Fritz & Harriet Kreisler

The relationship between Fritz Kreisler and his wife Harriet that lasted for more than sixty years of the present century is a study in loyalties. When Fritz first met her aboard the S.S. Prince Bismarck returning to Europe from New York in 1901, he was established as a violinist of international renown. Born in Vienna in 1875, Kreisler first came to the New World as a thirteen-year-old “wunderkind” in knee breeches with his mother as a chaperon.

During the 1888-89 season, he had appeared in concert with the Boston Symphony, the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony among others. Now a mature, career musician in his 27th year, he was returning from another American tour when he faced the turning point in his life.

Louis Lochner, in his comprehensive and delightfully intimate biography, Fritz Kreisler, describes the scene in some detail. It happened in the ship’s barbershop where they also sold knick-knacks, including women’s hats. Harriet was looking in the mirror trying one on — but let Fritz speak for himself:

As I got up from the barber’s chair, I saw the reflection of a beautiful red headed American girl in that mirror. I fell in love with her instantly for she smiled at me then and there; and I smiled back. That was the beginning and the end for me. . . . We became engaged on that voyage and were married a year later in New York City, and afterward again by the Austrian ambassador in London, and our double marriage took.”

 

[Harriet at the time of her first meeting with Fritz was Mrs. Fred Woerz, a divorcee. Like her future husband, she had also been baptized and raised Catholic. Her marital status made a sacramental marriage in the Catholic Church out of the question. Hence the two ceremonies to which Fritz refers were civil marriages, and the Kreislers were thereby excommunicated from the church. Catholics might question the loyalty factor here. However, a third marriage ceremony occurred some 45 years later within the Catholic Church through Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen, their friend and mentor. The subject will be treated in more detail toward the conclusion of this essay.]

As Fritz observed, the marriage “took” for almost 60 years until his death in January, 1962. What Frau Harriet’s presence and support meant for her husband is best expressed in an interview Kreisler gave as their marriage approached its 40th anniversary:

She is a very remarkable woman with a fine brain and uncanny intuition. She is a self-sufficient person and in that respect, has what I lack. I needed her and she has made the way easier for me all these years, for she has looked after me in a natural every day way. When I say such things about her, she says, “That’s right, Pop!” She calls me Pop or Fritzi, and I like it.

But despite her realism, the romance that began in the barbershop of the Prince Bismarck never died. There is no better illustration of this than an anecdote related by Louis Lochner’s wife, Hilde, about an event of March, 1949. The place was the Waldorf Astoria and the occasion was the retirement dinner for General George C. Marshall as Secretary of State, sponsored by the Overseas Press Club. On the dais with the General that evening were such statesmen as Dean Atchison, General Wedemeyer, Bernard Baruch and, as an outstanding representative of the fine arts, Fritz Kreisler.

Harriet was sitting at a table directly under the dais. Hilde Lochner, who was seated next to her observed: “Harriet was like a young thing who had fallen in love for the first time. She kept saying to me excitedly, ‘I don’t see my Fritzi. Hilde do you see him? Where’s my Fritzi?’ And when she finally spied him, she beamed with joy.” And this was in the 47th year of their marriage!

Their loyalty, their mutual fidelity could never be questioned. A 1928 New Yorker profile on Kreisler, gives this commentary on his relationship with Harriet: “His adoration of her has provoked more gossip than most men’s infidelities do.”

On December 24, 1900, Fritz Kreisler had been commissioned a reserve lieutenant in the imperial Austrian army. The supreme test of his loyalty to the land of his birth came on July 31, 1914 when he was summoned to the Austrian colors. In his 40th year the internationally famed musician would experience the horrors of trench warfare. His response was unhesitating — as his own words emphasize: “It has made me angry sometimes when people have said, ‘How could they take an artist and let him fight?’ They should rather not think it worthy of any comment. I am an Austrian. As soon as war began, the last thing I thought of was a violin or that I had ever played one. Why should I claim immunity as an artist?”

His American wife shared completely in this sense of duty. Harriet accompanied her soldier husband to Leoben near the Austrian frontier where she would serve as a Red Cross nurse while Fritz was at the front. On August 19, he joined his regiment and left for the combat zone.

Fortunately for the music world, Fritz Kreisler’s personal involvement in the war came to an end on the night of September 6, 1914. He was trampled under the hooves of Cossack calvary and left unconscious on the field of battle. He was sure that he owed his life to his orderly who found him in this condition four hours later at three o’clock in the morning.

Kreisler spent three weeks recuperating from severe shoulder and leg injuries in a Viennese hospital. Harriet was at this bedside. He took a further cure at the Sulphur Springs near Carlsbad. Later, a commission of surgeons pronounced him unfit for further military service.

