The Hare With Amber Eyes: Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi

ringstrasse above(The second in a series of posts about Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes)

In 1899 the collection of 264 netsuke (net-ski), tiny Japanese carvings, arrived along with their black lacquered vitrine at the Ringstrasse in VIenna, a gift from Charles Ephrussi to his cousin Viktor on the occasion of his wedding to Emmy. They were uncrated at the Palais Ephrussi and began life anew in Emmy’s dressing room.

palais ephrussi colourThey were destined to live in the Palais Ephrussi (above) for the next 48 years, although the Ephrussis did not.

The palace was built soon after the street itself, the Ringstrasse, in 1865, a boulevard made for imperial parades and stood near other magnificent homes of wealthy Jewish families – the Libens, Todescos, Wertheims, Gutmanns, Epsteins. By 1899, Freud had his office around the corner. The 145,000 Jews in Vienna had had civic equality since 1867, including the right to teach and own property. The Ephrussis, like many others, were secular Jews and did not attend synagogue. They were Viennese, citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and loyal to the Emperor Franz Joseph, who had granted them their rights.

Baron Ignace von EphrussiThe great house was built by Ignace Ephrussi, who arrived in Vienna from Odessa in 1865 when his son Viktor was 3 years old. Eventually, Ignace was ennobled by the Emperor and became Baron von Ephrussi.

De Waal, the author and present owner of the netsuke is a renowned potter of simple modern forms and his reaction to the palace, now Casino Austria, is much like my own would be. He notes the gold trim on the exterior, the many half-clad Grecian maidens in the niches. He feels smothered by the smoothness of the omni-present marble, as if he can not get a purchase anywhere – on the shallow wide steps of staircases, on the slick floors.

panneled wall palaisThe “implacably marble” interior was lavished with tapestry and ceiling murals.

ballroom palais ephrussiMost of the paintings told classical stories, except oddly, the one on the ceiling of the ballroom, the only room that the Viennese, as opposed to Jews, would see. It told the story of Esther. De Waal says, “It is a long-lasting covert way of staking a claim for who you are.”

Viktor, like Charles in the Paris branch of the family was the spare son, so he too was spared bank training. Viktor preferred reading history and sitting in cafes with his friends – until, alas, his older brother Stefan, eloped with his father’s mistress and was disinherited. Suddenly the unprepared Viktor found himself working in the Bank Ephrussi, untrained, and, as it turned out, without a banker’s instincts.

Ignace died only 10 weeks after Viktor and Emmy’s wedding. They kept their apartment on the second floor, the Nobelstock, which Emmy had initially announced “looked like the foyer of the opera”. De Waal takes us into the palace where Ignace had had a a private staircase only he could use, servants’ rooms on a “secret” floor, one with no windows, tunnels to neigbouring houses, ways for naughty children to access the roof, and the glass-covered court yard where the carriages and horses and later the automobiles stood ready beside a statue of Apollo..

It was not a “cozy” place in the way that Charles’s home, opulent as it was, might have seemed. The netsuke vitrine evidently did not suit it except in the smaller more intimate surroundings of Emmy’s dressing room. Here her children gathered pre-dinner to watch her maid Anna dress her for dinner. Here Elizabeth, Iggy and Gisella were allowed to open the glass case and take the netsuke out to play with them.

But of course there was something secret and malignant, the worm in the rose, gnawing away beneath the surface beauty. Marble halls were not proof against it.

Even in Paris Charles was subject to anti-semiticism. Renoir turns against his patron when Charles buys paintings by Gustav Moreau.”It is ‘Jew art’ Renoir writes, galled to find his patron, the editor of the Gazette, with this gout Rothschild stuff on the walls..” Not only is Jewish artistic taste criticized, as bankers Jews are held to be exploitative and responsible for every economic setback. De Waal forces himself to read the newspapers, pamphets and books that target the Ephrussi family with hatred, and parody them as individuals, not only Charles, but others like Maurice, who has married Beatrice Rothschild. The Dreyfus scandal, in which the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason, effectively divided the nation into two parts, Semites with their few supporters and anti-semites. It was almost 10 years before he was exonerated and released from Devil’s Island.

But, if the French, in that era, were capable of anti-Semiticism, the German speakers had a positive gift for it. Elizabeth and Iggy, for example, found themselves shut out of a guest hut at the end of a long day’s mountain hike because they were Jews.

Franz Joseph knew a good thing when he saw it and courted the newly arrived Jews who brought wealth with them and soon made more. Viktor regarded himself as a loyal Austrian and, consequently did not follow the advice of his friends who spirited their money off to Switzerland when war was in the offing. In fact, he sunk his wealth into Austrian bonds. Just how reckless this was beame clear to me when I read Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace. Austria-Hungary was a pasted together country, a collection of territory assembled by the Hapsbergs. Its soldiers spoke so many languages that units were divided accordingly and orders were sometimes issued in English. There were two parliaments and the Hungarian one erupted physical violence at one point. The heir to the throne was Franz Ferdinand, however, who had a sensible attitude that going to war was not a good idea. Then he and his wife were assassinated, the ostensible cause of the war’s outbreak.

By the end of the Great War in1918, Viktor’s branch of the Bank Ephrussi had to be bailed out. He still had the palais and personal money, but he had lost his fabulous wealth. And like every other family in Austria, his was almost starving because of food shortages. Emmy had just given birth to a fourth child, Rudolf, the Spanish flu was raging across Europe and it seemed as if mother and child might not survive.

They did survive as did their home, although there were half as many servants. Gradually, things improve. Elizabeth earns a doctor of law degree, marries and leaves the country. Iggie studies finance in Cologne. He is the only male Ephrussi in both branches of the family, but in 1933 wisely runs to Paris, giving banking up for a life in fashion eventually in New York City.

In 1938, there is the Anschluss. But this is part of the next section of the book, part 3, “Vienna, K√∂vecses, Tunbridge Wells, Vienna 1938-1947”.