Ruth Landshoff

Germany's First It Girl

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Ruth Landshoff at the height of her celebrity in 1929.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Ruth Landshoff was one of Germany’s few celebrated Jewish stars in the 1920s, but later fled Berlin to escape Nazi oppression.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Landshoff was born into a middle-class and well-connected Jewish family in Berlin in 1904.
    • She became an actress, appearing in the famous Nosferatu vampire film in 1922, and later a popular society writer.
    • She fled to the United States via France in 1937 and became a playwright in New York.
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    Audio

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Few writers or actresses could dream about calling on the sort of life experiences gained by Ruth Landshoff-Yorck.

An “It Girl” in booming 1920s Berlin; a friend to actress Marlene Dietrich, writer Thomas Mann and painter Oskar Kokoschka; a star of the 1922 vampire horror film Nosferatu; marriage to a dashing but treacherous German count; a writer of hugely popular columns, poetry and novels; escape from Nazi Germany to the United States; and finally, a bohemian New York playwright before her death on stage in 1966.

Yet, Ruth Landshoff, as she was known in her youth, is little known in her home city of Berlin.

Born in 1904 into a middle-class Jewish family in Schöneberg, now part of southwest Berlin, Landshoff started off as an actress. At 16 she was awarded a spot in the acting school at the Deutsches Theater. The fact that she got an audition with the powerful theater director Max Reinhardt had more to do with the fact that she was the niece of Samuel Fischer, an influential publisher, than her talent.

“It turned out that I did not have the slightest bit of talent for acting,” she would later say. Nevertheless, she played an aristocrat’s daughter in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s “Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror,” and remained on stage in Berlin, Munich and Vienna until the end of the 1920s.

Oskar Kokoschka painted her portrait after threatening to shoot himself if she did not let him draw her.

Landshoff started writing to escape boredom, and also out of vanity. She appeared to publish her guiding principle in a column at the end of 1927 in the magazine “Die Dame,” an influential society publication: “She is proud to use already used words and allegories in conversation again with another – she wants many to learn from her, therefore she writes.”

The text was called “Me about Us,” and told the story of a “modern secret society” of young people who refuse to “become finished people, or adults.”

One of them is a flighty writer named Ursula. She bears the distinctive characteristics of her creator. “Her face is much too pretty,” it says, “so that a listener could turn towards the meaning of her words more than her artificially rose-colored mouth.”

Landshoff was 23 years old and already a local celebrity in Berlin when she wrote the piece. She was famous for her beauty and style and was much-pictured in magazines as the German “It Girl.”

One photo by the avant-garde photographer Otto Umbehr, known as Umbo, showed her behind a Venetian mask, with a sneering mouth, artificially rose-colored with lipstick. In another photo she sat on the running board of her white Adler Standard 6 convertible car, petting her dog, with a cigarette in her mouth.

The Zeitgeist got excited about speed, modernism and self-confident “new” women with short hair. Landshoff embodied this ideal. And her face is, to quote the magazine, “much too pretty.”

The writer still has a fascination today. In the book “The Girl with Little Horsepower” there is a collection of her columns from the 1920s. And the theater scholar Thomas Blubacher wrote the first biography of her, tracing the “many lives” of the writer from her rise in Berlin during the Weimar Republic to her success as a playwright in New York.

The tones of her early texts were euphoric, snarky and a little megalomaniacal. “I think a female car must look as appetizing as a baby,” begins one column that details the experiences of a “girl driver” in Berlin.

In the reports and drawings that appeared in publications such as Tempo, Das Magazin or Sport im Bild, the topics she covered included the realignment of gender roles, the art of flirting, fashion, night life and the dancer Josephine Baker.

There is a boundless celebration of the here and now, and in-depth investigations only happen on the periphery. “What is the meaning of life, and why, when one knows that this question cannot be answered, does one ask it?” she wrote in a carefree summer novella. A literary history from 1933 was critical of her musings, describing them as “the snobbish and unprofessional extravagance of a Berlin girl.”

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Landshoff dabbled in many of the arts, but writing was her strength. Source: Ullstein Bild

 

Landshoff was surrounded by prominent people virtually her entire life. She said about her childhood: “Being famous was simply a trait, such as being nice or clever, and a fact that did not change our behavior.”

She got to know the writers Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Alfred Kerr and Thomas Mann. Oskar Kokoschka painted her portrait after threatening to shoot himself if she did not let him draw her. And the director Josef von Sternberg convinced Landshoff to take the leading role in his film “The Blue Angel,” with Marlene Dietrich, a friend of hers since they had been in a theater production together.

The actress’s androgynous charisma – her bobbed haircut signified modernity and independence – contributed to her rise. “Very pretty in a dinner jacket, looking like a boy, which she underscored with horn-rimmed glasses and the made-up hint of black whiskers,” noted the publicist and diplomat Harry Graf Kessler in his diary.

Landshoff loved mostly men, but sometimes also women. She had an affair with the poet Karl Gustav Vollmoeller, who was 26 years her senior, and with Francesco von Mendelssohn, who was gay.

In 1930, she married the German businessman Count David Yorck von Wartenburg, who spied for the Allies during World War II. Later, she lived in a quasi-marriage with Mopsa, the daughter of the playwright Carl Sternheim.

Her debut novel, published by Rowohlt in 1930, was called “The Many and The One.” It was a fast-paced story about a female German reporter in New York. She followed it up with two other novels, but neither was published until well after her death.

The rise of Nazi oppression in the mid-1930s suffocated Landshoff-Yorck and in 1937 she fled to the United States via France. In new York, she transformed into a combative political author. With two co-authors, she published the crime novel “The Man Who Killed Hitler,” worked as a spokeswoman for Voice of America and wrote the novel “Sixty to Go,” about a resistance group on the French Riviera.

After the war, Landshoff-Yorck stayed in New York until her death. There, she started yet another new career, as a playwright for off-off-Broadway productions. Her pieces were performed at the famous La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York.

Many of the theater people she worked with were gay. “They are fascinated,” wrote her biographer Thomas Blubacher, “by her past in Berlin in the 1920s, where freedom existed which still has to be fought for here.”

The life of Ruth Landshoff-Yorck was without a doubt an adventure. A work of art.

 

A version of this article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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