The real Tadzio - Book review

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Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' and the boy who inspired it.
Book Review of The Real Tadzio
By: Gilbert Adair


From the day on that I was fascinated by the movie Death in Venice, which had just been released when I was twenty, I started to look for background information.

It was not exactly a crowd puller. To the average cinema-goer it must have been far too slow, too tedious and uncomprehensible. But to a boylover like me it came as a bomb shell. Thomas Mann's novella Der Tod in Venedig, which was first published in 1913, made the same enchanting impression on me as the movie had done before. I assumed that Mann was not a homosexual, because in the book the relation between Aschenbach and Tadzio had been strongly symbolized. Stories about Visconti that friends of mine told me ("he's gay", "he's bi", "he's a boylover") were never confirmed. So I took it for granted that both Visconti and Mann were excellent judges of human character, because they could even understand what a man and a boy may feel for each other.

Only much later I found out that Mann had been a married homosexual and had to keep up an enormous reputation ('one of Germany's greatest writers'). Visconti was never known as a gay or bisexual person on to this very day.

I did not learn much more about the movie. There was no news about Bjorn Andresen, the perfect classic beauty. He lived somewhere up in the north. There was no magazine that showed a photograph of his extraordinary handsome face that became prey to time. Thus, what I regarded one of the best movies of all times was shrouded in mystery and mysticism, while every detail about the most common blockbusters was revealed. Oh yes, I once found a book in English in a second-hand bookshop about Visconti's oeuvre that contained a (negative!) review of DIV, but also a splendid still from the movie. And in a cinema magazine I saw a small article one day about the movie Bluff stop from 1977, with Bjorn Andresen in the leading role (the author noticed that Bjorn's beauty had strongly declined). Later I got hold of an autobiography of Dirk Bogarde and a biography of Visconti both of which had more information about the production process of the film. But that was all.

For at least twenty years I asked myself what had become of Bjorn Andresen. Was he still alive? Was he still an actor? Eventually he was one of my favourite actors. But I had to resign myself to the fact that not any television producer took the initiative to pay attention to the now historical movie and its actors. Bjorn Andresen was just as great a mystery as his once so beautiful fellow countrywoman Greta Garbo.

In the year 2000 I got new hope. On the internet I discovered a photograph of Bjorn at an older age (about 28), with long hair and seriously looking. His bio read that he was a married man, had lost a child in 1983 and had made at least 6 films for Swedish television.

At the end of 2001 German television presented a series about Thomas Mann, which revealed that in 1933 he had fallen in love with the young, good-looking Klaus Heuser, a love that was requited. In his diary Mann wrote that this friendship meant more to him than his marriage and his family.

Soon after that the BBC broadcasted a documentary about Dirk Bogarde with unique shots of the making of DIV and... with 46-year old Bjorn Andresen who told among other things that in those day he had to do a lot of explaining because of the homo-erotical contents of the movie.

As if this all was not enough, the book The Real Tadzio was published recently. It is written by Gilbert Adair, author of Love and Death on Long Island, which had been made into a film in 1996 and has the same theme as DIV.

2. Adzio Moes

Gilbert Adair is not a reader-friendly writer. Just like Thomas Mann he prefers to use difficult words when easy ones are at hand and you have to read his long sentences twice to understand them. What he writes is captivating all the same.

In May 1911 Thomas Mann was fretting over head-, stomach- and tooth-aches and decided to take a holiday in the sun with his wife Katia and his brother Heinrich. There, on the island of Brioni, off the Dalmatian coast, the weather appeared to be cold and cheerless. They headed for Venice. At Pola they bought passage on a steamer, aboard which they were amused to witness the antics of an elderly queen, who had a crudely dyed moustache and grotesquely rouged cheeks. He was in the company of some boisterous clerks.

The Manns had transferred their luggage to a gondola which would take them to the Lido. But their gondolier proved to be a surly, incommunicative fellow, who, although he steered them skillfully enough, proved reluctant to stay around to collect his fare when they disembarked. It turned out that, having his licence revoked, he had been alarmed by the presence on the pier of a cluster of harbour policemen.

Eventually, however, the three were installed in the Grand Hotel des Bains. On their first evening there Thomas's attention was drawn to a nearby Polish family, which consisted of three daughters and one very young son. Amazingly, this sailor-suited ephebe of near-supernatural physical beauty and grace was the very image of a boy Mann had invented six months earlier for a new story. He had given him the name Johnny Bishop. This boy was to become the object of lust of a mature, ageing artist.

The name of the Polish boy was Wladyslaw (Adzio) Moes (this last name is of Dutch origin). He came from a wealthy textile family and was born on 17 November 1900, so he was only ten when Mann saw him for the first time. A picture in the book shows a boy with a good-looking, though rather plump face.

From the very start of his life, Adzio was singled out for special treatment. He had a punctured lung and was in consequence a frail child. (In the book Aschenbach, noting that Tadzio's teeth were imperfect, conjectures that 'he will most likely not live to grow old'). So he alone of the family was allowed to sleep himself out in the morning and breakfast when it pleased him. It was, in fact, on account of that hole in his lung, and the recommendation of a Viennese specialist that what the boy needed most was sea breezes and the company of playmates his own age, that the Moeses had elected to summer in Venice.

Adzio was not at all unresponsive to the privileges of beauty and, from an early age, became accustomed to being a focus of attention. The fishermen were permitted by his family to take him out unchaperoned on their boats. He had discovered, probably from his mother's precedent, the gratifying effect of delaying one's appearance in a public place. One evening he was eager to show off the company in the Hotel des Bains a pair of shiny new shoes. He patiently held back until the other guests had taken their seats. Then, he all but goose-stepped down the central staircase into the dining room. Did everyone see me? he excitedly questioned his nurse. "Was everyone watching?" Someone certainly was.