As soon as Fritz became mobile, he and Harriet left for the United States. As he put it, “My wife, being an American and having a mother who was then alive in this country, we came back here immediately. I had absolutely no trouble getting a passport. I had received an honorable discharge as a complete invalid unfit for any further service.”

They left from Holland on the Dutch steamer Rotterdam and arrived in New York on November 24, 1914. Loyalty to the Fatherland and to one another had been tested “even in the cannon’s mouth.”

Fritz and Harriet Kreisler would spend the duration of the war in the United States. From 1914 until April, 1917, America was technically neutral; but there was pronounced public and governmental hostility toward Germany and her ally Austria-Hungary. Despite these sentiments, Kreisler resumed his musical career. His first concert was at Carnegie Hall in December, 1914. The hall was filled to overflowing and the performance enthusiastically received by the audience and the critics. There followed recitals in St. Louis, Richmond, Boston, and Milwaukee with similar results. In Kreisler’s favor, of course, was the personal esteem he had enjoyed in America over the years. There was also knowledge of the charities he and his wife supported — in particular, the war orphans for whom they had assumed personal responsibility during their service at the front.

Kreisler did not anticipate the chauvinism and the hysteria that would assert itself with America’s entry into the war in April, 1917. He gave no indication that he would curtail his platform appearances, most of them for charity. But trouble began late in 1917. There were public demonstrations and protests — some sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution — in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Buffalo. Some concerts had to be cancelled on the grounds that Kreisler’s appearance would lead to a disturbance of the peace. There were occasions when he was reportedly in personal danger.

There were also public attacks — perhaps the most notorious occurred in a church pulpit — that of the hallowed Plymouth Church of Brooklyn, New York. The Reverend Dr. Dwight Hillis charged: “It is well known that Kreisler is an Austrian captain, that to obtain his release from the army he entered into an agreement to send back to the home government a large percentage of his income.”

Even the imperturbable Fritz Kreisler “pulled out all the stops” in responding to these charges. In a public response, he branded Dr. Hillis’s homily as “a cowardly irresponsible and unethical attack — a baseless and malicious lie.” In the New York Times that same November, Kreisler had issued a statement responding in detail to charges similar to those made by Reverend Hillis. The Times entitled it a “White Paper of an Artist’s Life in America in War Time.” This magnanimous, forthright “White Paper” inspired widespread support and demonstrations of affection at the concerts he continued to give.

But despite the encouragement he received (from as far away as England), Kreisler decided on the pragmatic policy of withdrawing from the concert stage. In a statement to the press on November 26, 1917, he announced that he would discontinue his concert tour except for performances he had pledged for charities, concerts for which he would receive no personal compensation. In an editorial the following day, the New York Times recognized Mr. Kreisler “as a good musician who was a good soldier and who has a sense of propriety and expediency that not all artists possess.”

To be sure Harriet shared in this ordeal. With her husband, she observed how erstwhile friends now distanced themselves. Her words: “Many of our friends suddenly got shortsighted or they would dodge around corners so as not to have to recognize us — some of them were mighty eager later on when the conflict had ended to have Fritz do favors for them which he, with his forgiving spirit, often did.”

The sensitivity of Fritz and Harriet Kreisler is surely understandable. Loyalty under pressure should beget a similar response from genuine friends. And it did. Many of them courageously stood by them, notably Geraldine Farrar, internationally famous opera star, and Jacques Thibaud, the French violin virtuoso. Finally, we have the tribute of the Hindu journalist and essayist, Basanta Kooma Roy: “I have not met Mahatma Gandhi and I have only read of Christ and his idealism, but I have heard the voice of God most eloquently in Kreisler’s music. The longer I know him, the better I like him. During the war time, I saw him bear his cross like a Christ.” For Fritz Kreisler music was a universal language which enabled him to speak over his long career to a worldwide audience. An article by Beverly Smith (American Magazine, 1931) was entitled: “He Plays on the World’s Heartstrings.”

His awareness of his vocation was nevermore evident than during the years immediately following World War I. Kreisler was 44 years old when the peace treaties were negotiated; he had been a performing artist on the international stage since early adolescence. The war, his personal involvement, his retirement “protem,” all made a comeback necessary. There must have been a biting irony in this realization, but he went about it with restraint and patience. He recognized that the three countries for whom he had been technically an enemy — the United States, Britain, and France — were his principal targets.

Suffice it to say that with Harriet beside him, he carried on a “comeback campaign” which completely reestablished his reputation and his artistry in these countries where there had been such mutual love and admiration since boyhood. In London, Archer Wallace wrote:

Kreisler once said, “No man can accomplish great things unless he has a heart full of love,” and so that is why, when the World War ended, the people of London gave Fritz Kreisler one of the greatest receptions ever accorded a visiting musician. They know that the finest thing about this man is his strong and tender love for all humanity.

