The Quiet Marriage of W.H. Auden & Erika Mann

by Alan Lloyd

W.H.Auden (1907-1973) was married in the small town of Ledbury on Saturday 15 June 1935. At the time, he was English master at The Downs School, Colwall, a nearby boys’ prep school.  Auden’s bride was a German refugee, the divorced and bi-sexual daughter of novelist Thomas Mann (six years previously awarded the Nobel prize for literature).

Erika Gründgens née Mann (1905–1969), an actress and cabaret artist, had been denied renewal of her Swiss visa because of her performance in her satirical anti-Nazi show in Zurich (1). Her first husband was to rise to fame as director of Berlin’s Nazi Staatstheater and then, post-war, blowing with the wind, he continued in the theatrical world with no loss of public regard.  But in the early 1930s it was inadvisable for his ex-wife Erika to return to Germany: she’d had to leave in the first place because of her politics and her lesbianism.

As a resident of Ledbury, I became curious about the details of the geographical proximity of the nuptials of Auden and Erika Mann.  At the 16th-century town council building in Church Lane, the current location of Ledbury’s registry office, it seemed likely that the ceremony would have been conducted either in the present marriage room, the panelled council room downstairs, or the room above it, where, in fact, a copy of the marriage certificate is on display. The latter room is now known as the Painted Room on account of the mediaeval wall paintings discovered there in 1988.

No. 1, Bank Crescent

The guide attending the Painted Room, however, mentioned that Auden’s wedding was said to have taken place at the former premises of a local firm of solicitors.  That building, now a private house, is at No. 1, Bank Crescent, opposite the bowling green. Bank Crescent runs steeply uphill eastwards from The Homend, the continuation north of Ledbury’s High Street, and is residential except for a handful of premises at the bottom end.  There were no house numbers in Bank Crescent until recently and No.1 was previously known as Bank Chambers.  To find out whether this was where Auden tied the knot, I emailed the Herefordshire Council information service and elicited the following reply:

“All enquiries I have made seem to point to the registry office being in Bank Crescent in 1935.  Everyone says it was at Orme Dykes and Yates and as Mr Orme was the signature on the certificate [photograph below] it seems almost conclusive that’s where it was.”

The firm, which still exists, was actually called Russell, Orme & Co. in 1935, soon to be Russell, Orme & Dykes, but not becoming Orme, Dykes and Yates until the 1960s, while it is now known as Orme & Slade. The recent photograph of the building (see above) suggests that it probably looked pretty much the same in 1935. The architecture is unusual for Ledbury, both in style and in the use of a hard, bright red brick.

Marriage certificate

Though not having direct information about Auden’s marriage, the present senior partner of Orme & Slade, David Rushton, told me:

“Our old office in Bank Crescent was the Registry Office in 1935 so the ceremony would have been performed there. Harold Orme would have been the [Superintendent] Registrar and after him Basil Dykes. I think Basil continued to perform this function until the 1960s but Barton Yates would know more.  He joined the firm circa 1960 and soon became a Partner.  We moved to The Homend in 1980/1981.”

Barton Yates, retired senior partner, when contacted about Auden, said:

(Photograph above of Harold Orme, reproduced from Orme’s obituary, courtesy of Ledbury Reporter & Guardian archive)

“Harold Orme  died some years before I arrived on the scene. I doubt whether anything went ‘on’ at the ceremony, which was normally a very simple affair. I never had anything to do with the Registrar’s duties, not my scene! However, I recollect that the intending celebrants would call at the office to give notice to the Registrar or his Deputy of their intentions. Subsequently the Registrar or his Deputy would perform the ceremony in one of the offices specifically designated for that purpose. The ceremony would only take a few minutes. The celebrants normally brought their own witnesses, otherwise members of the staff would oblige. There were two offices used for weddings, one on the ground floor, and a ‘posher’ room upstairs, which in my time doubled as Basil Dykes’ office, with some rather nice furniture.”

Back at the Town Council, I enquired whether they held any more information and was told of a letter to the Town Clerk in 1997 from Irene Southall, an elderly woman from Colwall, who knew Peter R. Roger, one of the marriage witnesses, from 1943 until he died in 1977. The letter was written to record the facts from a conversation she had had with June McQuaid, the Town Clerk, triggered by a visit to the Painted Room where the marriage certificate is displayed. Telling what she knew of Auden and the circumstances of the marriage, she explains that Roger was on the staff at The Downs School at the same time as Auden and that Auden and Roger became ‘close friends’. (Humphrey Carpenter, in his biography of Auden, confirms that Roger worked in the school gardens.) Mrs Southall is no more, but I managed to locate her daughter, Julia Johnston, who told me she remembered Peter Roger from when she was little and that he then had a smallholding in Colwall. She also mentioned he pronounced his surname with a long ‘o’.

