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Joseph Wechsberg: Epicurean Master of Cultural Commentary

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

He was a classical musician, a gastronome, an historian, a biographer, and a novelist. First and foremost, he was an American journalist—one of the most widely published journalists of his age. His seemingly effortless writing style belied the effort he had had to put into acquiring written fluency in English.


Two boys standing between a tree, one in light colored clothing, the other wearing dark clothing.
Joseph Wechsberg and his Brother Max

Joseph (Joe) Wechsberg was born on August 29, 1907, in the Moravian town of Ostrau (Ostrava), a coal-mining center in an eastern corner of what is now the Czech Republic. There his father, Siegfried Wechsberg, was the junior partner in the family bank, but he was not a banker at heart. “He did his job to please his father (just as I later became a lawyer to please my mother),” Joe said. 1 He was, everyone in the town agreed, a good man, a quiet man, who never raised his voice in anger and who smiled rather than laughed aloud. Joe said that his mother, Hermine (Krieger) “loved to laugh, and she could laugh and cry in the same breath. She and my father were well matched because they were so different.”2 Joe was five years old when his only sibling, brother Maximilian, was born.


By then Joe had already been rather spoiled by his doting parents. He attended the Jewish School in Ostrava, where he learned to read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew text. He never felt that his home town was anti-Semitic; on the contrary, it was a blend of Czechs, Germans, and Jews whose communities managed to live in relative harmony. Joe’s childhood was a happy one marred only by a severe bout of pleurisy; this occasioned his spending several months at a spa in Meran (Merano), in Southern Tyrol. During his weeks there, Joe developed a deep love for the town, with its vineyards, trees, and mountains, and it became a favorite vacation spot when he grew up and had his own family. He intended, he said, to be buried there; this was a “a pleasant prospect for a man whose father was buried in an anonymous mass grave and whose mother has no grave at all.”3


His father’s death on a World War I battlefield provided a breaking point in Joe’s happy childhood, and occasioned not only the loss of a beloved parent but a plunge into poverty. Joe found consolation in music; at age eight he began studying violin, and he began to play chamber music—trios—with his maternal aunt and uncle at his grandmother’s birthday parties. At age eleven he was permitted to join his uncle’s string quartet as second violin.



He studied at the Humanistic Gymnasium [high school] in Ostrava, where classes were offered both in German and in Czech. His later study embraced several subjects in two different locales. According to his memoirs, The Vienna I Knew, he simultaneously studied law in Prague and world trade and music in Vienna. He studied law in Prague because the family decided that he should do so, because “in a proper Jewish family in [… Ostrava,] the oldest son was expected to be a ‘Herr Doktor’.” During his first years of law study he actually resided in Vienna and returned to Prague only for a week or two to cram for his examinations. He put it this way:


“The curriculum at Prague’s Charles University enabled me to spend much time elsewhere as long as I came back and passed the prescribed examinations. For a small fee, the proctor’s man entered the professors’ official stamps into my student’s book—proof that I had faithfully attended their lectures.”4



 


As for Vienna, “I studied music at the Academy, for myself, and went to the Opera and eventually became a member of the celebrated claque there. For the family, I studied at the [University for World Trade],” because “my uncles thought […] the studies there would help me ‘to get into industry’ if I should […] be a failure at law.”5


The “work” in the opera claque was unpaid, but it provided Joe with free opera tickets—standing room only. The claque was a hired group of 30-40 opera enthusiasts, who were spread among the galleries and main floor of the opera house. Their task was to lead a “spontaneous” outburst of enthusiastic applause and cheers for those singers who paid a small bribe for this privilege. Admission to the claque was granted only after an examination that required would-be participants to identify, immediately upon hearing the first few bars of music, not only which opera the music came from, but also the act, scene, and circumstance from which it originated. Joe passed with flying colors, and soon was working almost every night in the Fourth Gallery at the State Opera.


In 1928 Joe moved to France, ostensibly to study law at the Sorbonne, but, in reality, to

earn money by playing the violin. “I was the only member of our venerable alma mater


Picture of Joseph Wechsberg up against a railing of the ship, looking at the camera in a relaxed pose
Joseph Wechsberg, ship’s musician on board the S.S. Azay-le-rideau, ca. 1930

[Prague’s Charles University] who attended de jure the lectures in Roman law, canon law, criminal code, while de facto played the fiddle in Montmartre clip joints and on French boats all over the world.”6 But even so, on March 8, 1930, he passed his exams cum laude and became a doctor of law.


It seems as though Joe was living out the dreams of his father and his uncle Bruno. His father had, as a young man, run away from home to go to sea, but had been intercepted before he could realize his dream, and brought back to Ostrava to work in the family bank. His uncle Bruno had dreamed of being a professional musician, but had been dissuaded because such work was considered both demeaning and financially unreliable.





Much of the work that Joe found in France came around by accident. He began by playing music for silent films in a Parisian movie theater, then quickly moved to night clubs around Montmartre, such as the “Folies Bergères” and the “Moulin Rouge,” where he played for five months in the all-white string section of the famous African-American revue “Blackbirds.” It was while playing for this revue that Joe learned his first smatterings of English.


A promised job playing at the Casino de la Jetée brought him to Nice; the job did not materialize, although he was hired as soloist to perform theMendelssohn Violin Concerto at a concert there. In Nice he also worked for a little over a week as an assistant croupier at the city’s Casino Municipale.


In July1928, Joe made his first trans-Atlantic crossing to America as shipboard violinist on the rather decrepit French steamer La Bourdonnais. More crossings followed on this and other French ships from the summer of 1929 through the spring of 1931, sailing not only to America, but also to ports in North Africa and the Far East. His experiences as a ship’s musician provided rich fodder for his writing, and he developed a real knack for creating humorous portraits of the eccentric figures he met on these journeys when he moved to America and began writing for The New Yorker and Esquire.


