An American heiress who left behind a life of privilege to study medicine in Vienna at a time when that was still unusual for women; study psychoanalysis in Freud’s inner circle; and become a Resistance fighter who saved countless Jews and anti-Fascists during World War II, Muriel Gardner is a fascinating subject for a biography. She may have been the woman, as Isenberg claims — as had others before her, including writer Mary McCarthy — who inspired the title character in the film “Julia,” even though playwright Lillian Hellman denied it.
Unfortunately, Muriel Gardiner doesn’t come to life as vividly as the many men the beautiful Gardiner had affairs with — including her lover and later husband, Josef Buttinger, who was the head of the Revolutionary Socialists in Austria, and the poet Stephen Spender.
Although these relationships are probably overemphasized, they do provide the spark that might better have derived from the dangerous rescue work in which Gardiner was engaged and from her daring and rebellious nature. As Hellman sensed, there’s a great story to be told.
Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance journalist and arts previewer/reviewer, as well as sometime playwright based in Harrisburg, PA.