures don’t dance - at least, not onstage.

Frederic Morton is the author of twelve books, beginning with his first novel, The Hound (1947) until his 2005 book of autobiographical essays, Runaway Waltz. A gifted storyteller, Morton eludicates aspects of history - particularly Austrian history - by telling personal stories in their broader social and cultural context, making history come alive for readers today. The City of Vienna paid homage to his gift by distributing 100,000 free copies of his novel Forever Street (in German translation: Ewigkeitsgasse) several years ago.  

But Morton maintains a critical distance from his native Vienna, which he visits several times each year; he would not, he says, move to Vienna from New York. “I have a son here,” he says, “but it’s mostly because of the language. I don’t share the perfectly understandable hostility of some members of my generation to Austria and Germany.” He writes from his home in New York City, and he writes in English, rather than in German. The linguistic and geographical distance provides a certain objectivity.

His love for the English language began when he migrated with his family to New York in 1939, following the Anschluss. Morton grew up in the Vienna suburb of Hernals, and although he attended the Gymnasium, he was not a model student.  “I suffered through four years at the Gymnasium. I was only interested in sports,” Morton recalls; his family, intelligent middle-class business people, did not encourage him in academic pursuits. Having safely arrived in New York, the fourteen year-old , still known as Fritz Mandelbaum - was sent to La Guardia Vocational High School to become a baker.

Like many refugees, young Morton made an uneasy accommodation with his new environment. His parents changed their surname to something more American-sounding, and applied for U.S. citizenship for themselves and their children. But young Frederic resisted assimilation. “I never wanted to be American,” he insists; “I always resisted it. I never wore bluejeans or drove a car, like the other boys.”  Feeling he had no real place in the external world, the young man turned to a world of the imagination. He immersed himself in literature. Morton says that he “discovered girls and poetry simultaneously - a hormonal effect.” And since he was in New York, not Vienna, the poetry he discovered was English and American.

Today he says: “The English language is my homeland” -  a homeland of the mind, a home he created for himself out of the chaos of war and migration. “The reason why I’m in love with English goes far beyond any intellectual justification, it’s simply emotional. I love this language. It’s my anchorage in this country,” Morton maintains. So deep is his attachment to the English language that he carries a volume of English poetry with him when travelling in German-speaking lands: “I feel I must defend my English language.” Morton began to write during his college years and entered his first novel, The Hound, in a writing contest. He won first prize - $2,000, an advance against future royalties. The book was published in 1947. Morton’s career was launched. He became a reporter for a liberal magazine, The Reporter, which was financed by the Rosenwald family of Sears, Roebucks fame. The magazine sent him to Vienna in 1951; he interviewed President Theodor Körner and met future Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, then President Körner’s Chief of Staff.

Morton, who arrived in the U.S. during the era of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal - remains a committed liberal. During the 1970s, he was a columnist for the New York’s Village Voice. Still maintaining his critical stance toward his country of residence, he is currently writing a new book, tentatively entitled Myth America, dealing with the discrepancy between the American ideal and its historical reality. “Sixty of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave-owners,” he reminded me. The new book will be published next year.

Attila Dolhai as crown prince Rudolf and Bernadett Vago as countess Mary Vetsera.
Budapesti Operettzinhaz.

Morton also takes an equivocal stance toward modernity, describing himself as “programatically retro.” “I am a Luddite,” he announces proudly, referring to the early 19th-century British textile workers who opposed the new machines of the Industrial Age. A true technophobe, he has never driven a car, owns an old black-&-white television set which he rarely watches, and writes his books on an antique manual typewriter. He has a fax machine, but rejects the very concept of the Internet. Morton likes to think of himself as a kindred spirit to David Thoreau, he of Walden Pond, in whom the Luddite spirit was strong. Oddly, he has no aversion to airplanes.

Today, Morton lives alone in his spacious, sunlit apartment overlooking the Hudson River; his beloved wife, Marcia, died two years ago. In vigorous health, he maintains a busy schedule of writing, travel and social engagements, enjoying the success he has earned. Morton - despite his own ambivalence - is an American success story.

Journalist, singer and photographer Suzanne Derringer is the concert program writer and song translator for the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York. She has previously been a political and economics journalist in New York, and columnist for the Jamaican Daily Gleaner. She is currently working on a history of her German-Austrian immigrant community in Pittsburgh.