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The Valentine Story of Ludwig and Margit von Mises

February 4, 2008

Tags BiographiesHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

[This article is excerpted from chapters 12 and 14 of Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism.]

In 1925, Ludwig von Mises, entering his mid-forties, finally met the woman who would become his wife.

Margit Serény had been one of six guests at a dinner party held by Fritz Kaufmann, a young lawyer and member of Mises's private seminar. It is almost a miracle that Mises won the heart of the lady sitting next to him, for he spent most of the meal discussing economics. On the other hand, his preoccupation gave her the opportunity to observe him. This is how she perceived him:

What impressed me were his beautiful, clear blue eyes, always concentrated on the person to whom he talked, never shifting away. His dark hair, already a little grayish at the sides, was parted, not one hair out of place. I liked his hands, his long slim fingers, which clearly showed that he did not use them for manual work. He was dressed with quiet elegance. A dark custom-made suit, a fitting silk necktie. His posture indicated that he must have been a former army officer.[1]

He talked to her after dinner, and they went to a dance club. Apparently Mises was a poor dancer — at least by Margit's standards — and so they spent most of the night talking. Actually she did most of the talking and he listened attentively. Margit was an attractive woman of five-foot-four, with brown hair and grey-blue eyes. Now, as they talked, he discovered she was also a witty and warm person. He must have fallen in love with her that evening. The next day, he sent her red roses and asked her out for dinner. It was the first of many such dinners over the next two years.

Margit Serény was an actress from a bourgeois background in Hamburg. During the war, she had performed on one of the leading stages in Vienna, the Deutsche Volkstheater. When Mises met her, she was thirty-five years old and a very attractive widow with two children, Guido and Gitta. Shortly after her arrival in Vienna in early 1917, she had married Ferdinand Serény, a Hungarian aristocrat who died in 1923, bequeathing to her assets that had lost most of their value during the inflation.

Characteristically, Mises was cautious even when his feelings might have threatened to overwhelm him. Could he trust an actress? As Margit later pointed out, most people in polite society considered actresses to be high-class call girls. Ludwig seems to have shared this prejudice. At any rate he took precautions. As he later confessed to his wife, he had checked some of her statements about her professional development by consulting the records in the archives of the Neue Freie Presse.[2] He probably also talked to his cousin, Rudolf Strisower, who had been Ferdinand Serény's physician. These investigations confirmed Margit's version of things.

But there were more fundamental obstacles that hampered the development of their romance. On the one hand, Ludwig's mother Adele had great reservations about Margit. Actually none of his girlfriends had ever met with her approval. She must have imagined a different sort of wife for her beloved son, and her opinion had a great weight for Ludwig, especially since he held certain philosophical views that would have deterred him from marriage anyway. These concerned the nature of marriage and the possibility of being both a husband and a scholar. A thoroughly unromantic passage from Socialism says it all:

As a social institution marriage is an adjustment of the individual to the social order by which a certain field of activity, with all its tasks and requirements, is assigned to him. Exceptional natures, whose abilities lift them far above the average, cannot support the coercion which such an adjustment to the way of life of the masses must involve. The man who feels within himself the urge to devise and achieve great things, who is prepared to sacrifice his life rather than be false to his mission, will not stifle his urge for the sake of a wife and children. In the life of a genius, however loving, the woman and whatever goes with her occupy a small place. We do not speak here of those great men in whom sex was completely sublimated and turned into other channels — Kant, for example — or of those whose fiery spirit, insatiable in the pursuit of love, could not acquiesce in the inevitable disappointments of married life and hurried with restless urge from one passion to another. Even the man of genius whose married life seems to take a normal course, whose attitude to sex does not differ from that of other people, cannot in the long run feel himself bound by marriage without violating his own self. Genius does not allow itself to be hindered by any consideration for the comfort of its fellows even of those closest to it. The ties of marriage become intolerable bonds which the genius tries to cast off or at least to loosen so as to be able to move freely. The married couple must walk side by side amid the rank and file of humanity. Whoever wishes to go his own way must break away from it. Rarely indeed is he granted the happiness of finding a woman willing and able to go with him on his solitary path.[3]

This passage survived all editions of the book. Ludwig was slow to allow Margit onto his hitherto solitary path. But on the other hand he was longing for the love of a true companion.

In the Vienna of the 1920s, the main bastion of statism was Otto Bauer's socialist party, and one of their preferred means of political "persuasion" was the open threat of violent insurrection. But in 1927, the credibility of those threats received a serious setback in a showdown between the socialists and the Vienna police.

