Overlooked No More: Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Author, Photographer and ‘Ravaged Angel’

Overlooked No More: Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Author, Photographer and ‘Ravaged Angel’

Schwarzenbach attempted suicide twice. After she died of her bicycle accident injuries at 34 on Nov. 15, 1942, in the Swiss town of Sils im Engadin — she had been showing off by riding with no hands — her mother, defying her daughter’s will, destroyed Schwarzenbach’s papers for fear of how they might reflect on the family.

Schwarzenbach’s work — ranging from striking photographs of Hitler youth to novels, from critiques of Swiss neutrality to travelogues from Central Asia — would not be rediscovered in her native Switzerland until the late 1980s, when the country began re-evaluating its World War II history. (Much of her written work is unavailable in English.)

One of her earliest books, “Lyric Novella,” tells the story of a young man from a wealthy family not unlike Schwarzenbach’s who rejects his family’s plans for him in order to pursue his obsession with a nightclub singer. The novel, said the book’s translator, Lucy Renner Jones, is a pitch-perfect portrait of an era in which to be a member of the upper class was to be a slave to family duty.

For all her seeming fragility, Schwarzenbach was adventurous. One of her best-known books, “Death in Persia,” was based on the years she lived in Tehran as a diplomat’s wife (a marriage of convenience; her husband was also gay). During that period she fell in love and had an affair with a Turkish diplomat’s daughter.

On her travels with Maillart from Switzerland to Afghanistan, the two women engaged in high-speed chases with the police in Azerbaijan and ran away from officials near the Iran-Afghanistan border. (Maillart died in her mountain chalet in Switzerland in 1997 and received an obituary in The Times.)

Schwarzenbach also spent time in the United States as a freelance reporter and photographer, traveling in the Deep South and across Pennsylvania, focusing on the mining and steel industries there. Her photographs from those travels reveal a journalist intensely interested in the social dynamics around her.

And though Mann and others saw Schwarzenbach as a beautiful but troubled soul, they may have been buying what she was selling. She knew very well what effect she had on people and cultivated her public persona carefully, according to her great-nephew Alexis Schwarzenbach, a historian who has written a book about her. “That was part of the package,” he said.

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