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1898 - 1921

Escape from the Slums

Karoline Blamauer, a talented, intelligent child born into grinding poverty in turn-of-the-century Vienna, moves to Zurich and is trained as a dancer and actor. In 1921, she moves on to Berlin to launch her career.

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Read Text-Only Chronology


  • 18 October

    Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer born in Vienna, Austria

    Her father is a coachman and her mother a laundress; the family lives in poverty. 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.

    • Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer (Lotte Lenya) at age three

    • Lenya's mother, Johanna Teuschl Blamauer, ca. 1915

    • Lenya's father, Franz Blamauer, ca. 1900


  • The Blamauer family moves to a different address in the same district; Karoline begins performing with a small local circus troupe

    The owner/managers see that she is curious and invite her to join. She learns to stand on her head and walk a tightrope.


  • Begins Volksschule (elementary school)


  • Transfers to a school for gifted children in a neighboring district


  • Begins Bürgerschule (middle school)


  • Spring

    Graduates from middle school and begins an apprenticeship in a hat factory

  • September

    Travels to Zurich for what is supposed to be a short visit with her mother’s sister Sophie

    Soon Sophie arranges for her to move in with the Ehrenzweig family as a maid. Karoline begins taking ballet lessons at the Stadttheater (Municipal Theater). Lenya’s mother, who arranges 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.”

    • Shortly after arriving in Zurich, 1913

    • In the corps de ballet, 1916

    • Lenya in Zurich, 1916


  • 6 May

    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.

  • 31 August

    Returns to Zurich shortly after World War I breaks out and moves back in to the Ehrenzweig household

  • Autumn

    Formally hired as a ballet apprentice at the Municipal Theater

    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.


  • Early

    Moves in with her best friend, fellow ballet apprentice Greta Edelmann, and her family


  • 6 February

    After three years as an apprentice, signs contract as full member of the corps de ballet

    • In costume, en pointe

    • First page of the contract

    • Ballet students at the Zurich Schauspielhaus; Lenya is to the far right

  • October

    Becomes the mistress of a wealthy Czech who lives in Zurich and moves in with him


  • February

    Leaves paramour and returns to the Edelmann household

  • 27 September

    Plays a small role in Frank Wedekind’s Franziska at the Municipal Theater; Wedekind himself directs


  • 14 February

    Plays a small role in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Municipal Theater; Strauss himself conducts

  • Summer

    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.

    • Lenya (center), her mother, and her mother's second husband, Ernst Hainisch

  • Autumn

    Returns to Zurich and learns that a new ballet mistress, Fräulein 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.


  • 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

  • October

    Petrucci travels to Vienna and brings Maria Blamauer back to Zurich with him; she spends two months with Karoline


  • 23 March

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

  • 13 April

    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

    The order is appealed, and the deportation is never carried out. She continues to work at the theater through the 1920-21 season.

  • 1 September

    Listed in a program as Lotte Blamauer for the first time, playing Marthel in Gerhart Hauptmann’s Rose Bernd

    In later Zurich programs, she was listed sometimes as Karoline (or Caroline), sometimes as Lotte.

    • Pfauen-Theater program, 1 September 1920

    • Detail from 1 September program


  • Summer

    Learns that Richard Révy is planning to move to Berlin; she adopts the stage name Lotte Lenja (later spelled Lenya) around this time at Révy’s suggestion

  • 3 October

    Leaves Zurich with Greta Edelmann for Berlin; moves into a boarding house in the Lützowstrasse

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