She also says in the letter: “At that time Mr Dykes was the registrar for the area and so the marriage ceremony took place in his office behind and above the building on the NE corner of the High Street and Bank Crescent. Immediately after the ceremony the two men escorted Erika to the railway station and saw her off on the London train. So far as Peter knew, the married couple never saw one another again.”

Erika & father Thomas Mann

It seems that the day after the wedding, Erika returned to Switzerland with a British passport. She left the stage and became a radical journalist, reporting on fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and later was possibly the only female reporter at the Nuremberg Trials.

After the wedding Auden returned to his teaching – but the weeks until the end of the term were his last as a schoolmaster. He soon took a long journey with Louis MacNeice to Iceland, acquainting himself with the source of his own father’s passion for Nordic myth.

Three points of detail require correction. It was Orme, not Dykes, who was registrar in 1935. Second, the premises are one up from the similar corner building (which was the Post Office), and third, Bank Crescent is off The Homend, a continuation of the High Street to the north. However, I would suggest these errors do not materially detract from the rest of the letter. The comment about the office “behind and above the building” would indicate that the ceremony was in the posher of the two rooms, as described above by Barton Yates.

June McQuaid, the now retired Town Clerk and Superintendent Registrar, introduced a further twist to the story. She says that in 1935 there was a subsidiary registry office in The Homend, in a tiny building now demolished to make way for Tesco’s car park, where certainly births and deaths were registered. While not denying the likelihood that Auden was married in Bank Crescent, in her view it is possible that some marriages could also have taken place in The Homend at that time. Circumstantial it may be, but it seems to me that because Harold Orme was involved, Auden’s marriage in June 1935 did take place at No. 1, Bank Crescent. This is in effect confirmed by Irene Southall’s description, quoting Peter Roger, despite the errors: this other small building would have been three hundred yards further north on the west side of  The Homend and not on or near any corner.

Interestingly, though, in his biography Humphrey Carpenter quotes another of Auden’s friends, Austin Wright, as saying,

“Ledbury registry office was a clever choice. In those days wonderfully warm and sleepy. We [Auden and Wright] went over one afternoon to see the Registrar. A tiny square room of an office; huge musty ledgers piled and leaning against walls and cupboards, and a dear little old man behind glasses.”

This does not sound like the premises at Bank Crescent, so maybe, just maybe it was the other official at the wedding, Albert G. Smith, that Auden and Wright initially went to see to make the arrangements, and his office was in The Homend. Smith, as Registrar, would have been responsible for all the paperwork, while Orme, as Superintendent Registrar, would have subsequently conducted the ceremony in Bank Crescent with Smith in attendance. Superintendent Registrars were often solicitors in those days, and Orme held this post until the year before he died, aged 75, on 2 September 1949.  He was already senior partner in his firm by Auden’s time.

According to his obituary in the Ledbury Reporter and Guardian, Harold William Orme was a substantial pillar of the local community. As well as Superintendent Registrar, he was Clerk to both the Ledbury Urban District and Rural District Councils, a member of the Board of Guardians and Food Executive Officer during the Second World War. Honorary posts he held at various times included president of the Herefordshire Incorporated Law Society, president of the Ledbury Crescent Bowling Club, treasurer of the Eastnor Lodge of Freemasons and Grand Warden of Herefordshire. We have to assume that Orme left no reminiscences of the Auden-Mann wedding, but I wonder what such a person made of the unusual couple that he married on 15 June 1935!

Returning to the subject of Peter Roger, Irene Southall’s letter adds the following version of the background to the Auden-Mann marriage:

“Auden was a somewhat aggressive ‘gay’ and Peter was very much dominated by him. In 1934 Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika and another young German refugee were presenting a very anti-Nazi cabaret show in Zurich and this became an embarrassment to the Swiss government which refused to renew their work permits. Obviously they dared not go back into Germany.  Another English poet (I think it was Spender, not Isherwood) became aware of this situation and wrote to the Downs from Zurich insisting that Auden and his friend should go through the marriage ceremony with these girls so that they acquired British citizenship. Peter refused but Auden agreed.”

The commemorative stamp with Giehse’s portrait issued in Berlin, 1988

In his biography of Auden, Humphrey Carpenter says that Isherwood himself had already declined to marry Erika at her suggestion but he agreed to see if anyone else would. Apart from suggesting that Spender was the go-between (everyone else is sure it was Isherwood), Mrs Southall states that the other “young German refugee” from the cabaret also attempted to “find herself” a British husband at the same time as Erika.  In fact this “other” young German refugee was Therese Giehse, then already well-known in Germany as a stage and screen actress.

She was to marry John Simpson (pen-name Hampson), another gay friend, a year later. Could it be true that Therese was turned down by Roger pretty much as Erika was initially turned down by Isherwood? Furthermore, could Auden, who himself acted as go-between in the Giehse-Simpson match, actually have been plotting it more or less from when Roger said no?

