Lotte Lenya

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Lotte Lenya
Lotte Lenya.jpg
photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1962
Born Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer
(1898-10-18)18 October 1898
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Died November 27, 1981(1981-11-27) (aged 83)
New York City, USA
Occupation Actor
Years active 1922–1981
Spouse(s) Kurt Weill (1926–1933, 1937–1950)
George Davis (1951–57)
Russell Detwiler (1962–1969)

Lotte Lenya (18 October 1898 – 27 November 1981) was an Austrian singer, diseuse,1 and actress.2 In the German-speaking and classical music world she is best remembered for her performances of the songs of her husband, Kurt Weill. In English-language film she is remembered for her Academy Award-nominated role in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and as the sadistic and vengeful Rosa Klebb in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love (1963).

The early years

Lenya was born as Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer to working class parents in Vienna. Her family was Roman Catholic.3 Lenya was of German descent. Lenya moved to study in Zurich in 1914, taking up her first job at the Schauspielhaus using the stage name Lotte Lenja. She moved to Berlin to seek work in 1921.


In 1922 Lenya was seen by her future husband, the German composer Kurt Weill, during an audition for his first stage score Zaubernacht, but because of his position behind the piano, she did not see him. She was cast, but owing to her loyalty to her voice teacher who was not, she declined the role. She accepted the part of Jenny in the first performance of The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) in 1928 and the part became her breakthrough role. During the last years of the Weimar Republic, she was busy in film and theatre, and especially in Brecht-Weill plays. She also made several recordings of Weill's songs.4 Note 1

With the rise of Nazism in Germany, she left the country, having become estranged from Weill. (They would later divorce and remarry.) In March, 1933, she fled to Paris, where she sang the leading part in Brecht-Weill's "sung ballet", The Seven Deadly Sins.

Lenya and Weill settled in New York City on 10 September 1935.6 During the summer of 1936, Lenya, Paul Green, Cheryl Crawford and her husband rented an old house at 277 Trumbull Avenue in Nichols, Connecticut, about two miles from Pine Brook Country Club, which was the summer rehearsal headquarters of the Group Theatre.78 It was here that Green and Weill wrote the screenplay and music for the controversial Broadway play Johnny Johnson, which was titled after the most frequently occurring name on the American casualty list of World War I. It was also during this time that Lenya had her first American love affair with playwright Paul Green.910

During World War II, Lenya did a number of stage performances, recordings and radio performances, including for the Voice of America. After a badly received part in her husband's musical The Firebrand of Florence in 1945 in New York, she withdrew from the stage.11 After Weill's death in 1950, she was coaxed back to the stage. She appeared on Broadway in Barefoot in Athens and married influential American editor George Davis.11

Late career

In 1956 she won a Tony Award for her role as Jenny in Marc Blitzstein's English version of The Threepenny Opera, the only time an Off-Broadway performance has been so honored. Lenya went on to record a number of songs from her time in Berlin, as well as songs from the American stage. Her voice had deepened with age. When she was to sing the soprano part in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and The Seven Deadly Sins, the part needed transposition to substantially lower keys.11

Sprechstimme was used in some famous songs in the Brecht-Weill plays, but now Lenya used it even more to compensate for the shortcomings of her voice. Lenya was aware of this as a problem; in other contexts she was very careful about fully respecting her late husband's score.111213 She founded the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music,14 to administer incomes and issues regarding rights, and to spread knowledge about Weill's work.13 She was present in the studio when Louis Armstrong recorded Brecht-Weill's "Mack the Knife". Armstrong improvised the line "Look out for Miss Lotte Lenya!" and added her name to the list of Mack's female conquests in the song.

Her role as Vivien Leigh's earthy friend Contessa Magda Terribili-Gonzales in the screen version of Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) brought Lenya an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.

In 1963, she was cast as the SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love, starring Sean Connery and Robert Shaw. In the final scene in the film, she wore a shoe with a switchblade knife that sprang forth to stick out of the front of the shoe; however, this failed to eliminate Bond and Rosa Klebb was fatally shot by Bond girl Tatiana Romanova (played by Daniela Bianchi).15 She later said in interviews that when she met new people, the first thing they looked at was her shoes.

In 1966, Lenya originated the role of Fräulein Schneider in the original Broadway cast of the musical Cabaret.12 Kander and Ebb's score was considered by some to be inspired by Weill's music. This, combined with Lenya's personal history made her a particularly appropriate casting choice.