The degree to which Fritz Kreisler had been accepted in France was manifest in 1926 when he was made an officer of the French Legion of Honor.

In the 1920s, the Kreislers, responding to popular demand, toured first the Orient — Japan, China, and Korea; then the Antipodes — Australia and New Zealand. Undoubtedly the catalyst that created world interest in his artistry was the phonograph: Fritz Kreisler and the gramophone industry grew up together.

The Kreislers didn’t merely visit and entertain. They took an abiding interest in the thought, the art, and the culture of the Orient. Fritz concluded the Australian tour with these words: “My message was as great a one as a man could bring, for I feel as an Austrian and the first artist of a former enemy country to come and play to you, that I have made the way a little easier for the restoration of good will. Music is the tongue that speaks to all civilized humanity.”

The Kreislers’ concert for mankind took a decidedly practical turn. And here Harriet was the mentor. It has been observed that during this past century no artist contributed more to worldwide charities than did her husband. According to Edith Wolf-Stargardt, music critic and personal friend of the Kreislers,

Harriet’s great contribution has been her far-flung charities. There are other artists who have earned huge fortunes but they had neither the time nor understanding for suffering fellow humans. Frau Harriet, however, saw to it that Kreisler charities were really magnanimous and not superficial.

The emergence of the totalitarian states in Europe following the first World War would place Fritz Kreisler in the role of conscientious objector. Loyalty and conscientious objection are not incompatible; the conscientious objector properly motivated can carry loyalty to heroic heights. St. Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, is an exemplar par excellence.

Providence did not lead Fritz Kreisler to the scaffold or the concentration camp, but there were serious challenges to his artistic integrity and physical well being. The first came in the form of an extravagant offer from the Soviet Government in 1930. Kreisler was guaranteed $10,000 in foreign exchange for four concerts in Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad. Kreisler did not accept the Soviet proposal.

Fritz, in recalling his conversation with the Soviet negotiators, said, “My official reason for declining was that I was tired. But what really turned me against it was a conversation I had with Anatol Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar for Education, who visited Berlin that winter. . . . In the course of our conversation, he made reference to restrictions that might limit the freedom of visitors to Russia.” Kreisler found “the real joker” expressed in Lunacharsky’s words: “The only stipulation to the artists is that they must fit themselves into our ideology. We must ask you, too, in case you come, not to play Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky, because they do not fit into our scheme of things.” Fritz Kreisler concluded, “I could never work in the Soviet Union. I, therefore, declined the offer, even though Lunacharsky, later in the discussion, conceded that in my case no restrictions would be placed on my programs.”

His status as a conscientious objector was much more precarious in Nazi Germany. It was there that the Kreislers lived, and where Fritz, with the loss of his Austrian citizenship, could become a political subject. Yet it was obvious from the beginning that there would be an estrangement between Kreisler and the Nazi leadership. As early as 1933, Fritz realized that the Nazis would suppress artistic freedom. Fortunately for the Kreislers, through influential friends in France, Fritz was advised in 1934 that he could obtain an honorary French citizenship. Fritz, however, could not bring himself to cancel his Austrian citizenship then and there. But when the Nazis took control of Austria in 1938 and integrated it into the Greater German Reich, Fritz Kreisler was technically “a man without a country.” It was then that he availed himself of this extraordinary offer of honorary citizenship.

The 1938-39 season was his final tour as an Austrian artist. When Fritz Kreisler sailed for America in September, 1939, he was a French citizen, and, with Harriet, a refugee from World War II. They would never return to their home in Berlin. The Allied bombings over Berlin in 1943 and 1944 totally demolished the Kreisler mansion and the treasure trove it contained. Fritz and Harriet arrived in the United States on the overcrowded S.S. Washington in late September, 1939. When they arrived in New York, the war in Europe had been underway for some three weeks. Kreisler, however, due to his French citizenship, would not have to worry about the enemy alien status which plagued him during World War I. He was in congenial surroundings in the country he referred to as “his second fatherland.” The relationship would be consummated in May, 1943, when he formally took the oath of allegiance to the United States and became an American citizen. Nor was this just a technical acceptance. If there ever was a foreign born musician who became a household word in this country, it was Fritz Kreisler. His name was familiar even on the sport pages. It was inevitable that Coach Herbert Arvin Crisler, whose University of Michigan football teams were the scourge of the Big Ten, the East, and the far West in the 1940s, would be nicknamed “Fritz.” Kreisler’s name even became a metaphor in these pages. A sports writer described the grace of “Easy Ed” Macaulay, the St. Louis University basketball star in these terms: “They don’t call him ‘Easy Ed’ for nothing. . . . I have never seen a smoother player. He handles a basketball as gracefully as Fritz Kreisler does a violin.”

