In this debut work of history, Frenkel explores a great European city through the collected photographs of his grandmother.
Clara Prinz came of age in La Belle Époque, the Beautiful Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period of peace during which the great cities of Europe buzzed with prosperity, innovation, and optimism for human society. Clara’s native Berlin was perhaps the grandest city of them all, the capital of an ascendant Kingdom of Prussia and a hub of modern ideas. Clara’s active life in the city and her memories of these times—documented in letters and postcards—captured Berlin at the height of its grandeur. “She preserved them in an album of autographed photographs,” writes the author, “featuring talented personalities who became the finest representatives of the era as they visited, lived and thrived in Berlin.” These luminaries include Mark Twain, Isadora Duncan, Richard Strauss, and Theodore Roosevelt. Using these postcards and photographs as his jumping-off point, Frenkel—the grandson of Clara, who came across her album during his genealogical research—tells the story of this lost epoch, which ended calamitously with the outbreak of the First World War. He vividly captures the story of old Berlin, a city that the Jewish Clara fled with her family in 1939 and which was almost completely destroyed by the bombs of World War II. The depth of the author’s research allows him to cover broad swaths of history while also re-creating specific scenes from Clara’s life with novelistic flair. Clara witnesses the great tenor Enrico Caruso singing to the students gathered outside his dressing room window: “To the astonishment of his faithful valet, Caruso raised his arms and began to sing the aria from the Friedrich von Flotow opera Martha. Suddenly, the crowd fell into silence to listen to the beautiful voice they had come to hear.” Re-creating the city through the eyes of a family that would one day have to flee from it adds an extra layer of poignancy to the work.
A tender, personality-centered biography of golden age Berlin.
This sweeping, beautifully written history, inspired by century-year-old autographed photographs of luminaries collected by Frenkel’s paternal grandmother, chronicles and imagines the life of Clara Prinz, a remarkable young woman who came of age during the La Belle Époque—the Beautiful Era—in Berlin at the dawn of the 20th century through the golden age of Weimar Republic, before the wars that would ravage Europe. Frenkel captures Clara’s milieu and this rare moment of peace with stunning detail and a vivid sense of the historical context, offering illuminating accounts of cafes and cabarets, operas and art, the wild print culture of a Berlin nicknamed Zeitungstadt (or “Newspaper City”), the world-changing impact of new telecommunications technology, and the headiness of a city and continent pulsing with art and ideas.
Clara stands before the Brandenburg Gate, contemplating history, architecture, and cultural progress, not knowing that within her lifetime the city will be divided by a wall—or that she and her family would have to leave, in 1939, amid the rise of fascism. But the novel’s about Clara’s era, and how her Berlin came to be, as Frenkel traces the historical currents that brought her into contact with notables of the age—the subjects of those postcards, and the book’s organizing principle. Among them are Mark Twain, Isabelle Duncan, and Richard Strauss, whose lives, work, and importance to Clara power the narrative. Included are the pictures and postcards from Clara's album, a peek into a history at its most personal. Fans of vividly evoked history, world and familial, with the texture of everyday life will be immersed into this rich account, while enjoying snapshots in time of a young woman’s encounters with the likes of Strauss—Clara, a pianist, is embarrassed she hadn’t recognized him earlier, from the posters around the city. (The chapter about Twain, as expected, is alive with good humor.) Clara’s Secret blends cultural and personal history to reveal something rare in both: not just life as it was lived, but how it got like that, and what it all meant.
Takeaway: Rich personal and cultural history of a young woman in Berlin’s Belle Epoque.
What's it About?
"Clara’s Secret" is a poignant family story seamlessly integrated into the larger history of the Belle Époque, following the author's grandmother, Clara, a Prussian Jewish woman, from adolescence to emigration. A grandmother’s album of photographs and postcards reveals the Belle Époque in Berlin — a time of unrivaled promise, peace, and prosperity — through the eyes of a young Prussian Jewish woman, as told by her grandson Stephan R. Frenkel in Clara’s Secret (LAEV). In 2016, Frenkel discovered an album of autographed pictures of celebrities from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries belonging to his paternal grandmother, Clara Prinz. Realizing Clara’s adolescence was shaped by the art, culture, and music of “the Beautiful Era,” Frenkel set out to chart her journey in the city of Berlin using the most famous personalities in her collection as a springboard into the past.
