Most of us have listened to Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife” about a gazillion times, but how many of us know anything about the mysterious ‘Lotte Lenya’ mentioned in the song? Turns out she was not only the composer’s muse, but also a well-known entertainer with a long career that stretched all the way from European ballet to Broadway’s Cabaret to a classic role as a James Bond villain with a poisonous kick.
Born in Vienna as Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer, she moved to Switzerland as a teenager just about the time World War I was getting underway. Devoting herself to the study of ballet, singing, and acting, she eventually began to appear on stage, calling herself Lotte Lenya. Her new name stayed with her a few years later, when she moved to tumultuous post-war Berlin.
The young entertainer began to find some success singing and acting, but the key moment in her career — and maybe in her life — came in 1923 when she met composer Kurt Weill. Over the next decade, she not only married him but also performed a lot of his music, including “Mack The Knife” in his stage show, The Three Penny Opera. (Rare German recordings can be found on youtube.)
Eventually the rise of Nazi power and the persecution of Jews impelled Weill to emigrate to America. The couples’ marriage also ended — it had been on the rocks for a while — and Lenya moved back to Austria for a couple of years. Later she too relocated to America, where she eventually remarried Weill and resumed working with him until his death in 1950.
Lotte Lenya would outlive Weill by three decades — and collect three more husbands along the way — but even though her career often took odd detours (such as her memorable role as Bond nemesis Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love), she always honored his memory. She often performed on stage in his shows and also recorded songs he’d written, such as “September Song.” She was still working to pass on his legacy when she died in 1981 at age 83.