Early in 1947, Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen entered the lives of Fritz and Harriet Kreisler. Sheen was then at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he had been a professor in the department of philosophy for well over 20 years. Throughout these years he regularly commuted to New York City as a speaker on the Catholic Hour, which was broadcast live by the National Broadcasting Company. So the monsignor was a familiar figure on the Church scene both in New York and throughout the country. It can safely be surmised that he knew a good deal about the Kreislers, their Catholic roots, and their marital status. Undoubtedly, Fritz and Harriet for their part were well informed about Msgr. Sheen. So while their meeting was a chance encounter, as Sheen describes it in his autobiography, Treasure in Clay, they hardly needed an introduction:

Then there is the beautiful story of the conversion of Fritz Kreisler and his wife. I received a letter from a stranger who asked me to call on her uncle. His wife had committed suicide a short time before by throwing herself out the window. The writer asked that I try to bring some consolation to the uncle. The apartment house along the East River was the type that had only two apartments to a floor. I went to the apartment where I expected to visit the man in question, but he was not at home. I asked the elevator man who lived in the other apartment and he told me — Fritz Kreisler. . . I rang the bell, then introduced myself to Fritz and Mrs. Kreisler, and after a short conversation, asked them if they would like to take instructions for the Church.

The response on the part of both Mr. and Mrs. Kreisler was immediate. Msgr. Sheen evidently did not need to resort to the eloquent persuasion for which he was famed.

Fulton Sheen spoke of the process as a “conversion,” but strictly speaking, it was a “reconversion” to the Catholic faith and practice of their childhood and youth. Fritz and Harriet over the next two months took a “refresher course” from the monsignor that must have been stimulating for all the parties. Sheen recalls that when he quoted Scripture from the Old Testament, Fritz would check it in the Hebrew version; when the verse was from the New Testament, Fritz would read it in his Greek text!

The sacramental marriage of Fritz and Harriet Kreisler took place in the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in New Rochelle, New York, on March 29, 1947. The death of Harriet’s first husband, Fred Woerz, from whom she had received a civic divorce, undoubtedly made possible a valid, licit marriage in the Catholic Church. In my estimation, this procedure on the part of the Kreislers was an outstanding manifestation of loyalty to the Church. Even among some Catholics, it has become fashionable to speak flippantly about the laws of the Church, especially those regarding the validity of Catholic marriage. Fritz and Harriet Kreisler might easily have dismissed or blithely ignored the procedure the Catholic Church required for the validation of their marriage. After all, they were then (in 1947) septuagenarians, and their civil marriage had survived for more than 45 years. Their fidelity to each other had literally been tested under enemy fire; their artistic and charitable contributions to the world of their time were legendary. They might easily have taken another view. When Monsignor Sheen rang their doorbell unannounced and extended his invitation, their response was prompt and positive. All of this resulted in an abiding friendship between Fulton Sheen and the Kreislers.

In 1950, Sheen was appointed National Director for the Propagation of the Faith and became a resident of New York City. In 1951, he was ordained a bishop in Rome and appointed as auxiliary to Cardinal Spellman. He visited Fritz and Harriet weekly in their declining years. Kreisler gave no more public concerts after 1950. He only continued to make private appearances for the Fritz and Harriet Kreisler Fund for needy musicians — their favorite charity. In his latter years, he suffered gradual blindness and loss of hearing.

Fritz Kreisler died on the morning of January 29, 1962 in New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. His funeral rites were held in St. John the Evangelist’s Church on February 1. The New York Times reported that some 1,500 paid tribute to his memory at the obsequies. Included were colleagues from the music world, masters, performers, and patrons. Bishop Sheen celebrated the solemn requiem Mass and gave the eulogy. Because of serious illness, Harriet was unable to attend. The bishop, however, made reference to Kreisler’s beloved wife of 60 years who, he recalled, always contended “that if Fritz had only practiced, he would have been a great musician!” With a typical flourish, Bishop Sheen expressed a prayerful wish that Mr. Kreisler would be met at heaven’s gate “by an angelic host singing the Tantasie Caprice,’ ” the exacting piece by Vieuxtemps with which Master Kreisler, the “wunderkind,” made his American debut at 13 in Steinway Hall in 1888.

Harriet entered eternal life just fifteen months later to the day on May 29, 1963. Her obsequies also took place at St. John the Evangelist, and she rests next to her husband in Woodmont Cemetery. Were this priest privileged to write an epitaph over the remains of both Fritz and Harriet, it would be in the words of the African born Roman playwright, Terence: Homo sum . . . humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am a man . . . hence I consider nothing human to be foreign to me).

By

At the time this article was published, Vincent J. Horkan was a senior priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit, and was on the staff for Advancement of the University, Madonna University, Livonia, Michigan.

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