Joseph Wechsberg, in his Czech army uniform
Joseph Wechsberg, in his Czech army uniform

Joe’s carefree life was halted , however, when he was drafted into the Czech army for a period of 18 months. He was assigned to infantry, which the Czechs called the “queen of arms.” “We were told it was an honor, a privilege to serve in the ‘queen of arms’,” Joe recalled. “What else could they tell us after we’d crawled through mud-covered terrain or come back from an eighteen-mile march, carrying thirty-six pounds of useless equipment on our aching backs?” The soldiers led a Spartan life. “We were trained for war. This was 1931. Hitler was not yet in power, but everybody in Czechoslovakia was convinced that sooner or later ‘it’ would happen again; the entire system of the country’s alliances […] was built for the ultimate showdown.”7


Joe graduated from officers candidates’ school in Opava, Silesia, as a second lieutenant and was now committed, as a reserve officer, to spending four weeks every year on summer maneuvers. With each summer the army training became more focussed on the inevitable war to come. “The Czechoslovak army was in fine shape in the spring of 1938 when it was mobilized after Hitler’s threats,” Joe wrote. “I commanded my heavy-machine-gun company, occupying a sector of what was called the ‘little Maginot Line,’ the Czechoslovak border defenses facing the western borders of Bohemia.” The defense line proved to be pointless when rumors reached the trenches that it was “all over,” that Hitler and his generals had already drawn up plans for the occupation of Czechoslovakia by fomenting political unrest among the Germans who lived there. Joe’s men took their things and departed. It seemed apparent that the occupation of Czechoslovakia would be as seamless as that of Austria. “I stayed there for a while, all alone in the cold, empty trench,” Joe remembered. “Two young officers joined me. No one spoke. We just sat there, feeling as foolish as actors on a stage on whom the whole audience has suddenly walked out in protest against a very bad play. […] The war was over before it started.”8


Joe now attempted to establish a career in law. After his 18-months of infantry training, he took an apprentice position at the distinguished law office of Dr. Fajfrlik, “the most distinguished Czech law firm in my home town.”9 He was hired to hold this open spot in the firm until the son of one of the firm’s partners completed his law studies and was able to take over the position. Joe had nothing but praise for this firm, noting its highly ethical approach to the law. But Joe became disillusioned when he had to leave the firm and join a law firm in Prague. “At the law office of Dr. Fajfrlik I might have become […] a jurist of prominence, perhaps even a luminary of legalistic wisdom,” he said. But, at the new firm in Prague, “I was introduced to the less distinguished but perhaps much more common practice of law. It was an active firm but not an eminent one.”10 He was fired for allowing one of the firm’s clients to plead guilty at trial.


This marked the end of Joe’s legal career. In the summer of 1935 he took on a new job in civil service, by becoming parliamentary secretary to a Social Democratic member of the Czech Chamber of Deputies in Prague, a job that he held for five months before retiring to become a full-time writer.


Whatever his job and career pursuits, Joe had always pursued writing on the side, even to writing a daily newsletter when he served as ship’s musician on La Bourdonnais. And, “after giving up the idea of being a professional violinist, I turned to writing,” he said, noting that, “a sentence can be a melody,” and that both written and musical compositions are created in “major and minor keys.”11 His first pieces had been published in his hometown newspaper Morgenzeitung, and, he said, he became “a very minor local celebrity” for the travel pieces that he published there. In Prague he continued to write travel articles as a special correspondent for the Prager Tagblatt. This liberal-democratic Prague newspaper had a reputation throughout the German-speaking world as one of the very best German dailies; Karel Ĉapek, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, and André Maurois were all published here. Joe continued writing travel pieces, while sending stories about the ice-hockey world championship to his old hometown paper. “Once our team beat Canada,” Joe remembered, “and my report of the memorable event filled the entire front page of the Morgenzeitung and was more appreciated than the political news.”12 In 1936 he ventured on a low-cost world cruise, taking photographs along the way. He turned this material into his first book: Die grosse Mauer (The Great Wall), in reference to the Great Wall of China. To make additional money, he worked in commercial film-making and collected economic information for several business firms in Prague. The additional income was much needed, since, on March 24, 1934, he had gotten married to Jo-Ann Novak, a local Ostrava girl. Despite his frequent absences, the marriage was a strong one, and Ann (as he called her), accompanied him on many of his journeys.


One of these shared journeys was a trip to New York in 1938. Although his English was rudimentary, Joe had been recruited by a government representative to go to the United States for three months and lecture there on the Sudeten German problem in Czechoslovakia. There were about three million Germans living in Czechoslovakia, and Hitler, who, in March of that year had annexed Austria, was now eyeing Czechoslovakia as his next conquest, by portraying the Germans in that country as a suppressed minority desiring unification with Nazi Germany. Joe’s purpose in going to America was to influence public opinion in favor of Czech independence. In September, Joe and Ann left for America on the French ship Champlain; while they were still at sea, the British, French, Italian, and German governments signed an agreement that permitted Germany to annex the Sudeten German area of Czechoslovakia. Joe was too late to influence American opinion on this matter; he now could only lecture on the Czech tragedy.


 

When Joe and Ann had left Czechoslovakia, they had intended to return home by Christmas. But, when they arrived in New York, they were advised by the Czech consul not to go back. Still, since the two of them had only tourist visas, they were required to leave the United States for another country and to apply from there for immigration visas. They went to Canada, where they remained until all their paperwork had cleared and they were allowed to reenter the States in January 1939. Two months later the Germans seized all of Czechoslovakia and incorporated it into the German Reich.


