The UCI Bookstore’s Author Series of 2012 set an impressive standard on March 1 when Anne-Marie O’Connor spoke about her book “The Lady in Gold.”
The book follows the story of Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting: from its creation in the context of a feminist intellectual salon, to its theft by Nazis during World War II, ending with the successful legal battle where the true heirs to the painting reclaim it from Vienna’s museums.
“I got involved in this in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles in 2001,” O’Connor said.
“I was idly reading the West Side Weekly one day […] and there was a small article about a neighborhood woman, a neighbor near me, and her battle to get back a painting in the family that had been stolen by the Nazis. I looked at this little postage stamp-sized reproduction in the paper of the painting and I thought, ‘Oh my god, that painting?’”
Since her teen years, O’Connor remembered seeing the painting in a poster for the arts. At the time, O’Connor was writing for the Los Angeles Times. Her initial investigation culminated in a cover story for the LA Times, an article entitled “Whose Art Is It, Anyway?” Yet simply writing an article was not enough; O’Connor’s interest in the story compelled her to pursue it further — she wanted to write a book about it.
The problem, however, was that such stories were very common at the time, according to O’Connor.
“This kind of thing was really common in those days; these stories, they never went anywhere,” she said. “They were pretty much lost causes, they were tragic, they were sad […] and they usually didn’t win.”
It was not a story that any newspaper or publishing company thought would be very popular. Suddenly, when the case won, O’Connor was swamped with offers to write the book.
O’Connor took a five-year leave to write the story, interviewing Maria Altmann, who sought to reclaim the paintings, as well as several of Altmann’s peers. At one point, O’Connor even visited Vienna for two months.
“I found it amazing to be kind of immersed in this world […] Honestly, I found uncovering World War II’s secrets to be fascinating.”
Her enthusiasm served her well, as it helped her endure long periods of lack of cooperation with Austrian officials. It simply took time to build the trust necessary to get the information she needed.
“It took a really long time for them to cooperate […] for like, two or three years they wouldn’t even answer my emails,” she said. “Their help was crucial to me making sure that things were accurate and sourced.”
The work she invested in her book has more than paid off, as it reached No. 1 on Amazon.com’s Top 100 Best Seller’s List in Contemporary Art. It could be said, however, that O’Connor’s book falls into more than one category, and includes everything from the romantic scandals of Gustav Klimt to the political activities of the Nazis and the legal battle fought by Randol Schoenberg on behalf of the piece’s true heir, Maria Altmann.
In brief, the story begins in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, when a young Jewish woman named Adele Boch-Bauer led a group of feminists and art patrons into a frenzy of intellectual discussions at a salon in her home. Among the many famous names in attendance were Sigmund Freud, Felix Salten and artist Gustav Klimt. Klimt used Adele in two of his paintings, including “The Lady in Gold.”
Adele died shortly before the start of World War II, requesting her husband Ferdinand that he donate her Klimt collection to the Belvedere Museum. Ferdinand indeed donated a piece, which was promptly traded to a Nazi propaganda filmmaker. The rest of his collection was eventually seized by the Nazis and the Belvedere attained the rest of the Klimts from them. The pieces were renamed with more descriptive titles to disguise the Jewish heritage of the models. Ferdinand died in 1945, after the war, as he was trying to regain his stolen property.
The lawsuits were unsuccessful, however, until Randol Schoenberg came along. Randol Schoenberg was the grandson of Maria Altmann’s best friend — and Maria Altmann was the rightful heir to “The Lady in Gold.” At this point, O’Connor entered the picture, and though she did not yet have the support to write her book, she continued to follow the story of the legal battle as it gained increasing attention in the media, pressuring the Austrian government to react in favor of the rightful heirs.
The variety of subjects covered by the book — from the personal, even romantic dynamics of the salon to the politics of war and the legal battles that followed — have led to a wider reading audience outside that of contemporary art, as demonstrated by the hefty turnout at UCI’s Bookstore. While some members of the audience were old colleagues and friends of O’Connor from the LA Times and other newspapers, it also included members of UCI staff such as Dr. Roberta Geier, Senior Financial Analyst in the School of Humanities.
Dr. Geier majored in art history at UCI and is particularly fond of abstract art like that of Kandinsky’s, so the subject material of O’Connor immediately appealed to her.
“I’m also interested in Jewish heritage,” Dr. Geier said. “Then when I read about it, and found out who sat for the portrait and all, I thought it would be very interesting.”
Several undergraduate students were also in attendance, most of whom were doing a class assignment for Writing 101W. Some students, however, attended out of interest for the O’Connor’s book.
Becky, who is increasingly interested in historical fiction and nonfiction, said, “I’m liking it more and more as I grow up […] I’m thinking about getting a copy [of ‘The Lady in Gold.’]”