The Legendary Lotte Lenya

Woman in a showgirl's outfit
Lotte Lenya / Saul Bolasni /  c. 1954 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Gift of Lee Boltin

As an actress and chanteuse in Weimar-era Berlin, Lotte Lenya immortalized the music of her husband, composer Kurt Weill, with enthralling renditions of songs such as "Mack the Knife." Decades later, she relived that chapter of her life while appearing as Fräulein Schneider in the Broadway musical Cabaret (1966). Fans of James Bond movies know her as the sadistic Rosa Klebb in the film From Russia with Love (1963).

Lenya's life story is as dramatic as any role she played on stage or screen. Born Karoline Blamauer in Vienna in 1898, she left Austria at the age of sixteen after drifting into a lifestyle of casual prostitution. For the next seven years, she pursued a career as a dancer, studying classical ballet and Dalcroze eurhythmics in Switzerland. In 1921 she relocated to Berlin, changed her name, and reinvented herself as an actress. While performing in Twelfth Night with a traveling German-language Shakespeare company, she came to the attention of the Expressionist playwright Georg Kaiser, who hired her as a nanny and housekeeper. Among the guests visiting Kaiser's suburban home was the young composer Kurt Weill, who met Lenya and instantly fell for her vivacious charm. They were married in 1926.

It was Weill's cynical social satire The Threepenny Opera, co-created with Berthold Brecht in 1928, that finally brought Lenya the acclaim she had been seeking. In the role of the prostitute Jenny, she made the most of her rough-edged voice and her capacity to convey raw vulnerability beneath a veneer of street-smart toughness. After mesmerizing Berlin theater audiences, Lenya reprised the role for G.W. Pabst's 1931 film of the play. She went on to perform in many other stage productions while also singing Weill's music for recording.

The Nazis' rise to power cut short Lenya's German career. Fleeing the country in 1933, she and Weill eventually settled in New York, where she became an American citizen ten years later. When her career stalled, she dedicated herself to preserving and promoting Weill's musical legacy. In 1950 the composer and librettist Marc Blitzstein serenaded Lenya over the telephone with his English translation of her Threepenny theme song, "Pirate Jenny." She subsequently sang Blitzstein's version in a 1952 concert featuring the play's score, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Two years later, she was offered the role of Jenny in an off-Broadway production with lyrics by Blitzstein. Self-conscious about playing the part at the age of fifty-six, Lenya hesitated but eventually agreed. The production proved an enormous success, running for 2,611 performances. Although off-Broadway shows were ineligible for Tony Awards, an exception was made for Lenya, who won Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.

The show's costume designer, Saul Bolasni, painted Lenya in her signature role. Now in the National Portrait Gallery, his painting provides a vivid impression of the searing intensity Lenya brought to her performances as Jenny. To suggest the heady decadence of Weimar-era Berlin, Bolasni adopted a lurid purple and gold color scheme. He gave Lenya herself a startling appearance by exaggerating the angularity of her facial features and the length of her taut fingers. Fixing the viewer with a piercing, suspicious gaze, she appears to entirely inhabit her character, investing Jenny with some of the harscrabble intelligence that Lenya had earned through her eventful life.

Bolasni's portrait was reproduced on the cover of the record album Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill, released in Germany in 1955. During a visit to Hamburg the following year, Lenya expressed to Bolasni the pleasure of seeing her portrait in shop windows, even though it brought back painful memories of posing for him. "Looking at it, my fanny starts hurting all over again from sitting in that chair," she wrote with characteristic irreverence. "But it was worth it."