Mar 2009 Journal

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Schnorrers of distinction

Peter Altenberg (1859-1919, born Richard Engländer) had two main weaknesses: he was excessively fond of the fair sex - ranging from ten-year-old schoolgirls to mature prostitutes - and even fonder of money.

On one occasion, he was invited for lunch by Muhr, Prague’s leading shirt manufacturer and a generous patron, who, in keeping with Altenberg’s new vegetarian health book, ordered a strictly meatless menu. Altenberg, who had looked forward to enjoying a roast goose or perhaps an outsize Wiener Schnitzel, had, as the book’s author, to follow suit whether he liked it or not. When he saw the third member of the luncheon party, Anton Kuh, enjoy a gigantic Rostbraten, he couldn’t contain himself and whispered to him: ‘How can a talented chap be such a glutton!’

Like most distinguished schnorrers, Altenberg firmly believed that the world – the world of millionaires, that is – owed him a living.

Altenberg demanded, and occasionally received, annuities from the wealthy businessmen on the fringe of his circle of friends at the Vienna Löwenbräu and the Café Central. Members of Vienna’s super-rich felt flattered at being able to refer to brilliant, unconventional writers and speakers like him and Kuh as their court jesters.

When Altenberg found that only very few of his patrons were prepared to commit themselves to paying regular annuities, he suggested that collections be made on his behalf.

Of all Altenberg’s friends, the most generous proved none other than Karl Kraus. In this context, the revolutionary architect Adolf Loos too deserves mention. None of Altenberg’s far from grateful outbursts could alter their friendship with the schnorrer par excellence.

On his death at the age of 60 in his tiny, dingy room on the third floor of the Graben Hotel, Altenberg was found to have cash savings equivalent to £250,000 …

Anton Kuh (b.1890, died New York 1941, pseudonym Yorick) fully deserved his reputation as the most sophisticated and elegant schnorrer of all times. When on one occasion the head of the Vienna Rothschilds handed him a ’loan’ of 5,000 Austrian schillings instead of the usual 10,000, Kuh asked: ‘What is the position now, Baron? Do I owe you 5,000 or do you owe me 5,000?

Kuh was one of the most brilliantly humorous and one of the laziest feature writers of his generation. He was also without any doubt the most outstanding extemporising speaker of his time. Yet he would always find himself short of cash.

Kuh’s Berlin address was invariably the posh Adlon Hotel. The tiny room didn’t matter as long as it was a good address to put on his business card. Asked by a friend how much he owed, he answered: ‘It’s mounting all the time – so much so that I will soon owe the entire hotel!’

Kuh was always arrogant and aggressive. Reproached on this count by his close friend Geza von Ciffra, his reply was: ‘With a name like Kuh, I have to behave like a Bull!’

Kuh made a point of wearing only bespoke suits, made by Vienna’s most expensive tailor – his bills, needless to say, unpaid.

How did Kuh get away with his life of luxury without paying for it? He was a forerunner of today’s ‘celebrities’. By associating their businesses with his name, the tycoons of the pre-Nazi era knew that Kuh’s name gave them an aura of cultural exclusivity in return for granting him unlimited credit. In today’s language, freebies.

This article is based on a talk by Dr Rosner to Club 43.

Fred Rosner

previous article:From illiteracy to remorse (review)
next article:How I missed out on a peerage