The magnificent life of anti-Nazi heiress Muriel Gardiner, the most thrilling person you’ve never heard of

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Muriel Gardiner’s Italian driving license  (©Connie Harvey, courtesy of Freud Museum London)
Muriel Gardiner’s Italian driving license (©Connie Harvey, courtesy of Freud Museum London)

Muriel Gardiner might be the most thrilling person you’ve never heard of. She was born an heiress in Chicago in 1901, but her life was far from fur stoles and taking taxis everywhere. Instead, she became an undercover resistance fighter, working against the Nazi regime in Vienna, before training as a psychoanalyst. She later formed a friendship with Freud’s most famous patient, the so-called ‘Wolf Man’, and eventually helped found (and fund) the Freud Museum... phew.

A new exhibition at the museum, Code Name Mary (so-called because of her secret resistance alias), will bring her story to a whole new audience. Opening this weekend it will uncover the extraordinary lengths that Gardiner went to in order to protect her comrades and fugitives from the Nazis, but also reveal a woman who was determined to use her wealth for good throughout her life. But where to begin with a woman who did so much?

Carol Siegel, the director of the Freud Museum, says it’s a question she’s grappled with often while putting the exhibition together. “It does feel as if there are all these different facets to her life, but I think the key is really fighting against fascism in the 1930s and becoming a resistance worker,” she says. “That’s evidence of her being that very unusual person who genuinely wants to do good and help people, without there really being any personal benefit to herself at all, and putting herself in danger.”

Muriel Gardiner, 1920s (©Connie Harvey. Image courtesy Freud Museum London)
Muriel Gardiner, 1920s (©Connie Harvey. Image courtesy Freud Museum London)

Gardiner came to Vienna in the 1930s, just as Hitler was rising to power, in pursuit of Sigmund Freud. She wanted to be analysed by him, but ended up in analysis with a colleague of his instead. In the event, she only met Freud once – he invited her to tea – but he had a profound impact on her life and career, and she had an enduring friendship with his daughter and child psychology expert, Anna Freud, until the latter’s death. It was the money from Gardiner’s foundation that enabled Freud’s Hampstead home to be turned into the museum, and subsequently finance it for many years. The exhibition, says Siegel, is a way of saying thank you.

While in Vienna, Gardiner began studying medicine, had a brief failed marriage to a British musician and had a daughter, Connie. Before she met her second husband, socialist and anti-fascist Joseph Buttinger, she had an affair with the poet Stephen Spender. Meanwhile, she was tracking down passports and smuggling money to help people escape from the Nazis, as well as offering her cottage in Vienna as a safe house.

Muriel Gardiner’s cottage in the Vienna Woods, 1930s (© Connie Harvey. Image courtesy Freud Museum London)
Muriel Gardiner’s cottage in the Vienna Woods, 1930s (© Connie Harvey. Image courtesy Freud Museum London)

Siegel believes that Gardiner’s background was part of what inspired her to take great risks to help people. Both her parents were from families that owned big meat-packing firms – Morris & Company and Swift & Company. Initially, as a young person, she hated her family’s wealth, finding it unfair – but later she realised what it would allow her to do for others. “I think she did have this real, passionate belief in freedom, fighting repression and dictatorships and people being treated unfairly. Although she was born into a very wealthy family, she always had this sense of social justice. I think the fact she chose to act on that is really the heart of her story,” she says.

What a life. But if she was so fascinating, why hasn’t there been a film about her? In fact, there has – and even that has a gripping story of its own. The 1977 film Julia was based on a chapter from Lilian Hellman’s book Pentimento; Vanessa Redgrave won an Oscar for her performance in the eponymous role, as a woman who fights against the Nazis. Gardiner was made aware that the film bore an uncanny similarity to her own life story, but Hellman always claimed it was fictional and that she’d never met her (the fact that they shared a mutual friend in lawyer Wolf Schwabacher, a man who was aware of Gardiner’s resistance fighting past, has been widely noted). The incident encouraged Gardiner to finally write her own memoirs and own her story; Code Name Mary will be republished when the exhibition opens. As Gardiner’s editor put it: what were the chances that there were two American women who were millionaires, medical students AND anti-Nazi activists in Vienna in the 1930s?

Muriel Gardiner, c.1960 (© Connie Harvey. Image courtesy Freud Museum London)
Muriel Gardiner, c.1960 (© Connie Harvey. Image courtesy Freud Museum London)

Gardiner’s has stayed with Redgrave, regardless. In 2019, she included her as a character in her play, Vienna 1934 - Munich 1938. She will be at the Freud Museum on the exhibition’s opening weekend as part of a launch event, discussing why more of us should know about Gardiner’s life with Lord Alf Dubs, who was rescued by Nicholas Winton on the Kindertransport in 1939.

As Siegel says, stories like Gardiner’s and Winton’s and Oskar Schindler’s began as “important personal stories, but they didn’t necessarily become part of the wider consciousness.” That came later. If anything, Gardiner’s life is a reminder that, before Hollywood films and national treasure status are bestowed, history is made up of good people quietly doing good things, simply because they feel they must.

Code Name Mary is at the Freud Museum, 18 Sept 2021 to 23 Jan 2022; freud.org.uk

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