It only remains to mention E. Maurice Feild, the other witness.  Feild was the influential art master at The Downs from 1928 to 1954, when he left to join the Slade School, where he had studied as a young man.  He was an early associate of the Euston Road School operating from 1937 to 1939. His wife, Alexandra, was a pianist, who also taught part-time at The Downs.  The pair of them became good friends with Auden and there are a couple of portraits of Auden by Feild in the National Portrait Gallery.  Feild spelt his name “ei”, but every certified copy I have seen of Auden’s marriage entry misspells it “Field”.  Curious to know if his signature was scrawled, I asked the current Registrar whether we could check the original signature in the register and it is quite clearly “ei”….

Assuming safely therefore, I think, that W. H. Auden and Erika Mann were married in the upstairs office at No. 1,  Bank Crescent, there is one other famous, or rather infamous couple said to have also been married in that room: Fred and Rosemary West. “Wonderfully warm and sleepy” though it may be at times, Ledbury does not do things by halves.

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Footnotes

(1) “En 1933, Erika, Klaus, Therese Giehse et le compositeur Markus Henning fondent un cabaret satirico-littéraire à Munich appelé Le Moulin à poivre (Die Pfeffermühle), pour lequel Erika écrit la plupart des textes, souvent avec Klaus, dont une bonne part sont anti-nazis ; Erika est maîtresse de cérémonie.

“Erika est le dernier des membres de la famille Mann à quitter l’Allemagne, après l’arrivée au pouvoir des nazis. Elle récupère maints papiers de Thomas Mann dans leur maison de Munich et s’enfuit à Zurich, où elle retrouve ses parents (qu’elle empêche de retourner à Munich). Le Moulin à poivre rouvre ses portes à Zurich et devient un point de ralliement pour les exilés et le plus célèbre cabaret antinazi en exil.

“En 1935, elle contracte un mariage de convenance avec le poète anglais W. H. Auden, afin d’obtenir la citoyenneté britannique. Erika et Auden n’ont jamais vécu ensemble, mais restent amis et techniquement mariés jusqu’à la mort d’Erika.

“En 1937, elle se rend à New York, où Die Pfeffermühle (qui devient The Peppermill) ouvre à nouveau ses portes. Erika, Therese Giehse, son frère Klaus et Miro se retrouvent parmi un groupe important d’artistes en exil, avec des gens comme Kurt Weill, Ernst Toller ou Sonja Sekula . . .

« Tu le sais, le cas des Allemands est sans espoir. L’illusion et la fausseté, l’arrogance et l’obéissance, la ruse et la bêtise sont odieusement mêlés dans leur cœur » écrit-elle à Klaus.”

Source of quotation:  http://www.gouts-doux.fr/celebres18.html

(2)  “The registry also lists the occupation of their fathers: George Augustus Auden (Medical Practitioner) and Thomas Mann (Professional Writer), proper names indeed! Auden’s father, a pioneer of public health, was an amateur of Norse myth and had named his son Wystan accordingly. The bride’s father, author of The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks, had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929.”

Source: http://www.fasebj.org/content/21/7/1285.full

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References

Books, other publications and websites consulted include:

  1. Carpenter, Humphrey, W. H. Auden, A Biography (Oxford: O.U.P., 1992)
  2. Spender, Stephen (ed.), W. H. Auden, a tribute (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975)
  1. Weissman, Gerald, ‘Giving Things Their Proper Names: Carl Linnaeus and W. H. Auden’, FASEB Journal 2007, 21:1285-1289, http://www.fasebj.org/cgi/content/full/21/7/1285
  2. Dohrmann, Anja Maria, ‘Erika Mann—Einblicke in ihr Leben’ (PhD, Freiburg University, 2003), http://deposit.ddb.de/cgi-bin/dokserv?idn=972269290 [accessed 9 June 2011]
  3. Kelly’s Directory of Herefordshire, 1934 (London: Kelly’s Directories Ltd)
  4. Tilley’s Ledbury Almanacks, 1934, 1935 & 1936 (Ledbury: L. Tilley & Son)

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Photograph top right by Alec Bangham, courtesy of FASEB Journal:

Wystan Hugh (‘W.H.’) Auden and Erika Mann, supposedly shortly after the wedding.

NPG number x133302.

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Biographical note

Alan Lloyd  has retired to London from Ledbury where he lived for thirty years and still has a small house.  He is a trustee and founder member of the Ledbury Poetry Festival which he also used to organise. He was at school in the fifties at The Downs, where Auden was a schoolmaster in the thirties.

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Acknowledgments

Alan Lloyd wishes to thank Katherine Bucknell of the Auden Society for triggering this article when she gave a centenary talk on W. H. Auden at the Ledbury Poetry Festival; and to thank the following people for their help in sourcing information: June McQuaid, Karen Mitchell (present Town Clerk, Ledbury Town Council), Penny Gregory (present Registrar), the Herefordshire Council Information Service, the Herefordshire Record Office, Henriette Heise (for translating the German), Anna Hurman (owner of No. 1 Bank Crescent), Julia Johnston, David Rushton and Barton Yates.