Coming-of-Age in a Flourishing Civilization
From 1901 to 1914, Europe experienced a civilizational flourishing in communication, culture, education, and technology across the capital cities of the Continent. Clara, born in 1890 Berlin, was in the prime of her adolescence during this “Promethean era” and came remarkably close to the “greatest talents of the world” as they visited the iconic Prussian capital. Eminent personalities like the American author Mark Twain, dance innovator Isadora Duncan, opera tenor Enrico Caruso, composer Richard Strauss and American President Theodore Roosevelt are only a few of those included in Clara’s album. Frenkel uses a creative nonfiction approach that mixes distilled chapters of history recounting Berlin’s transformation over the centuries with Clara as the center point around which the narrative revolves. The “primary entry” in her album of memories was Mark Twain, who visited Berlin in the 1890s and whose autographed postcard Clara’s mother received at one of his salon presentations. For each character, the author provides entertaining biographical sketches on their lives and accomplishments, as well as their experiences in Berlin. Clara was transfixed by the “evolutionary” dance of Isadore Duncan, who she saw perform at the New Royal Opera Theater in 1903. After the performance, Duncan gave personally autographed photographs of herself to Clara and a friend, who both treasured meeting the transformative artist. Clara found in Duncan’s free expression and provocative movements the encouragement to “dance freely to the sound of her own music.”
A Musician and Her Influences
Another visual memento of the brilliant era Clara grew up in was the autographed image of the tenor Enrico Caruso, who performed to a sold-out theater in 1906 Berlin. She was among a crowd of students who converged outside the Theater des Westens to get a glimpse of the famed opera performer. Frenkel recounts the magical moment when Caruso sang out the aria from the opera Martha from his dressing room window: “As she stood a short distance from the theater window, Clara was able to hear Caruso’s voice above the hushed crowd … It brought tears to her eyes [and] the moment would never be erased from her heart.” By 1907, the musically gifted Clara was a “consummate pianist” greatly influenced by the works of composer Richard Strauss, whom she spotted one day in a Berlin café. Along with the engaging stories of the postcard luminaries, Frenkel traces both the tangible and ethereal influences they had on his beloved grandmother. An accomplished pianist in her own right, Clara learned from Strauss “the dramatic power of music” and — as the dark curtain of National Socialism descended decades later —realized “when faced with human mortality, the immortality of music, no matter how beautiful or sensational, was eclipsed.”
Anti-Semitism and Forced Emigration
The rise of anti-Semitism across Germany eventually forced Clara’s emigration to the United States in 1939, painfully leaving behind her beloved Berlin, a city and culture she helped shape. Indeed less than two decades after the close of the La Belle Époque, Clara and many of those who contributed most to the development of Prussia, Germany, and Berlin would “lose their legal and human rights, and their long-earned respect.” In this way, Clara’s album became a treasured keepsake, something she could turn to for reassurance in troubling times as she “revisited the Beautiful Era of her adolescence, another place and time.” Clara’s Secret is a poignant family story seamlessly integrated into the larger history of the Belle Époque, following Clara from adolescence to emigration, “a time of beauty to a time of condemnation.” Well-researched and engaging, Frenkel’s tribute to Clara encourages readers to search for their own family stories in the never-ending cycle of history. A wonderfully composed portrayal that could be considered narrative Art Nouveau.
Imagine a time of peace and stability throughout Europe and the Americas, when a progressive modern age reached an apotheosis before World War was known to mankind. The Belle Époque, or Beautiful Era, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was such a time. Clara’s Secret is an engaging story of a young woman living through adolescence in Berlin as she and the imperial city experience a personal and cultural transformation as the Époque progressed. The Prussian capital became a pivotal city that was magnetic to the greatest personalities of the age. Mark Twain, Isadora Duncan, Enrico Caruso, Richard Strauss and Theodore Roosevelt are only a few of the celebrities who thrived in the great metropolis. Authors, artists, philanthropists, royalty and statesmen provide a multidimensional portrayal of this remarkable period. The setting is enlivened by dramatic events of the era.
A quarter century later, having survived World War I and on the threshold of World War II, Clara and members of her immediate family were individually forced to leave their city of origin. Traveling with only her memories, Clara’s odyssey into an uncertain future contrasted with the evolution of an emerging Berlin, offers a spellbinding account of past eras set against a tableau of unfolding tragedy.
Clara’s journey through the most wonderful years of her young life and the most terrifying years of her adult life provides a description of the most consequential periods of modern human existence. Her experiences trace the story of flourishing and deteriorating culture in the early twentieth century. Clara’s Secret is ultimately a provocative story of the advancement of mankind and the survival of its decline.
In 1939, Clara was forced to emigrate from her city of origin, Berlin, toward an uncertain destiny. As she journeyed alone, she searched for understanding in the history of the great metropolis and turned to her collection of memories from her adolescence at the dawn of the twentieth century. This was La Belle Époque—the Beautiful Era; an extraordinary age of optimism and one of the most dramatic transformations of culture. The Prussian capital became a pivotal city that was magnetic to the greatest personalities of the age. Mark Twain, Isadora Duncan, Enrico Caruso, Richard Strauss and Theodore Roosevelt are only a few of the celebrities who Clara learned of and chanced upon. Clara’s Secret is ultimately a provocative story of the advancement of mankind and the survival of its decline.