Skip To Content

1898-1921: Escape from the Slums

18 October 1898: Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer born at Linzerstrasse 87 in the Penzing district of Vienna, Austria. Her father, Franz Paul Blamauer, is a coachman and her mother, Johanna Teuschl Blamauer, a laundress; the family lives in poverty. She was the third child born to the Blamauers; the first, also named Karoline, had died. Three of Lenya’s siblings survive into adulthood: Franz (b. 1897), Maximilian (b. 1902), and Maria (b. 1906). Lenya’s father is a violent alcoholic who abuses Karoline often, while her mother does what she can to protect her.

1902: The Blamauer family moves to Ameisgasse 38 in the same district. Karoline begins performing with a small local circus troupe; she sings and dances with a tambourine and learns how to walk a tightrope.

1904: Begins Volksschule (elementary school), then moves to a different school after one year.

Ca. 1906: Transfers to a school for gifted children in Hietzing, a neighboring district that is more prosperous than Penzing.

1910: Begins Bürgerschule (middle school).

Spring 1913: Graduates from middle school and spends the summer working in the Ita hat factory in Vienna, in what is supposed to be the beginning of a four-year apprenticeship.

18 September 1913: Arrives in Zurich for what is supposed to be a short visit with her mother’s sister Sophie; she takes up residence with Sophie at Zeunerstrasse 7. Karoline begins taking ballet lessons with Steffi Herzeg, the ballet mistress at the Stadttheater (Municipal Theater). Soon Sophie arranges for her to move to Kreuzstrasse 10 as a live-in maid with the family of theatrical photographer Alexander Ehrenzweig. Lenya’s mother, who has arranged the trip at Sophie’s invitation, tells her daughter as she departs, “Be smart, Linnerl, and don’t come back if you can help it.”

6 May 1914: Returns to Vienna at her aunt’s urging, where she learns that her mother has left her father. Her aunt tells her not to come back, but her mother promises to raise money for the return ticket to Zurich. World War I begins on 3 August 1914. Unable to travel without a contract from the Zurich Stadttheater, she writes a frantic letter to the Intendant, Alfred Reucker, who provides it.

31 August 1914: Returns to Zurich shortly after World War I breaks out and moves back into the Ehrenzweig household.

Autumn 1914: Formally hired as a ballet apprentice at the Municipal Theater, at a salary of 60 francs per month. A few months later Richard Révy, one of the stage directors, accepts her as an acting student. She begins taking small roles in plays and operettas during the 1914-15 season; over the next few seasons, she is given minor, non-singing roles in operas as well.

1914-1915 season: Appears in small roles in the following works: Zurich Pfauen Theater: Kehm and Frehsee’s Als ich noch im Flügelkleide (Jettchen Uenzen), Hermann’s Jettchen Gebert (Rosalie Jacoby; her first performance under Révy’s direction), Suppé’s Fatinitza (Gregor).

Early 1915: Moves in with her best friend, fellow ballet apprentice Greta Edelmann, and her family.

1915-1916 season: Appears in small roles in the following works: Pfauen Theater: Als ich noch im Flügelkleide (Jettchen Uenzen), Anzengruber’s Der G’wissenswurm (Annemirl).
Stadttheater: Will’s Dornröschen, Vorspiel only (Immergrün), Als ich noch im Flügelkleide (Jettchen Uenzen), Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe (Margot), R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (hairdresser’s assistant).

6 February 1916: Signs contract as full member of the corps de ballet, at a salary of 160 francs per month. Her salary increases every year thereafter.

1916-1917 season: Appears in small roles in the following works:
Pfauen Theater: Blumenthal and Kadelburg’s Im weissen Rössl (Mirzl), Friedmann-Friedrich’s Logierbesuch (Rosie).
Stadttheater: Weinberger’s Drei arme Teufel (erstes Mädchen), Fall’s Der Waltenbummler (erste Freundin), Blumenthal and Kadelburg’s Im weissen Rössl (Mirzl).