Joe and Ann had left Czechoslovakia with only the essentials they needed for a short tour. Moreover, Joe was now cut off from his journalistic income, and the two needed to find work in this country. His planned lecture tour on the problems in the Sudetenland was now outdated. He gave a few lectures, nonetheless. Speaking in Montreal on “After Czechoslovakia—What Next?” he speculated that Germany would no longer need to fight, since the Munich pact “indicated that she can get anything she wants without that necessity.” Hitler would now “take the path of least resistance,” occupying Romania rather than attacking Ukraine, then moving on to Persia and the Near East. Germany, he said, had “already established air connections in that direction.”13


He modified this lecture only slightly when he spoke in Hartford, Connecticut in March, 1939 on “Next Month—War or Peace. ” By then plans were in place for Poland to form a military alliance with Britain and with French in order to subvert the Nazi threat to that country. And, in an updated lecture in April, he renamed his address “European Madness” and gave “the latest up-to-the-minute news” of developments there. A final, somewhat bitter, lecture title was “How Czechoslovakia was Sold Down the River.”


Joe was now completely cut off from contracts with the German, Austrian, and Czech press.

A picture of a flyer saying Visum fur Amerika
Joseph Wechsberg’s guide for European would-be emigrants

He experienced his first weeks in America as a “confused, unhappy memory.” His wife was contributing to their income by working as a seamstress for eleven dollars a week; Joe was earning four to seven dollars for his lectures. He spent many afternoons in Broadway movie houses, watching the same films for two consecutive runs. This, he said, “seemed a better way of learning the sound of English than to go to evening school with other refugees where everybody spoke German.”14 In spite of this, he never lost his heavy Czech accent.


Joe was more successful in finding well-to-do American friends who supplied affidavits of support for his mother and his brother Max, so that they could get out of Czechoslovakia and join his in the States. Max did just that the following year, by way of Cuba; his mother, reluctant to leave home without her paintings, china, and silver, stayed behind until she could get a special permit to bring them with her. It was a fatal mistake. She was rounded up and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, then on to Auschwitz, where she died.


As for his writing, Joe began work on a guide for other worried Europeans interested in emigrating to the States. The book was titled Visum für Amerika [Visa for America] and was published by the Julius Kittls Nachfolger press in Ostrava. In it he covered everything from how to get an affidavit, to finding a sponsor, to learning American English, to the necessity of forgetting about the past, to matters of finding housing, practicing courtesy, and dealing with American businessmen. Joe’s guide was timely, indeed: it appeared as an inexpensive paperback in Czech bookstores just two weeks after the Nazi invasion. This book quickly became a best-seller. It earned him, he said “a couple of hundred dollars, a small fortune for me at that time, and to this day I don’t know how the publisher managed to transfer the money legally to me in America.”15


In his book Joe did not mention his own failed attempts at Americanizing his last name. “I briefly called myself J. A. Waxmont, […] but my friend suggested Warren, a fine, pre-Revolutionary name,” he said. “For a short time I became Joseph S. Warren. The S stood for ‘Siegfried,’ my father’s first name.”16 But he had trouble himself pronouncing this new last name correctly and very soon reverted to Wechsberg.


He was now devoting all his energies into learning how to write for American magazines. Until his emigration Joe had been writing travel pieces for European newspapers, as well as feuilletons—pieces of cultural commentary that were a common feature of all the larger dailies. He had even attempted a few short stories and a novel (Malaiisches Abenteuer [Malayan Adventure]) that had been published by the Prager Tagblatt. Now Joe had to try to transfer his skills to a new continent, where feuilletons were rare. He found something similar, however, in The New Yorker, especially in the “Talk of the Town” section of that weekly magazine. “I felt that [these] writers were kinsmen of our Feuilletonists. They too practiced the intimate art of civilized detachment and sophisticated irony. […] The mood, the restraint, the discipline, the detachment, the artful yet casual formlessness were all there.” Joe decided that he would write for The New Yorker, and that he would not depend on translators. “Translators were all right,” he said, “for the Manns, the Werfels, the Bunins, the Gides. The Olympians. We others who were closer to the ground had to comply with the rules of the earthly game. To write for an American magazine I would have to become an American writer.”17


He had previously written in German, Czech, and French. He found English more practical than these, since the best English writers wrote the way they spoke. In March 1939 he and Ann moved to Hollywood, where they could not only live more cheaply than in New York, but also where he—perhaps—could be hired to write for films. And write he did: “For over four years—fifteen hundred endless days—I kept writing, with no success, and steadily diminishing hope. I wrote every day, including New Year’s Day and the Jewish New Year, George Washington’s birthday, Emperor Franz Joseph’s birthday, President Masaryk’s birthday, my own birthday, Saturday, and Sunday.”18



Joseph “Warren,” with his wife Ann, interviews Clarke Gable on the set of his film Strange Cargo, 1939
Joseph “Warren,” with his wife Ann, interviews Clarke Gable on the set of his film Strange Cargo, 1939

Joe’s first regular market was the Toronto Star Weekly, but finally, after many rejection slips from many publications, Esquire published his article on “School for Saboteurs,” in its January 1943 issue; here he discussed the skill and training required of saboteurs in Nazi-occupied Europe. Joe was capitalizing on his experience as a Czech army officer to sell war pieces to American newspapers and popular magazines. Another Esquire article, published in May, posited his conviction that the shortest and most direct route to Tokyo was via the Arctic. Harper’s Magazine published “Hoarding is a Disease” in its February 1943 issue; here he described the techniques of Nazi agents to spread rumors of non-existent shortages shortly before their planned invasions, in order to create panic buying and local shortages.


While Ann continued her work as a skilled seamstress, Joe kept sending feuilleton-type articles to The New Yorker. In the late spring of 1943 he finally got his coveted acceptance letter, and his piece on “The Corsican Express” was published in the June 19 issue of The New Yorker. With this article, in which he described his memory of meeting a Corsican barkeeper who claimed to be the only known descendant of Christopher Columbus, Joe found his true authorial voice in America. It was, in fact, simply an Americanized version of his European voice; he had published a very similar piece about the Corsican barkeeper nearly ten years earlier under another title in the Prager Tagblatt.19 Now it served Joe as the entrée to The New Yorker, which published another piece by him in August, 1943. In 1944 twelve more of his articles appeared in its pages.


