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Annemarie Schwarzenbach : A Life

Annemarie Schwarzenbach was born on May 23rd, 1908 in Zurich, into one of the richest families in Switzerland of that period. Her father, Alfred Schwarzenbach, was one of the great patrons of the textile industry. She grew up in the family house and studied History in Zurich and Paris. In 1931, she received her doctorate and wrote her first book. In 1930, she made friends with Erika and Klaus Mann, with whom she remained close for most of her life. Schwarzenbach lived as a writer in Berlin where she had her first experiences with morphine. From 1933, she began traveling, first with the photographer Marianne Breslauer, to the Pyrenees, then to the Near East. Her first six-month trip took her to Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Baki and Teheran where she met the French diplomat, Claude Clarac. In 1934, she accompanied Klaus Mann to the first Congress of Writers, in Moscow.

Schwarzenbach was often in conflict with her family. It was because of this turmoil that she made her first suicide attempt. Shortly thereafter, she left for Teheran to marry Claude Clarac. She obtained French nationality and a diplomatic passport. But, soon after, she fell into a depression, which was aggravated by her appetite for drugs. In addition, her love affair with the daughter of the Turkish Ambassador in Teheran, provoked a scandal.

Her meeting with American photographer, Barbara Hamilton-Wright marked a new period in Schwarzenbach's life. It was with Hamilton-Wright that she would make her first journey in the United States. During the summer of 1936, she left for New York. Hamilton-Wright had proposed that they take a trip to document the great industrial regions of northeastern United States.

She arrived in America in the middle of an economic and social crisis. It was the time of the Great Depression, of social upheaval, of great strikes and of President Roosevelt's attempts to aid these crises with his deep reforms of his New Deal. In January of 1937, Schwarzenbach left Washington with Hamilton-Wright to visit the Alleghenies and the industrial center of Pittsburgh.

"Thus began for her a year that was a part of the most momentous and the most important of her life - all under the plan of a journalistic journey. Everywhere she traveled, she took photographs which depicted misery in a striking manner. The snapshots that she brought back to Switzerland had an extraordinary quality, which are totally unrelated to the insignificant landscapes she executed at the beginning of her career." (1)

Two of her stories were published in Switzerland at the end of her first trip, confirming the interest in her work. After her return, and two months rest in Switzerland, she left again in May 1937, this time for eastern Europe: Danzig, Riga, Leningrad, Moscow. There also, her articles and photographs showed a careful and relevant observation of the social reality of a Europe dominated by the rise of fascism.

In September 1937, she returned to the United States. This time, Schwarzenbach and Hamilton-Wright left for the deep South, in order to bear witness to the supposed "hinterland of American prosperity". The two women crossed Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. The misery and violence that they witnessed surpassed anything that either of them had yet seen in their journeys. From social problems came the added racial conflicts. In the mountains of Tennessee, they encountered woodcutters who were starting to organize unions. Schwarzenbach took passionately to these issues, and published many politically engaged articles reporting on the suffering and upheaval in the southern United States.

She returned to Europe at the beginning of 1938, profoundly touched by her journey. But by the time she found herself on the boat back to Europe, she again was lured by drugs. What followed was a period where she alternated between writing and rehabilitation for her drug habit. In 1939, she met the writer Ella Maillart, who, after much hesitation, took Schwarzenbach with her by car to Afghanistan. This trip made a great impression on Ella Maillart, who tried in vain to cure Schwarzenbach of her drug problem. They left in June 1938, but by the time they reached Sofia, Schwarzenbach obtained morphine substitution, which created a great tension between the two women. They ended by separating in Kabul, Maillart left alone for India. A scandalous love affair with the woman archeologist Hackin had left Schwarzenbach forbidden to travel in the excavations of Turkmenistan, which rendered her journey impossible.

Many of the stories that Schwarzenbach brought from her voyage were published in Switzerland, including one written with Maillart. In May of 1940, Schwarzenbach returned once more to the United States. She became involved in an unhappy love affair which caused her to suffered from a depression which led her, in December, to another suicide attempt and an internment in a psychiatric clinic. In February of 1941, she was authorized to leave the clinic on the condition that she leave the United States. She returned to Switzerland via Lisbon. As soon as she arrived, however, she left again for the Belgian Congo, and undertook a voyage in the bush where she continued to write. In 1942, she left via Lisbon for Morocco where she found Claude Clarac. She stayed there for two months, then left for Switzerland with the hopes of working in Lisbon as a foreign correspondent. But on September 7th, she suffered a devastating fall on her bicycle, and she fell into a coma for three days; she awoke to amnesia.

The last weeks of her life, she was cared for in her house in Sils, she did not recognize anyone. Annemarie Schwarzenbach died on the 15th of November in Sils, and she was buried in Zurich.

-Barbara Lorey de Lacharrière, (trans. Gabrielle Giattino)

(1) Dominique Gente, Nicole Müller, L'ange inconsolable, Lieu Commun, 1989.