1950s Archive

Viennese Memoir


Originally Published January 1959

Carnevale … farewell to meat. Properly interpreted, this Italian expression meant: Enjoy your meat while you may, Shrovetide is nearer than you think. The carnivorous and pleasure-loving Viennese took the idea very much to heart. If they were going to fast and abstain for forty days after Shrove Tuesday, they would certainly feast and enjoy themselves for forty days before. By starting their carnival on Epiphany, January sixth, they could link it with the last of the Christmas festivities, and even the earliest Easter gave them ample time for the enjoyment of meat and all the masks, merriment, and mischief that went with the festive occasion.

In Venice, the mother city of the carnival, they had long ago condensed their celebrating to three or four days, but not in Vienna. Every Viennese was a born Vercinsmeyer, a joiner, and every society, organization, and association to which he belonged felt called upon to give an annual Faschingsball, carnival ball. Every embassy and legation, every trade and profession, even the smallest suburban Klub and Verein—absolutely everybody had to hold a Fest and absolutely everybody else had to go to all of them to see whether he would have missed anything if he had stayed away. Some of the old Vereine had almost no real existence except for their actively functioning Ballkomitee. The Sezission, modern museum, tried to outdo the Künstlerhaus, the Philharmonic vied with the Musikverein. Each group competed with all the others in going completely mad.

Herr and Frau Baronin, unrecognizable in various costumes, enjoyed every minute of it. When several panics fell on the same evening, they did not choose which one to attend, but only which one to attend first. If the second and third were less amusing than the first, they went back to the first and returned to the others later to see whether these had improved. There was plenty of time, the night was long, no self-respecting Faschings reveler ever came home before sunrise, and it was a matter of honor to eat breakfast at a corner kiosk with the poor benighted creatures who started their day in the morning. Breakfast during carnevale meant meat; it could be half a chicken in noodle soup, a Wiener Würstcben, or Saft Gulyàs, but meat it must be.

Almost all the balls were masquerades, an inheritance from the carnival in Venice. This scheme delighted the Viennese, who could abandon their formalities and conventions the moment they lost their identity behind a slant-eyed black satin mask. As the Fasching progressed, the Viennese came to know a good deal about one another's subconscious. They knew what everybody came as, given the opportunity. The ladies all treated old Doktor Shanta quite differently when they discovered that he always came as Casanova, and no one felt quite the same about the Gräfin Listra after she had appeared for the third time as Lady Godiva. The Prinzessin Hohenhof always came as anything that would show off her legs, and the pale and retiring Prinz Lada-Bashanski came as a dynamic Mephisropheles, no matter what the occasion.

Herr Baron was never quite certain what he secretly wanted to be: He was not inclined to the toreadors, troubadours, and lion tamers that his friends usually chose, and he rejected the friars and clowns that hid the less imaginative men. In the end, he usually went as something that didn't clash with his mustache or as something that clashed with it completely—the Winslow Boy or Hans im Glück. He was always happiest when he went as Augustine, the unconquerable spirit of Vienna. On sight of him every pretty Maske sang “Acb, du lieber Augustime, ” and off they would waltz together. Frau Baronin was naturally the shepherdess and dirndl type, she was given to powdered wigs and crinolines, but she made herself completely unrecognizable by adopting costumes that even her closest friends would not have suspected her of. She spent the entire Fasebing happily disguised as Pocahontas, Minnehaha Laughingwasser, or Amelia Bloomer.

Maskenfreibeit, freedom of the masks, meant that perfect strangers could speak, dance, flirt, and even fall in love without the inhibiting obstacle of knowing each other. When Herr Baron went as a mustachioed early Christian martyr, he found himself inclined to dance with slave girls, goddesses, and an irreproachable Pompeia, whom he found, ill-matched, dancing with Lord Beaconsfield. He had always to keep a masked eye out for the tall feather on Minnehaha's head, as she was besieged by attentions from all explorers and discoverers, and in particular by a rather stout white-haired gentleman. Having come simply as a diplomat in full dress, he pocketed his red ribbon and changed his character into Long-fellow at sight of Frau Baronin's lovely red-tinted legs.

At one time the Viennese Fasching was further enhanced and crowned by two great court balls. The aristocracy, the army, the diplomacy, and the famous were asked to the indescribably gay and colorful Hofball. The Ball Bei Huf was an entirely different matter and much less fun for the old Emperor. It was attended only by the highest diplomats and ministers, the top statesmen and generals, and those members of the airstocracy who were descended from an unbroken line of sixteen aristocratic grandmothers—eight on each side;the ninth could have been a nobody. Needless to say, the Ball Bei Hof had a very small attendance: Sixteen evenly divided great-great-grandmothers with coronets were hard to come by. The Fiaker drivers' and the laundrymaids' balls were the gayest of them all, although, having survived the war, they suffered from the advent of the taxi and the washing machine.

Through all the festivities—the waltzing and the polkas, the parties and the masquerades—everyone ate Faschingskrapfen, the light Viennese carnival doughnuts. To Frau Baron in the word meant doom. Her mother-in-law descended upon her each year for the sole purpose of baking Faschingskrapfen for her Goldpfoterdl, little golden paw, her only child, the Herr Baron. The old Baroness regarded this invasion as her annual maternal duty and generously allowed a full week for what would have taken Resi a day. Besides her baking paraphernalia, she brought along six evening dresses so that she could indulge her passion for the opera after the long days in the kitchen. The repertoire could always be relied upon to include Romeo and Juliet, The Damnation of Faust, and Rienzi, all of which Herr Baron disliked intensely. Most of all he dislike giving up any part of the Fatching festivities. After dutifully taking the old Baroness to late supper, everyone retired with yawns and clear signs of fatigue. Half an hour later Minnehaha and Der Lieber Augustine departed, shoes in hand, to catch up with the Fatching revelers. They had to leave the festivities earlier than usual so that Frau Baronin could appear rested and relaxed, without a moment's sleep, to help the old Baroness with the baking.

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