In his later years Adzio vividly recalled an 'old man' (Mann was 36 then) staring at him wherever he went. He was, he recalled, at the receiving end of an especially intent gaze from his admirer, when they had the occasion to take the hotel lift together. "It's just another gentleman who likes me," he would assure his nurse, and no one appears to have thought it worth advising him to steer altogether clear of 'old men' and of Thomas Mann.

Yet even if his mother would repeatedly tell him, "Yes, you're good-looking, but it isn't you who have made yourself so... so there's no reason for you to be so proud of it," Wladyslaw Moes remained something of a dandy to the end of his life.

One does experience a certain slight sense of anticlimax when photographs of Bjorn Andresen are juxtaposed with those of Adzio Moes. Adair explains this by the fact that the human body never, in a sense, stands still. From one century to the next legs have grown longer and slimmer, just as skirts have done, busts have grown ample, blouses following suit. Back and forth, back and forth, the pendulum never stops swinging. Everyone appears to get sexier in proportion as we draw closer to our own era. Human beauty not only ages, but dates. It is safe to predict that the consensual cooing over Bjorn's own comeliness (when Visconti's film was released, he was dubbed 'the most beautiful boy in the world') will strike our descendants as hardly less inexplicable an aberration on our own generation's part as we at present regard Mann's infatuation.

An interesting subject. It is sad, though, that Adair does not refer to the power of love that makes people beautiful and he seems to forget that beauty is a subjective matter. I can imagine that certain people are indifferent to Bjorn Andresen's appearance, simply because they do not like curls.

Jas (Jasjo) was to be Adzio's playmate. Their mothers were acquainted and the families had planned to make contact on the Lido. Panicked by a cholera alarm, the Manns hastily quit Venice only a week after their arrival.

Back home Thomas at once began to work on DIV; Adzio started to attend a boarding school. Graduating in 1918, he was therefore obliged to do his military service just as World War I ended. Later he became a farmer, with a great social feeling for his employees. An extended biography of Wladyslaw Moes is in the book.

In the seventies Wladyslaw saw DIV and was amazed to hear his own family name 'Moes' pronounced perfectly audibly on the soundtrack (in the scene in which Aschenbach enquires of the hotel receptionist whose luggage it is that he sees waiting). He mused aloud in one of his letters to Jas whether he ought to consult a lawyer on the matter of potential compensation. Visconti had never obtained Wladyslaw's blessing on the project. Adzio did grow old. He died in 1986.

3. Bjorn Andresen

For any spectator of the short movie In search of Tadzio there is instantly no doubt at all, when Andresen bashfully steps forward in the classroom of a Swedish highschool, that the quest is over. Who is Bjorn Andresen? He was born 26 Januari 1955, out of wedlock, and was never thereafter to learn the identity of his father. In the year of his birth, his mother married a Norwegian businessman whom she divorced only four years after. Then, in 1965, she disappeared and was later discovered to have committed suicide. Bjorn was raised by his grandparents. After his role in DIV, for which he was paid five thousend dollars and with which he at once bought an electric piano (according to Dirk Bogarde it was an electric guitar), his career as a boy actor was calamitously mismanaged by his agent.

Like many boys his age he had aspirations of founding a rock band. Later, as a classically trained musician, he was responsible for the musical arrangements of a Swedish stage production of The Rocky Horror Show and he himself played John Lennon in a short-lived show about The Beatles. But nothing worked for him, and he had become a virtual has-been by his early twenties.

Nor did he have much luck in his private life. He lost one of his children. A happy marriage broke up. When last heard of, his personal circumstances had got back on track and he had been reunited with his wife and daughter.

To a British journalist, who interviewed him when he was in his twenties, he said, "I can't wait to age. I was born with a face I did not ask for."

I don't think the vain Adzio would have ever said something like that! Bjorn added, "One of the diseases of the world is that we associate beauty with youth. We are wrong. The eyes and the face are the windows of the soul and these become more beautiful with the age and pain that life brings. True ugliness comes only from having a black heart."

4. 'Death in Venice' a gay bible?

Adair states that DIV increasingly became 'the paradigmatic master-text of homosexual eroticism'. The works of André Gide, Proust, Cocteau, Genet, Forster, Isherwood, Gore Vidal and Mishima cannot compare with DIV, because they did not write a book that is at the pinnacle of gay literature, or as Adair defines it: 'of homotextuality'. This could become the subject of another essay. I only want to observe that Adair does not seem to be aware of the fact that not all homosexual lovers of literature like Thomas Mann and will certainly disagree with Adair. Many a modern, sensible reader will raise his eyebrows at the final episode of DIV, as the old and wise Aschenbach has completely fallen under the spell of a 14-year old boy.

Then Adair gives us some information about the history of homosexuality. In the 19th and 20th century homosexuals left their northern homelands for several reasons: because of the climate, because of the severe laws, because young male Italians were said to attain sexual maturity three or four years earlier than boys further north, and so on. Of course, Italy also had a history of institutionalised pedophilia. Nowadays many boylovers go further southwards, to Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines.

According to Adair the significance of DIV is that it constituted an ironic critique on European homosexuals using the neoclassical mythology to sublimate their sexual nature. In DIV Zeus had been exposed at last for what he always had been: a dirty old man.

I would like to agree with Bjorn Andresen's words and add that everything in life is transient, except the beauty of one's soul. DIV is a movie about transitoriness, The Real Tadzio is a book about the beauty of the soul.

The Real Tadzio, Gilbert Adair, 2001
EUR 9,95

source: Book review 'The Real Tadzio'; Translated from Dutch; OK Magazine, no. 82; November 2002