Annemarie Schwarzenbach was a Swiss writer, journalist, photographer and traveler. She first wanted to be a general, then a pianist and a dancer but ended up with a doctorate in history at Zurich University, and published her first novel aged 23. She had a troubled relationship with her mother, whom apparently brought her up as a boy and as a child prodigy. She began to dress and act like a boy from an early age, and throughout her life she was often mistaken for a young man.
“You can read her life like a novel, but no editor would publish it, they would say ‘oh it’s too much, give me a break’, but this is not the case, it’s all true,” — Alexis Schwarzenbach, great nephew
“She was neither a man nor a woman, but an angel, an archangel.”
— Marianne Breslauer
Lisa von Cramm photographed by Marianne Breslauer in Berlin, 1934.
Annemarie Schwarzenbach was born on may 23, 1908 in Zürich, into one of the richest families in Switzerland. From an early age she began to dress and act like a boy – a behavior that was not discouraged by her parents.
In 1931, at the age of 23, she received her doctorate in history at the university of Zürich and wrote her first book Freunde um Bernhard (Bernhard’s circle).
In 1932 she planned a car trip to persia with Klaus and Erika Mann (whom she had befriended in 1930) and their childhood friend Ricki Hallgarten. the evening before the trip, Ricki, suffering from depression, shot himself.
In 1933 bohemian Berlin disappeared with the Nazi take-over. Tensions with her family increased as some of her family sympathized with the swiss fronts who had close ties with the Nazis. Her parents pressured her to renounce her friendship with the Manns and this led her to attempt suicide, causing a scandal among her family and their conservative circle.
In 1932 and 1933 she traveled abroad with Klaus Mann to Italy, France & Scandanavia.
In 1933 she traveled with photographer Marianne Breslauer, to the Pyrenees and then to Persia.
In 1935 she married french diplomat Claude Clarac, despite both their homosexuality. Having known each other only a few weeks, it was a marriage of convenience for both. They moved to an isolated area outside Tehran which led to her morphine addiction. She returned to Switzerland and entered one of her most prolific times writing Tod Inpersien (Death in Persia), Das glückliche Tal (The happy valley) and Lorenz Saladin: Ein Leben für die Berge.
In 1937 and 1938 her photographs documented the rise of fascism in Europe.
In 1936 she traveled to New York with another photographer, Barbara Hamilton-Wright. They would travel all over the south and in industrial areas around Pittsburgh where she was profoundly affected.
In 1939 she traveled to Afghanistan with the writer Ella Maillart in an effort to cure Schwarzenbach of her morphine addiction. While in Kabul, World War II broke out and they separated – Maillart left alone for India. A scandalous love affair with the female archeologist Hackin had left Schwarzenbach forbidden to travel in the excavations of Turkmenistan, which rendered her journey impossible.
In 1940 she returned to the US, where she became involved in an unhappy love affair which left her depressed and caused another suicide attempt and an internment in a psychiatric clinic. She was allowed to leave the clinic in 1941 on condition that she leave the United States.
During this time she had met the up and coming writer, 23 year old Carson McCullers, who fell madly in love with her. “She had a face that I knew would haunt me for the rest of my life.” wrote McCullers. Unfortunately, Schwarzenbach did not feel the same way. They would remain friends and Carson dedicated her next novel, Reflections in a golden eye, to her. Annemarie was involved with the wife of a wealthy man, Baronessa Margot von Opel as well as struggling with her feelings for Erika Mann. This led to another bout of depression and hospitalization.
She traveled back to Switzerland in 1941 and then on to the Belgian Congo where she continued to write. On september 7, 1942 she suffered a devastating fall on her bicycle and fell into a coma for three days. She awoke to amnesia and died soon after on the 15th of november. After her death, her mother destroyed all her letters and diaries. A friend took care of her writings and photographs which were later archived in the swiss literature archive in Bern.