Tremendous success followed, in spite of Joe’s induction into the US Army. Each year the publishing firm of Houghton Mifflin awarded two annual publishing fellowships to writers, one for fiction, one for non-fiction. Joe won its non-fiction award for 1944; this paid out $1,500 dollars and earned him publication of his first book in America. Looking for a Bluebird appeared in both a hard-covered edition in the States and in a paperback overseas edition that was provided without cost to men in the armed services.


Most of the sketches in this book had appeared as articles in The New Yorker and Esquire, and he had written them while he was stationed at Camp Ritchie and Camp Sharpe. They provided tales of people Joe had met during the late 20s and early 30s when he served as a shipboard musician, opera claquer, and assistant croupier. As he described it: “The book is about people, funny people, unhappy people, friendly, nauseating, dull and strange people, and all of them very real. Though the locale is well known, the chapters are laid in little-known spots off the beaten path, behind the scenes.”20 His brand of gentle humor proved to be extremely welcome to an American audience that was otherwise preoccupied with war.


 

Joe had been called to Army service in early 1943, just as his career was taking off. He was an unwilling soldier. His brother, Max, who had been living with Joe and Ann in California, had already volunteered in 1942; he had graduated from Camp Ritchie’s fourth class, and been assigned to the faculty. Joe entered the 16th class and trained in interrogating German prisoners of war. He was then transferred from the Maryland camp to Camp Sharpe, a Camp Ritchie sub-camp in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for intensive training in psychological warfare. Here the men were trained in all aspects of psychological warfare, from interrogation, to monitoring enemy newspapers and radio broadcasts, to composing propaganda pamphlets and radio scripts, to broadcasting by radio, and to “hog calling” by directly addressing enemy forces from the front lines by microphone.


Whereas many Camp Sharpe graduates penned their memoirs, Joe’s memories of service were unique in that he did not describe his coursework or his activities when he went on leave, but focused, instead, on his experiences “behind the scenes” at Camp Sharpe, first on his assignment as a failed night fireman with the jovial Black soldier who tried to assist him, then as part of the team of soldiers assigned to clean the camp latrines. In doing this, he kept to the style of Looking for a Bluebird and provided short but vivid descriptions of those with whom he worked. The latrine detail, he said, seemed to have “some mysterious social significance,” given the fact that many of the men assigned to it were blue-bloods, who all conversed in French. One member was “Prince de Chimay, a wild-looking Belgian nobleman who was the scion of an old family, and a first-rate crap-shooter.” Baron de Fernelmont, was “also the scion of an old family, who looked French and decadent even in fatigues, reminding me of the goutish gastronomes in Paris.” Count P. was “another aristocratic Frenchman, frail and delicate,” whose forebears were said “to have laid siege to several towns near Avignon.” Louis de Milhau was also assigned there; he was “soft-spoken and polite, […and] was said to be related to the late President William H. Taft,” while Count Igor Cassini, “known to his friends as ‘Ghighi’ and to Hearst-newspaper readers as ‘Cholly Knickerbocker’, […] had black hair, always carefully brushed, and kept his sense of White-Russian humor even in moments of a minor crisis.” “The latrines at Camp [Sharpe] were more elegant than in some European luxury hotels,” Joe boasted, “they were also better taken care of […]. We were issued various liquids, powders, and sprays; mops and brooms and other, more intimately shaped utensils. We were given all technical assistance that American know-how created. The rest was up to us.”21


Of these men Joe formed the strongest bond with Igor Cassini, a white Russian who had grown up in fascist Italy and had frequently attacked the Roosevelt administration in his gossip column. He described the oddity of their friendship: “As friendships go, we were the odd couple for sure, and at first had not hit it off at all. Joe was with the German section, and I with the French. He was older, more serious, and very liberal. […] I mistrusted what I thought he stood for, and Joe, who had been told that I was a dangerous reactionary, assumed, in turn, that I had to be a prick. Nonetheless, we took notice of each other, notice that in time became an affinity and led to a friendship that lasted beyond the war.”22 The two men were tent mates as they traveled across France to Luxembourg, along with another Camp Sharpe man, Austrian refugee Fred Perutz. The three men made several trips to Paris together on their free weekends.


Joe, Igor, and Fred all left Camp Ritchie directly after D-Day; while Fred was flown to England, Joe and Igor were shipped over on the Mauretenia, one of the smaller converted cruise ships of the Cunard Line. Igor compared the 8-day crossing to slow death in the Lincoln Tunnel; Joe concurred. The men of their propaganda unit had been assigned to the “F” deck, which Joe described as a dungeon designed “for 8 Inmates of Hell or 108 Soldiers.” “There was practically no breathable air. The humidity was ‘above one hundred,’ in the opinion of one of our men, a meteorologist.”23 To escape these quarters, the men of his propaganda unit proposed that they improve the low morale on shipboard by producing radio broadcasts and a daily newsletter. This earned the men passes to the rest of the ship and allowed them even to sleep somewhere other than on the F deck. The paper was extremely popular, since it included news, interviews with common soldiers, jokes and cartoons, and word portraits of higher officers. Igor contributed a gossip column. Unfortunately, the paper was too honest and too popular, and it was shut down after three days and the men sent back to their hellish quarters on the lowest deck.


Following their arrival in Britain, the men received further training before being sent into Normandy about 8 weeks after D-Day. They then followed the American troops through France, composing pamphlets and mini-newspapers that the Army fired into enemy lines. Their end station was Luxembourg, which was liberated by the Americans in September. The radio station there was one of the most powerful stations in Europe, and for the past five years Germans had had control of it and broadcast their own propaganda through English-language programming headlined by William Joyce, an Irishman known to the Allies as “Lord Hee-Haw.”