The event occurred in the wake of a questionable court decision that had, in the socialists' view, been slanted in favor of a political right-winger. The socialists now called for a general strike and demonstrations on Friday July 15, 1927. To the government, this was a thinly disguised attempt at its overthrow. When the crowd gathered in front of the palace that hosted the department of justice, someone set the building on fire and the police stepped in immediately. In the resulting carnage, ninety demonstrators were killed even before the army arrived. Mises commented in a private letter to a former student in Paris:

Friday's putsch has cleansed the atmosphere like a thunderstorm. The social-democratic party has used all means of power and yet lost the game. The street fight ended in complete victory of the police…. All troops are loyal to the government.

The general strike has collapsed and the leaders of the social democrats then had to cancel it.

The threats by which the social-democratic party has up to now permanently tried to bully the government and the public have proved to be far less dangerous than one had believed.[4]

The failure of the general strike and the accompanying massacre also had an unexpected personal impact on Mises's life.

He had been surprised and delighted by the failure of the general strike, but what did not surprise him was the massacre that took place when the masses rallied in the streets of Vienna. One of his first thoughts was to alert Margit Serény of the danger. Under no circumstances should she let the children out. Margit was away during the day, however, and Mises left detailed instructions with the housekeeper.[5]

When Margit returned in the late afternoon, she was deeply touched to learn how much Mises cared about her and her children. She had held him in great esteem, but in no way reciprocated the attentiveness he had bestowed on her during the two years since they had first met in Kaufmann's apartment. Red roses and expensive perfume could not conquer her heart. She just could not understand this man:

In the first years of our relationship, Lu was almost an enigma to me. I never had seen such modesty in a man before. He knew his value, but he never boasted. … I think it was the extreme honesty in Lu's feelings that attracted me so strongly to him. These feelings were so overpowering that he, who wrote thousands of pages about economics and money, could not find the words to talk about himself, and explain his feeling.[6]

Fortunately, actions sometimes speak for themselves. On that day of July 1927, for the first time, Margit felt something like love for him and grew more open to his advances. It was the beginning of a short-lived boom in their friendship, which less than two months later ended in a resounding crash.

That night, Mises visited Margit to see if everything was in order. Telephone lines were down and he had been unable to call her. He took her for a walk on the Ringstrasse, where the turmoil of the day could still be felt: only men were out; she did not see another woman. At the end of their excursion he proposed to go dancing. When she said yes, he knew it indicated progress. Some days later, he held her hand for the first time, in a dance club, and on the following weekend, he kissed her for the first time in a dark corner of the Prater, Vienna's central park — like a couple of high school kids, as she would later recall. When she had to leave for Hamburg a few days later, he told her that he would ask her to marry him, but that he first had to make up his mind to be a stepfather to her children. They parted with plans to meet in Berchtesgaden, a resort town in the Bavarian Alps, at the end of August.

On August 25, she took the train from Munich to Berchtesgaden and was happily surprised when Mises suddenly entered the train at one of the intermediate stations. They took adjacent hotel rooms in Berchtesgaden. Concerned about appearances, Mises presented Margit as his sister. The story was good enough to maintain appearances, and Ludwig and Margit enjoyed a wonderful training period for marriage, as he would say. They talked about the problems facing their potential union: she could not fulfill his wish to have a child together; she would have to become Jewish again to appease his mother; his mother would have to be kept out of all marriage preparations because she might jeopardize everything, as she had done on an earlier occasion.[7]

On Sunday, September 4, they returned to Vienna, where events took a fateful turn. Mises had fallen ill without noticing at first. He met her for supper on the following Tuesday, and on Wednesday he saw her again, shaken by fever and a severe headache. Given these circumstances, he would not talk about marriage. He had to have a clear head to make the most important declaration of his life. Yet Margit felt she had already been waiting for quite a while and was growing impatient. She told him she would not wait a single day more and pressed him for a decision. He later wrote her of the event:

"Today or never! I will not allow you to postpone the decision by even a couple of hours." No loving woman talks that way. A single warm word from you would have made me happy, would have bound me to you forever. But you said no such word. You did not meet me as a loving woman, but as a cold adversary.

It was the greatest disappointment of my life. I had hoped to find love and goodness in you, and I found hardness, uncompromising hardness. I had already overcome all prior apprehensions, which I have not hidden from you, because I thought true love was stronger than the difficulties that stood in the way of our union.[8]

It seemed to be the end. They departed under the mutual declaration that the problems in their relationship were irreconcilable. She even returned the love letters he had written to her in Hamburg.