October 1916: Becomes the mistress of a wealthy Czech who lives in Zurich and moves in with him in Kilchberg, Switzerland.

February 1917: Leaves paramour and returns to the Edelmann household.

9 March 1917: Appears in a Tanzabend (Dance Evening) at the Pfauen Theater, dancing to J. Strauss’s “Leichtes Blut,” Gounod’s “Bacchanale,” Lanner’s “‘D’Schönbrunner’ Walzer,” an ensemble number, and several “National-Tänze.”

1917-1918 season: Appears in small roles in the following works: Pfauen Theater: Shaw’s Cäsar und Cleopatra (Iras), Blümner’s (adapted from Aristophanes) Krieg und Frieden (Megarer’s daughter), Bahr’s Das Konzert (Selma Maier), Wedekind’s Der Kammersänger (ein Listjunge).
Stadttheater: Lehár’s Der Sterngucker (Mizzi), Stolz’s Lang, lang ist’s her (Lauserl), Offenbach’s Blaubart (third page).

11 September 1917: Appears in a Tanzabend at the Pfauen Theater, dancing to Roswitsch’s “Russischer Nationaltanz” and J. Strauss’s “Kaiserwalzer.”

27 September 1917: Plays a small role in Frank Wedekind’s Franziska at the Municipal Theater; Wedekind himself directs.

14 February 1918: Plays a small role in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Municipal Theater; Strauss himself conducts.

Spring 1918: With Greta Edelmann, becomes embroiled in a contract dispute with the Stadttheater. Despite the qualms of some members of the theater management, their contracts are renewed for the 1918-1919 season.

2 July 1918: Performs in a Tanzabend at the Pfauen Theater, dancing to Brahms’s Dance in F-sharp minor and a Strauss waltz.

Summer 1918: Visits her family in Vienna for the first time since 1914. Karoline’s mother has a new husband, Ernst Hainisch. Karoline is shocked to see the effects of the war in Vienna after several years in prosperous Zurich.

Autumn 1918: Returns to Zurich and learns that a new ballet mistress, Ingeborg Ruvina, has been hired. Ruvina is trained in the Dalcroze Method, which Karoline prefers to traditional ballet, but it soon becomes clear that they do not get along.

4 September 1918
Dances in the second act of J. Strauss’s Die Fledermaus in the Stadttheater. She dances with three others, including her teacher and her friend Greta Edelmann, to “An der schönen blauen Donau.”

1918-1919 season: Appears in small roles in the following works: Pfauen Theater: Fulda’s Die verlorene Tochter (Margot Straub), Jettchen Gebert (Rosalie Jacoby), Im weissen Rössl (Resi), Kornfeld’s Die Verführung (Dancer), Auernheimer’s Die grosse Leidenschaft (Emilie), Cäsar und Cleopatra (Iras), Faesi’s Die Fassade (Lady), Schnitzler’s Das weite Land (a Frenchwoman).
Stadttheater: Lehár’s Wo die Lerche singt (Juleza), J. Strauss’s Der Zigeunerbaron (Sepl), Hermann’s Der gestiefelte Kater (rescued child), Fall’s Die Rose von Stambul (Fatme), Cäsar und Cleopatra (Iras).

1919: Moves to Pension Griese at Dufourstrasse 177. She has previously been living with a Swiss sculptor named Mario Petrucci, and apparently moves to avoid scandal. At some point during 1919, Karoline becomes pregnant and has an abortion in Geneva.