Now the situation was reversed: Brits and Americans were broadcasting German-language propaganda to members of the Axis. Joe was assigned there as a writer. It was essentially a desk job, writing news reports and features. This was a tedious job for a New Yorker author used to the freedom of the pen, and so, when he was on leave in Paris, he and Igor Cassini

Joseph Wechsberg in the uniform of an American war correspondent
Joseph Wechsberg in the uniform of an American war correspondent

applied to become writers for Stars and Stripes, a daily newspaper put out by the American military. Both were accepted. “The following weeks remain one long dream of glory,” Joe wrote. “I flew on assignments all over Europe. With our shoulder patches, it was easy to bum a ride everywhere in the European Theatre of Operations. Once I was fetched by a general’s car driven by a WAC.”24


But Joe’s stint with Stars and Stripes proved to be only a temporary respite. In December a German counter-offensive resulted in serious Allied losses, and Joe was ordered back to Luxembourg. His army work was apparently considered more essential than his journalistic work for Stars and Stripes, and he claimed that “three generals were arguing about a lousy tech sergeant.”25 On December 22, he and many of his Camp Sharpe colleagues were sent directly to the front in what is now called the Battle of the Bulge. “I had my Christmas dinner in a cold foxhole with a fine view of an interesting sector of the Siegfried Line” Joe wrote wryly. “Dinner was served at four in the afternoon, during a blizzard.” Dinner, however, was a treat: it consisted of turkey with sage dressing, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. As soon as he had finished eating, “The Germans began to shoot at us again, but nobody cared.”26


The Allies managed to push back the Germans and to advance into Germany. As German cities began to fall, Camp Sharpe men were assigned to staff new newspapers for the Germans in these conquered towns. Joe was assigned to the first of these newspapers, the Kölnischer Kurier, the paper for Cologne, even as German forces were still offering resistance directly across the Rhine River in Deutz.


But the war was running down. When, on May 5, Joe learned that the Czech resistance was rising up to liberate Prague from the German occupation, he felt “a terrible sense of urgency. I felt I had to go back to Prague. We Americans were not supposed to be there; the demarcation line between the American troops and the Red army was near Pilsen.”27 Still, he begged his OSS superior, Major Patrick Dolan, for permission to leave immediately for Prague. To his surprise, the major not only granted permission but said that he would accompany him on his journey. This would be the start of a lifelong friendship.


The two men passed through Bayreuth on their journey east, and Joe spontaneously fulfilled a lifelong ambition to sing opera by visiting the city’s Wagnerian festival house and singing an aria from Die Meistersinger from its stage. When they arrived at their goal, “There was the smell of smoke and dead flesh in the streets of Prague, where some Gestapo murderers had been caught and burned alive, and sometimes there was the sound of shooting. Everybody was a little crazy. Once again, as so often in Prague’s violent history, there was blood in the streets. Flowers were placed on the spots where the Germans, before getting out, had shot a few more Czech patriots. And now the murderers had been caught and were murdered.” Indeed, Joe found “an unreal mood of exultation and despair in Prague, of death and getting drunk. Traitors were executed, and heroes were liberated.” The violence Joe saw was the inevitable result of the fact that, during the reign of Nazi terror, “hundreds of thousands of people in the country” had been killed.28


Joe persuaded Major Dolan to accompany him to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in the weak hope that his mother might have survived incarceration there. He learned instead that she had been on one of the last transports to Auschwitz. The two men did, however, take Rabbi Leo Baeck and a few others out of the camp and get them flown to freedom in the American zone.


Two Russian officers, Major Patrick Dolan, and Joseph Wechsberg in Czechoslovakia, May 1945
Two Russian officers, Major Patrick Dolan, and Joseph Wechsberg in Czechoslovakia, May 1945

Some months later, Joe returned to Czechoslovakia, this time to his hometown of Ostrava, to look for his wife’s parents. Ann had last heard from them early in 1944, when they had sent a letter through the Red Cross to say that they were all right. But Joe knew that, since that time, “Europe had been slowly bleeding to death. Millions of people had died of war and torture and disease and starvation in those two years. More millions had vanished.”29 Furthermore, he had heard that there had been heavy fighting in his old home town, and that it had been badly damaged.


This time Joe traveled alone. Ostrava was under firm Russian control, and the surviving populace was fearful and suffering from severe malnutrition. “Groups of people crowded the sidewalks. They were hesitant, as though they were discouraged to look, breathe, live. […] They had the half-starved, tired, shabby look that comes from six years of fear, malnutrition, overwork, and not being able to buy new clothes.”30 The attitudes of his old townspeople depressed him. People jockeyed for advantage, claiming kinship to Jews or particular suffering in a concentration camp in order to get better housing and better food rations. Since Joe was wearing an American uniform, people who spoke to him often lied about their politics and Joe “became over suspicious with everybody I met. I found myself treating an old friend with cold apprehension—trying to figure him out. It was unfair, yet I couldn’t help it. I became almost obsessed with the notion that I mustn’t act too friendly to anybody, not before I had proof that he had been on the right side.”31


Miraculously, he did find his in-laws, who were hiding fearfully in their old home. They could tell him very little about what had happened to Joe’s relatives, because they had spent months living in their cellar. He gradually pieced together scraps of information. “Very few members of my family were accounted for. […] Now the few ones alive were scattered all over the globe. Santiago de Chile, Riga, Bucharest, Tel Aviv, Singapore, Cuba, Sao Paolo (Brazil) and Leamington Spa in England. The pitiless, crazy geography of survival. The rest—a silent roll call of hunger and fear, deportation, persecution, torture, death.”32 Joe knew that Ostrava was no longer his home, “there was no bridge leading from the past to the present.”33


Joe’s account of his return to Ostrava appeared in two parts in the The New Yorker under the title “Going Home”; it was then published by Alfred A. Knopf in book form as Homecoming.


