In Brideshead Revisited the most potent symbol of Sebastian Flyte’s downfall is his relationship with the dissolute young German, Kurt. Kurt,permanently drunk and with a hideously infected foot, is a scrounger of the first order and a man so useless that he is dependent on the fragile (and slowly dying) Sebastian for everything. It is a hostile portrayal – Kurt is allowed no humanity, his purpose is simply to show the agonies that Sebastian has to undergo. Kurt is of course both foreign and of non-aristocratic background and Waugh, so precise in his depictions of the well-born, can only make the unworthy Kurt a grotesque, undeserving of our (and Sebastian’s) attention.
Kurt in the ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited
Though Flyte is apparently based on the Hon. Hugh Lygon, the incongruous friendship (to Waugh,at least) between a fading but gentle aristocrat and a German of no merit or breeding is obviously inspired by Brian Howard’s ten year long affair with Anton Altmann – known only as Toni in reminiscences such as “Portrait Of A Failure”. When Toni attended Elvira’s party that relationship was just beginning and although he has little to add to our knowledge of the case his witness statement is not without interest, not least because it is a rare example of Toni speaking in the first person, rather than existing simply as an anecdotal decoration to the more alluring story of Howard’s own downward spiral.
Altmann states that he had arrived in England in January 1932 and was living with Howard at 39 Maddox Street. He was in the country to improve his English and was a German citizen. He first met Elvira at a “Casanova” party that he attended with Sylvia Coke. The “Casanova” party was probably not yet another Bright Young fancy-dress affair, but a party given by performers in the musical “Casanova”. Denys Skeffington-Smyth was in it and, I think, one or two others of Elvira’s set. Either Denys or Terence Skeffington-Smyth are the most likely hosts.
Altmann met Michael Scott Stephen just once, at the May 30th cocktail party at William Mews. Rather sadly, he describes himself as sitting alone throughout the party ( his English was not up to it) and then leaving with Sylvia Coke and Brian to dine and then on to a “party somewhere” (in fact, Ruth Baldwin’s at 5 Mulberry Walk). He left that gathering at 1.30 am and went straight home. Howard departed at the same time but with David Plunket Greene – was Toni not yet deemed good enough to socialise with Howard’s old Eton/Oxford circle? Whatever the case, one can’t help feeling that Toni is a bit lost in London and very aware of his outsider status.
This period marked the beginning of a long partnership between Howard and Altmann . We have no real clue as to Toni’s feelings about the affair but we do know that although there was much conflict (often drink and drug related) there was real affection on Brian Howard’s part towards the young German. Altmann was bisexual rather than exclusively homosexual and Howard’s diaries and letters display some anxiety over that issue. Nonetheless they travelled Europe and North Africa together – meeting some of Elvira’s set (Barbara Ker-Seymer, for instance) and striking up friendships with Christopher Isherwood and Klaus and Erica Mann. Howard undoubtedly paid all the bills but Altmann should not be written off simply as a gigolo or glorified rent-boy.
The relationship was ended by the War. In late 1939, Howard was in London and news came that Altmann had been interred as an enemy alien in France. Strings were pulled and Altmann fled first to Tangiers and then to the United States. Another of the Ruth Baldwin/Elvira set found him work there. This was Marty Mann, now a recovering alcoholic, who employed him as warden at her recuperation home for other alcoholics. Given Altmann’s fondness for hard liquor, this seems more to with loyalty and old friendships than sound business sense. Some time towards the end of the war Altmann married a wealthy American woman (one of Mann’s clients?) and disappears into normality. Brian Howard never quite recovered from the loss and his much commented-on air of aloneness increased noticeably in the following years.
When Altmann stayed at 39a its reputation was at its most wild – mushrooms growing up the stairs, no locks on the doors, an incessant coming and going of, mostly drunken, Bohemians and hangers-on.What the young German made of this introduction to English society is unfortunately not recorded.
Oddly enough,39 Maddox Street had another and more sinister German connection in the same decade when in 1936 the DAF , the Nazi Trade Union organisation, set up its offices there. Although nominally concerned with the well-being of German workers in England it was widely regarded as a Spy Centre. By this time Howard was one of the more outspoken voices against Hitler – his knowledge of Germany gained through his travels there with Toni allowing him to pronounce on the subject with greater authority than most.