Alma Mahler's fame is primarily due to her marriages to, and affairs with, the greatest artists of her time, most notably the great Gustav Mahler from whom she took her name. As a composer in her own right, she wrote too little to be classed as more than a minor figure, though the 16 songs that are her only surviving work show a developing talent.
She was born Alma Marie Schindler. Her father was a painter, Emil Schindler, so she grew up in an artistic milieu. She was one of the great beauties of Vienna before she was 20; Gustav Klimt drew several portraits of her. She has been described as a gifted pianist, and took composition lessons, primarily with composer Alexander von Zemlinsky.
After she accepted Gustav Mahler's marriage proposal he insisted she give up writing music. She accepted the sacrifice, but her later writings make it clear that this loss of her creative outlet rankled, and, it can be speculated, led to her eventual infidelity; these feelings were exacerbated after he enlisted her as a copyist and proofreader for his music. The ethereal second subject of Mahler's Sixth Symphony and similar passages in the Eighth (which is dedicated to her) are said to be musical portraits.
She and Gustav had two children, both girls. When one of them died young, she blamed Mahler for having tempted fate by composing his song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) as they played happily nearby. (The surviving daughter, Anna Mahler, became an important sculptor.)
In the summer of 1910, Alma took ill and pursuant to doctors' prescriptions Mahler checked her into a spa at Tobelbad, near Graz, Austria. He returned to his composing retreat in Toblach. During this time she fell in love with young architect Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus) and began an affair with him, which Mahler discovered when she apparently posted a letter to him in an envelope addressed to Mahler.
Mahler's feelings after discovering her infidelity -- and his relief that she promised to stay with him -- are presumably the emotional impulse for three movements of his incomplete Tenth Symphony. After his death, Alma suppressed these three movements, though she had engaged the composer Ernst Krenek for finishing touches and editorial work on the nearly finished first movement. It was only near the end of her life, on hearing preliminary work for a BBC lecture by musicologist Deryck Cooke, that she approved completion of the work.
After Mahler's death (he died of a streptococcus viridans infection less than a year after the events just described) Alma had an affair with painter Oskar Kokoschka, who also painted her several times, including the picture Der Windsbraut (Bride of the Wind). She married Gropius in 1915, but they were divorced a few years later. Their daughter, Manon, also died young -- in 1935 -- and was the inspiration for Alban Berg's Violin Concerto "On the death of an angel." Alma married the writer Franz Werfel (best known as the author of Song of Bernadette) in 1929.
Mahler and Werfel fled for France after Nazi Germany absorbed Austria in 1938; they settled in Los Angeles, where he worked in films. Alma became something of a reigning queen of German émigré artists in Hollywood. Werfel died in 1945. She then settled in New York, where she published volumes of Gustav Mahler's letters and papers, and her own memoirs And the Bridge is Love (in German, Mein Leben). Her friends were disturbed that she depicted herself as a Nietzsche-inspired sympathizer of Fascism, an anti-Semite, and an admirer of Mussolini (though not of Hitler). Incidents from her life were dramatized in a 2001 film, Bride of the Wind.