He and Ann now tried to make their home in America. Their first attempt was in California, where Joe was drawn by the enticement of a contract with Paramount Pictures: “I would make more money per week than I’d ever earned in any previous week of my life, and this Elysian state of affairs would last twenty-six weeks. If Paramount decided to pick up my options during the following seven years, I might be richer than my paternal grandfather ever was.” 34


But things didn’t work out that way. During his first weeks at Paramount, he was given no assignment at all, and so he turned back to his own writing, detailing for The New Yorker his visit to Ostrava. Then, finally, he received an assignment from Paramount: “I was to write a synopsis called ‘The Adventures of a Ballad Hunter,’ a film for Bing Crosby based on John A. Lomax’s search for truly American folk songs. […] The locale of the film was Texas, where I’d never been. […] And I knew nothing about American folk songs.”35 Nevertheless, he completed the assignment, turned it in, and never heard anything more about it. Paramount did not renew his contract. Virginia Wright , the drama editor for the LA Daily News, put the most positive spin on the conclusion of his employment there: “Because he hasn’t the heart for casual writing now, Wechsberg is returning to New York on completion of his screen treatment this month. He has more magazine assignments than he can handle. He owes Houghton Mifflin another novel. He has an idea for a play, and Knopf is publishing his new book, ‘Homecoming’.”36


 

Virginia Wright was correct, however, on the assignments that poured in from various magazines. From April 1946 through December 1947 Joe had, in addition to his book Homecoming, articles published in The Etude Music Magazine (1), Holiday (1), Reader’s Digest (1), Saturday Evening Post (5), Esquire (5), The New Yorker (6), and the Toronto Star Weekly (7).


These pieces varied tremendously. Some were nostalgic memoir, some reflected the Hollywood/LA scene, some were portraits of musicians, and some were fiction. Joe showed particular interest in the Mount Wilson observatory and in the even larger observatory that was being constructed on nearby Palomar Mountain. He researched the background history of the Mount Wilson observatory, interviewed scientists, and paid a night-time visit to the site, after which he exulted: “There is more drama every night under the domes of the Mount Wilson observatory, one hour’s drive from the outskirts of Los Angeles, than in the movie studios down there. When you step up to the large telescope and look through its eyepiece, you know that you are the only person on earth who at the moment follows the westward movement of some very distant stars. No other telescope reaches so far out into the spaces of the universe.”37


Joe’s sense of wonder about science, places, and people always illuminated his writing, and it doubtless was one reason why such diverse journals/magazines as Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, The Atlantic, Collier’s, The Saturday Review, and Playboy chose to publish his pieces. But he would always retain the greatest love and loyalty for The New Yorker. “I’ve written for the New Yorker about elusive and abstract subjects that would interest few other magazines,” Joe confessed. “I’ve written about the mysteries of light and darkness, the meaning of time and of silence. People are the protagonists in these pieces, but the core of the story is the abstract idea.”38


Upon their return from Hollywood, Anne and Joe bought a 16-acre estate in Redding Ridge, Connecticut. He very much loved the house, where, from his second-floor bedroom-study, he had “a beautiful view of the Blue Hills that Mark Twain had loved.” But he soon learned that he was not cut out for country life. He was unable to deal with household issues (plumbing and electrical problems, keeping up the lawn); worse, he couldn’t adjust to the rigid strictures of social life there, and “finally decided to give up the pleasures of a country squire in New England and go back to Europe as a [European] correspondent for The New Yorker.” This, he said “was really my field.”39 Joe and Ann returned to Europe in 1949; their daughter Poppy [Josephine] was born in Merano in 1950, and the family acquired a permanent home in Vienna in 1951.


New Yorker editor William Shawn, his wife Cecile, Joseph Wechsberg and his daughter Poppy
New Yorker editor William Shawn, his wife Cecile, Joseph Wechsberg and his daughter Poppy

During these years Joe continued his journalistic work, although limiting most of his writing to Esquire and The New Yorker. Much of it was flavored with nostalgia as it described the situation in post-war Europe and North Africa, contrasting the present situation with pre-war living conditions. As “reporter at large” for The New Yorker he traveled to—and reported from—Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Belgrade, Trieste, Leipzig, Genoa, Athens, Tripoli, Casablanca, and Rabat.


He also had two books published during this period. One was the novel he had promised to Houghton MIfflin: The Continental Touch. It was not the success that he had hoped for. Critics panned the work, noting, in particular, that the protagonist of the novel was a thoroughly disagreeable figure. It was, one critic noted, “a racy, caustic, unimportant novel about a very disagreeable person.”40 Another speculated that the novel was a successful attempt at working off grudges “inspired by some thoroughly unattractive people,” and expressed the hope that, having worked through these grudges, Joe could “now afford to return to the kind of writing that best displays his very real talents.”41


Joe did just that just a few months later. This next book was, in effect, a continuation of Looking for a Bluebird. Once again the compiled stories were gathered from articles he had already written about figures from his youth and childhood for American magazines. And, once again the work was “a haphazard but satisfying autobiography.” As one reviewer put it: “The writer never gets in the way of his subject. It is autobiography but not ego-biography. He writes with compassion and discernment of people and of music, of his native Czechoslovakia, and for his adopted America.”42


For the rest of his career Joe would pay long annual visits to the United States, where he kept a rental apartment in New York City. And he would eventually write two more autobiographical volumes: The First Time Around (1970) and The Vienna I Knew: Memories of a European Childhood (1979). He would incorporate material from his travels around Europe in books, some of them political: (Journey Through the Land of Eloquent Silence [East Germany], The Voices [the Prague spring], and In Leningrad) and some nostalgic: Dream Towns of Europe; Prague—The Mystical City; and The Lost World of the Great Spas. His true obsession was with his chosen home, Vienna: Vienna, My Vienna; The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire; The Dome Was My Teacher).


Although Wechsberg never did get adaptations of Looking for a Bluebird accepted by Hollywood and the Broadway stage, he did achieve one success with radio, when his New Yorker account of the 1953 uprisings in Eastern Germany was turned into the docudrama “The Seventeenth of June” and aired on both The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Both government agencies then used translated excerpts from this docudrama in broadcasts directed into East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.