Personal life

Lenya and Weill did not meet properly until 1924 through a mutual acquaintance, the writer Georg Kaiser. They married in 1926, and later divorced in 1933, only to reconcile in September 1935 after emigrating to the United States. They remarried in 1937. In 1941, the couple moved to a house of their own in New City, Rockland County, New York, roughly 50 km north of New York City. Their second marriage lasted until Weill's death in 1950.

Her second husband (from 1951 to 1957) was the American editor George Davis. After Davis's death in 1957, she married the artist Russell Detwiler in 1962. He was 26 years her junior, but died at the age of 44 in 1969.12


Lenya died in New York of cancer in 1981, aged 83. She is buried next to Weill in Haverstraw, New York.13


In 1956, Louis Armstrong recorded the song "Mack the Knife", both as a solo number and as a duet with Lenya. Armstrong added Lenya's name into the lyrics, in place of one of the characters in the play. Other recordings of the song, most notably Bobby Darin's in 1959, have continued this tradition.

The Michael Kunze play, Lenya, is about Brecht’s favorite singer, Lotte Lenya.16

In 2007, the musical LoveMusik, based on Lenya's relationship with Weill, opened on Broadway. Lenya was portrayed by Donna Murphy.

She is also mentioned in the Fascinating Aïda song "Lieder", which originally described her as German, but was corrected for later performances.


See also


  1. ^ Records ‘Six Songs by Kurt Weill’ (1943) for Bost Records (BA 8) in New York. In 1944 records two of Weill's songs for the U.S. Office of War Information for use in radio broadcasts to Germany: ‘Wie lange noch’ with lyrics by Walter Mehring and ‘Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib’. Records ‘‘The Threepenny Opera’ (1954 New York Cast) (Blitzstein Adaptation)’ MGM Records (E3121) released in July 1954. Records ‘Lotte Lenya sings Kurt Weill’ (1955) in Hamburg for Philips (B 07 039); released in the U.S. by Columbia (ML 5056) in November 1955 as ‘Lotte Lenya Sings Berlin Theater Songs of Kurt Weill’. In 1956 records ‘Die sieben Todsünden’(The Seven Deadly Sins) for Philips (B 07 186) in Hamburg, conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg; Columbia releases the recording in the U.S. (KL 5175) in March 1957. In 1956 records ‘Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny’ (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) for Philips (L 09 418-20) and Columbia (K3L 243) in Hamburg, conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg. In 1957 records ‘September Song and Other American Theatre Songs of Kurt Weill’ for Columbia (KL 5229), conducted by Maurice Levine; it is released in February 1958. In 1958 records ‘Die Dreigroschenoper’ (The Threepenny Opera) for Philips (L 09 421-22) and Columbia (O2L 257), conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg. In 1960 records ‘Happy End’ for Philips (B 47 080 L) in Hamburg, conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg. The Columbia (OL 5630) issue released in the U.S. in 1964.5


  1. ^ Biography of Kurt Weill, Pickford Prod., Inc (unpublished biography April 20, 1945) Yale Music Library
  2. ^ Obituary Variety, December 2, 1981.
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Lotte Lenya Discography". Kurt Weill Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  5. ^ "Lotte Lenya: A Detailed Chronology 1950-1959". Kurt Weill Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  6. ^ Jackson, Kenneth T. (1995). The Encyclopedia of New York City. The New York Historical Society; Yale University Press. p. 1252. ISBN 0-300-05536-6. 
  7. ^ "Pinewood Lake website retrieved on 2010-09-10". Retrieved 2012-08-31. 
  8. ^ Images of America, Trumbull Historical Society, 1997, p. 123
  9. ^ Speak Low (when you speak of love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya
  10. ^ A Southern Life: Letters of Paul Green, 1916-1982, p. 258
  11. ^ a b c d "Lotte Lenya Biography". Kurt Weill Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  12. ^ a b c "Lotte Lenya: A Detailed Chronology 1960-1969". Kurt Weill Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  13. ^ a b c "Lotte Lenya: A Detailed Chronology 1970-1981". Kurt Weill Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  14. ^ "Kurt Weill Foundation for Music". Kurt Weill Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  15. ^ "James Bond media website retrieved on 2011-10-02". 1981-11-27. Retrieved 2012-08-31. 
  16. ^ "Michael Kunze: Leyna". Retrieved 2014-04-16. 

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