Erika Mann, the eldest daughter of Nobel Prize winning German author Thomas Mann, was born on November 9, 1905. Her brother Klaus, whose life was closely bound with hers, was born one year and 9 days later, November 18, 1906.
Erika and Klaus, who were both openly gay and in Erika’s case quite gender fluid, were extraordinarily close and collaborated together on books and plays. They thought of themselves as twins.
Their mother came from a wealthy Jewish industrialist family, although her parents had converted before her birth. This still caused problems for the Mann family, who eventually moved to America to escape Hitler’s rise.
Andrea Weiss wrote a really wonderful dual biography of Erika and Klaus Mann, 2008’s In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain, which details their bohemian existence and often tragic lives.
In the Weimar years Erika was a stage and film actress and Klaus a playwright and novelist. The siblings also travelled extensively together and wrote a series of books about their adventures. They collaborated on an anti-Fascist cabaret in Berlin that fell afoul of the Nazis.
Erika entered into a marriage of convenience with the British poet W.H. Auden in 1935 so she could secure British citizenship. Auden was also gay and they never lived together but remained married until her death in 1969.
Klaus moved about in Europe after his German citizenship was revoked by the Nazis and eventually moved to the United States and worked as a film and theatre critic.
During World War II Erika became a combat journalist for the BBC and after the war she covered the Nuremberg Trials. She and Klaus also covered the Spanish Civil War and wrote a book about it.
Both siblings had difficult times with their famous father whom they described as condescending and aloof.
When Erika was born Thomas Mann wrote to his brother Heinrich: “It is a girl; a disappointment for me, as …I had greatly desired a son and will not stop to hold such a desire …I feel a son is much more full of poetry.”
When Klaus was 14 years old Mann, who was conflicted by his own bisexuality, began to write about him in his diary in erotic terms: “Am enraptured with Eissi (Klaus’s nickname) …terribly handsome in his swimming trunks. Find it quite natural that I should fall in love with my son… It seems I am once and for all done with women?… Eissi was lying tanned and shirtless on his bed, reading; I was disconcerted.”
And later, “came upon Eissi totally nude…deeply struck by his radiant adolescent body; overwhelming.”
Klaus, who battled drug addictions, died of an overdose in 1949 at the age of forty-two. It is unclear if it was a suicide or not. Erika died of a brain tumor at sixty-three.