 

Although Joe would write many more short stories for magazines and newspapers, he produced only one more novel. Entitled The Self-Betrayed, this 1955 work traced a young Czech’s climb to power from childish misfit and Marxist schoolboy to minor communist official to tyrant, ending with his admission of crimes he never committed and his execution as enemy of the state. This novel was better received by readers and critics than The Continental Touch, in large part because the first half of the novel presented “the immediacy and feeling of a Czechoslovakian ‘Our Town,’ as it appears to one who lived there.” They were more critical of the second half of the novel, as the “reflections, atmospheric details and episodic detours [gave] way to the compressed reporting of a case history.”43


Although Joe never achieved recognition as an effective novelist, he continued to win over readers and critics in two new directions that he took in his non-fiction. He introduced the first of these in the work Blue Trout & Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure. The blurb on the book cover stated that the work was “a kind of gustatory autobiography, packed with delightful reminiscences of the world of fine food and good wine which reach back to the twilight days of the Habsburg monarchy,” while also treating “a dozen other notable establishments that have become the last epicurean havens in this materialistic, mechanized world of canned luncheons and quick-frozen dinners.” Most of these remaining great establishments were in France; in fact, Wechsberg called the culinary art of M. Fernand Point, at his Restaurant de la Pyramide in Vienne “the greatest this side of heaven.” He followed this up with A Dream of Wine: A Profile of Alexis Lichine. And, in response to readers asking about American gastronomy, he published Dining at the Pavillon in 1962, about the exclusive New York restaurant that introduced elegant French cuisine to the Americans.


Joe also began publishing occasional culinary articles in Gourmet magazine; beginning in 1967 he became a regular contributor and had from five to nine articles published each year; by the time he ceased publishing there, in 1980, he had some 70 articles to his name.


But the main thrust of Joe’s nonfiction work was an outpouring of books and articles focusing on music and musicians. “I love music,” he said, but I don’t write about music per se; I leave the field to the experts and musicologists.” However, “I’ve always been interested in how great musical performers practice their art and how they perform.”44 And he would also show deep interest in other aspects of music: in the composers, the instruments, the opera houses.


His first musical biography, Red Plush and Black Velvet, treated the Australian prima donna Nellie Melba, who was, in her day, a sensation both as singer and as pop culture icon. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her charitable work during World War I, and she was the first Australian to have her picture on the cover of Time magazine. She commissioned portraits and even a marble bust of herself that found its way onto the grand staircase of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. She lent her name to several food creations by the French chef Auguste Escoffier, such as Peach Melba and Melba Toast. Even now her image graces Australia’s hundred dollar bills. Her achievements and eccentricities made her story rich fodder for Joe’s biography, which was published in 1961, the centennial of Nellie Melba’s birth.



Joseph Wechsberg with his Stradivarius violin, 1979.
Joseph Wechsberg with his Stradivarius violin, 1979.

Other musical biographies followed: The Waltz Emperors (The Life and Times and Music of the Strauss Family), 1973; Verdi, 1974; and Schubert: His Life, His Work, His Time, 1977). As the titles suggest, Joe provided a full picture of the age, giving a rich sense of the social atmosphere in which his figures moved.


In addition to these biographies, he published books on The Opera (1972) and The Glory of the Violin 1973). This latter was inspired by his visits to Emil Herrmann, a salesman of the world’s finest violins to most of the great violin performers. Joe had never stopped playing the violin, and always managed to put together a string quartet in the places where he lived. While Emil Herrmann still had a New York salesroom, Joe bought from him an Amati violin; later, when he moved the business moved to Connecticut (and Joe was also living there) he bought a Stradivarius.




And, despite his modesty about his musical writings, he became a prolific author of program notes for classical recordings made by the great orchestras, opera companies, and solo performers in the 1960s. In addition to notes for individual recordings, Joe wrote a 60-page booklet for a Time-Life Records publication “Prelude to Modern Music: The Story of Great Music” in 1966 while, for children, he wrote for Pantheon Books, The Pantheon Story of Music for Young People (1968).


But Joe also continued, throughout his life, to write on other topics that interested him. He was not always successful.


In 1958 he wrote Avalanche, in which he described how a natural disaster had affected the small Alpine community of Blons, Austria. On January 11, 1954, two horrific avalanches struck Blons, destroying most of its homes and killing 20% of its inhabitants. Joe did extensive research on avalanches in general and on the Blons community in particular. He interviewed many of the survivors and put together a work which described the life in the community prior to the calamity, the personalities who lived there, and then the avalanche strikes themselves and the desperate attempts to rescue neighbors and recover the bodies of the dead. Joe’s book revealed a full palate of personality types, actions, and motivations. He also wrote about the nature of avalanches in general, providing information of the conditions under which they form. It was too much information for many; while critics found the story of the Blons avalanches “gripping” and “exciting,” they were less than enthusiastic about the background material. As one critic put it: “Wechsberg begins with detailed discussion of avalanches in general, of the conditions which cause them, of the various types of avalanches, of controls, precautions, and avalanche warning systems. All of this is interesting enough, but one reads it with impatience, eager to get to the heart of the story. So we come eventually to Blons.”45 Sales of the books were disappointing.


Another book, The Merchant Bankers (1966) was more successful. In his “Strictly Personal” preface to the book Joe remarked that he “ALMOST became a merchant banker” himself, and, throughout the book, he mixes in anecdotes about his grandfather’s bank in Ostrava. The draw of the book was Joe’s ability, through anecdote, to reveal the secretive dealings of the great merchant bankers of the past. Writing of the Rothschilds, for example, Joe asked: “Is there another family on earth whose members outsmarted Napoleon and outlived Hitler, built railroads in Europe and factories in South America, developed oil fields in the Sahara and water power in Newfoundland, financed uranium mines and the tunnel under the Channel, supported enormous philanthropies, helped to create countries and toppled