The next morning, Margit felt remorse and wrote to him, but he remained silent. She continued to write every day, without response, and a few days later finally got him on the phone. Mises reiterated what he had said on the preceding Wednesday. It was over, forever.

Not much later, he must have discovered the true cause of his fever — a rare condition known as acute surgical abdomen — and checked into the hospital for surgery.[9] Margit had stopped writing him, but she sought news on the state of his health from his second cousin, Strisower, the doctor of her late husband. She even prayed to God for his recovery, admitting later that she had always thought of herself as an atheist, but this emergency had revealed otherwise.

Eventually she started writing him again. When he did not reply, she begged Professor Adler, her physician, to ask Mises to write and explain in full the reasons for his obstinacy. With this request coming from a colleague as a quasi-official request, Mises felt he had to comply. He wrote a strongly worded and unflattering letter, and emphasized that he would have preferred to spare her the embarrassment of reading his account. Margit sent the letter back, saying it was unworthy of him.

At some point in late 1927 or 1928, he started calling her again. He would not speak. He just let her answer the phone and listened to her voice, sometimes twice a day. And then one day he showed up again at her apartment, without any explanation, and they continued the relationship where they had left off in September 1927. She still waited for him to propose, but he was still unable to make this step. Later she wrote:

Before we married, this love must have been a very distressing factor in his life — so upsetting that he knew he could fight a battle in the Carpathian Alps but could never win the battle against himself.[10]

Notes

$18 

[1] Margit von Mises, My Years With Ludwig von Mises (2nd ed., Cedar Falls, Iowa: Center for Futures Education, 1978), p. 13. The book is, as the author correctly points out, the only available testimony on Mises the man from a firsthand source. But its statements are not fully reliable, as two examples show. First, the author lied about her age, claiming to be six years younger than she really was. Even on her gravestone, the birth year is incorrectly given as 1896. Her correct birth year is stated, in her marriage certificate as well as in U.S. immigration paperwork, as 1890 (see the 1941 U.S. "Affidavit of Identity and Nationality;" a copy is in Grove City Archive: Mexico 1942 files). Second, Margit states that she "was the only woman he wanted to marry from the first moment he met her." While this statement might be true, the following sentence, in which she claims that Ludwig "never changed his feelings or his mind about this decision," is demonstrably wrong, as we will see in a later chapter. These examples show that Margit von Mises's biographical recollections must be read with caution. The present work uses her statements only where other evidence does not contradict them.

[2] See Margit von Mises, My Years With Ludwig von Mises, pp. 3, 9.

[3] Mises, Socialism (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981), pp. 85f. Mises's treatment of the genius (p. 166) was anticipated by George Bernard Shaw in his "Earning a Living and Creative Work." Mises did not know this passage from Shaw at the time. Twenty-five years later, a German correspondent pointed out the parallel. See Johannes Bahner to Mises, letter dated June 12, 1947; Grove City Archive: "B" file.

[4] Mises to Steiner, letter dated July 21, 1927; Mises Archive: 62: 20. Fritz Georg Steiner had been one of the top students in Mises's seminar at the University of Vienna. See Martha Steffy Browne [Braun], "Erinnerungen an das Mises-Privatseminar," Wirtschaftspolitische Blätter, vol. 28, no. 4 (1981), p. 111.

[5] On this and the following see Margit von Mises's typewritten record of the events — Mises Archive 105 — which was probably written in November 1927.

[6] Margit von Mises, My Years with Ludwig von Mises, pp. 18f.

[7] We are still paraphrasing Margit von Mises's rather vague record of the events (document in Mises Archive 105). From the phrase "she would have to become Jewish again" one must infer that she had been Jewish before getting married to Ferdinand Serény, a Protestant. The phrase "training period for marriage" is liable to several plausible interpretations and has probably been selected for precisely this reason.

[8] Mises to Margit Serény, letter dated November 3, 1927; Mises Archive 62: 35f. Mises wrote this letter at the behest of Professor Adler, Margit's doctor, who had conveyed Margit's wish that he explain in full why he refused to see her again. The physician in question must have been Ludwig Adler; see Margit von Mises, My Years with Ludwig von Mises, p. 8.

[9] On September 16, he was still in the hospital. See the letter that Mises's secretary sent to the Königsberger Hartungsche Zeitung, dated September 16, 1927; Mises Archive 62: 10.

[10] Margit von Mises, My Years with Ludwig von Mises, p. 19.


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