22 January 1919: Opens as Lisiska in Frank Wedekind’s Tod und Teufel in the Pfauen Theater, directed by Wedekind.

8 May 1919: Opens as Minna in Kurt Götz’s Nachtbeleuchtung at the Pfauen Theater, directed by Richard Révy.

1919-1920 season: Appears in small roles in the following works: Pfauen Theater: Frank and Geyer’s Ein reizender Mensch (Monika), Strindberg’s Kamaraden (Therese), Rivoire and Besnard’s Mein Freund Teddy (Francine), Gordon and Götz’s Die Rutschbahn (young lady), Anzengruber’s Der Meineidbauer (Crescenz), Kaiser’s Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (first daughter), Tolstoy’s Der lebende Leichnam (Sascha), Enderlin’s Die Fräulein von Saint-Cyr (Marie von Havrincourt), Die verlorene Tochter (Margot Straub), Tod und Teufel (Lisiska).
Stadttheater: Offenbach’s Die schöne Helena (Leaena), Schubert’s Hannerl (Frau Dussek), Lehár’s Eva (Schischi), Ascher’s Der Künstlerpreis (Mila), Der Meineidbauer (Crescenz), Eysler’s Ein Tag im Paradies (Baroness Traxler), Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent (von Richthofen), Mein Freund Teddy (Francine).

October 1919: Petrucci travels to Vienna and brings Maria Blamauer back to Zurich with him; she spends two months with Karoline followed by two months at a rest home in the Alps, returning to Vienna in January 1920.

3 February 1920: Appears in a Tanzabend at the Pfauen Theater, dancing in the following works: “Miniaturen,” “Grillen,” “Der Tag,” “Danse,” and two ensemble numbers.

13 March 1920: Dances in the third act of Nedbal’s Polenblut at the Stadttheater, performing “Krakoviac” with fellow ballerinas Greta Edelmann and Nina Zutter.

23 March 1920: With Greta Edelmann and Nina Zutter, files a complaint against Ruvina, accusing her of chronic lateness to rehearsals, discourtesy, and favoritism.

13 April 1920: After several meetings, Ruvina is mildly reprimanded by the theater, but Karoline undergoes police investigations into her sex life, culminating in an order of deportation issued by the Zurich police on 26 June. According to the order, the grounds for deportation are failure to pay full taxes and an immoral lifestyle, which includes living in “concubinage” with Mario Petrucci. The order is appealed, and the Stadttheater’s Employees’ Council, which includes Richard Révy, springs to her defense. The appeal continues for several months and causes a great deal of conflict within the ballet company and between the theater and the city government. The deportation is never carried out; Karoline continues to work at the theater through the 1920-21 season.

23 April 1920: Appears in a dance recital program featuring Bizet’s Djamileh at the Stadttheater. She dances in Dalcroze’s “Der Tag” and two ensemble numbers.

1 September 1920: Listed in a program as Lotte Blamauer for the first time, playing Marthel in Gerhart Hauptmann’s Rose Bernd at the Pfauen Theater. In later Zurich programs, she was listed sometimes as Karoline (or Caroline), sometimes as Lotte.

1920-1921 season: Appears in small roles in the following works: Pfauen Theater: Als ich noch im Flügelkleide (Wilhelmine Müller), Wedekind’s Lulu (Hugenberg), Tagore’s Das Postamt (Ludha), O. Straus’s Der letzte Walzer (Petruschka), Büchner’s Wozzek (Käthe), Shakespeare’s König Heinrich IV (Franz), Shakespeare’s König Heinrich V (Boy).
Stadttheater: Fatinitza (Dimitri and Zuleika), Jessel’s Schwarzwaldmädel (Lorle), Rose Bernd (Marthel), Der letzte Walzer (Petruschka).

June 1921: Stays in Flims, Switzerland (about 50 miles southeast of Zurich).

Summer 1921: Learns that Richard Révy is planning to move to Berlin. She adopts the stage name Lotte Lenya around this time at Révy’s suggestion. “Lotte” comes from one of her given names, Charlotte. The origin of “Lenja” is not so clear, but it is probably invented by Révy, based on the character Jelena in Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Her nickname for Révy is “Vanya.”

3 October 1921: Leaves Zurich with Greta Edelmann for Berlin; moves into a boarding house in the Lützowstrasse.


Up Next: A Career Is Born (1922 – 1932)

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.