Triangular headstone with the 6 pointed star of David. Josephs name is written on the stone as well as his birth and death date
Joseph Wechsberg grave, Merano, Italy

dynasties, owned art collections, castles, and great vineyards—and have triumphantly overcome the dangers of decadence that are said to be inevitable after eight generations?”46 One critic noted, “Not much is mentioned about New York simply because Wall Street discourages individualism, while this book is mainly devoted to the individualism that formed the financial backbone of various countries.”47 Joe’s book was in fact a fond look back to the days before the dominance of commercial and investment bankers. He noted that commercial bankers live by their investments, while merchant bankers live by their wits. “Merchant banking is not a business, it is an abstract art,” that maintains “a careful balance between daring and caution, instinct and fact.” As in most of Joe's books, there is a whiff of nostalgia for the “quaint charm, the elegant traditions and the punctilious calm” of the past.48







More books followed. Joe collaborated with Simon Wiesenthal on the Wiesenthal memoirs (The Murderers Among Us, 1967) and published a profile of the Weizmann Institute (A Walk through the Garden of Science, 1967), and a book about 2,000 years of history myth, and legend of the Danube River (The Danube, 1979). In spite of all these books, Joe’s heart remained with The New Yorker, for which he wrote over 160 articles. It was his work as foreign correspondent for this weekly magazine that brought him back to the States for months out of the year and which guaranteed a steady income that supported his home and life in Vienna.


Joe realized how lucky he was. In a book he called The Best Things in Life, he meditated on this. So many people, he wrote, did not really enjoy their jobs. But his job—writing—was also his passion. He found time, too, for other pleasures. He played the lead violin in many amateur string quartets, and, although he considered himself a dilettante, this, too, brought him special joy: “Wherever I am, in America, or in Europe, or in between, I get together with fellow dilletantes whose ‘enthusiasm surpasses their skill’ and we play ‘for amusement or gratification as opposed to professional pursuit’ (Webster).” He elaborated on their enthusiasm, “The truth is that we are so crazy about doing a thing that we don’t mind doing it badly. We have no fame—we gladly leave that to the experts—but we certainly have more fun.”49 Some of the other ”best things” that Joe mentioned in his book were his enjoyment of fine food, wine, travel, and good conversation. And he paid special tribute to his daughter Poppy. “I guess everybody has his own timetable of a child’s growing up” he remarked. “Mine was always marked by Poppy’s drawings and paintings.” He saw that Poppy was drawn to art the way he was to writing, and noted proudly that, when she was six, her artwork drew the encouragement of Marc Chagall.


In all respects, then, Joe’s was a life well lived. And when he died, on April 10, 1983, he was buried, as he had planned since boyhood, in the Jewish cemetery in Merano.



Beverley Driver Eddy

October 2023


 

Citations
 
  1. Joseph Wechsberg, The Vienna I Knew: Memories of a European Childhood. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1979, 14.

  2. Joseph Wechsberg, The Vienna I Knew, 15.

  3. Joseph Wechsberg, The Vienna I Knew, 19.

  4. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around: Some Irreverent Recollections. Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1970, 12.

  5. Joseph Wechsberg, The Vienna I Knew, 238, 239.

  6. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 12.

  7. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 134, 136.

  8. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 139.

  9. Joseph Wechisberg, The Vienna I Knew, 241.

  10. Joseph Wechsberg, The Vienna I Knew, 244, 245. 1

  11. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 97.

  12. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 99.

  13. “Southward March by Reich Foreseen,” The Gazette (Montreal), 20 Dec. 1938, 12.

  14. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 102.

  15. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 104.

  16. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 108.

  17. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 111.

  18. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 121.

  19. Josef Wechsberg, “Napoleons Landsmann Christoph Columbus” [Napoleon’s Countryman Christopher Columbus], Prager Tagblatt, 22 Sept. 1933, 4.

  20. “Hell to Breakfast, and Day of Vision,” Lexington Leader KY), 12 March, 1944, 29. 20

  21. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 155-156.

  22. Igor Cassini with Jeeanne Molli, I’d Do It All Over Again. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977, 96-97..

  23. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 168.

  24. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 175.

  25. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 183.

  26. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 185, 186.

  27. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 186.

  28. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 197-198, 198.

  29. Joseph Wechsberg, Homecoming. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1946, 6.

  30. Joseph Wechsberg, Homecoming, 42-43.

  31. Joseph Wechsberg, Homecoming, 95.

  32. Joseph Wechsberg, Homecoming, 67.

  33. Joseph Wechsbrg, Homecoming, 117.

  34. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 209.

  35. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 218-219.

  36. “Virginia Wright,” Daily News (LA), 2 Apr. 1946, 13.

  37. Joseph Wechsberg, “Probing Beyond the Milky Way,” Star Weekly (Toronto), 75.

  38. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 261.

  39. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 274, 275.

  40. Elizabeth W. Watts, “Something New in Heels,” The Boston Globe, 18 Feb. 1948, 15.

  41. Milton Crane, “Disappointing Concoction by Mr. Wechsberg,” Chicago Tribune, 25 Jan.1948.

  42. Louise Charles, “Wechsberg Adds Second Book To ‘Haphazard’ Autobiography,” The Tulsa Daily: World, 14 Nov. 1948.

  43. Thomas B. Sherman, “Reading and Writing: Clinical Study of Totalitarian Mind,” St. Louis Post- Dispatch, 20 Feb. 1955, 34.

  44. Joseph Wechsberg, The First Time Around, 231.

  45. Ruth Hard Bonner, “Books in Town,” The Brattleboro Reformer (VT), 20 Aug. 1958, 4.

  46. Cited in Henry W. Levy, “Some Fabulous Bankers, The Baltimore Sun, 23 Oct. 1966.

  47. Jay Bail, “‘The Merchant Bankers’: Vivid and Imaginative,” The Jersey Journal, 3 Dec. 1966, 5.

  48. Virginia Magill, “The Bankers Who Are Adventurers,” The Kansas City Times, 19 Oct. 1966, 30.

  49. Joseph Wechsberg, The Best Things in Life. Boston, Toronto: Little Brown and Company, 1964, 159 and 152.

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