“My first exile concerns the departure from my geographical homeland,” Frederic Morton said at a speech at a Vienna charity last Sunday. “The second one came later. It was the exile from youth to old age… Because the youth is our biological and psychological home.” Born Fritz Mandelbaum in Vienna in 1924, his family escaped to England and later to New York after the Anschluss in 1938.
Morton died at the age of 90 on Monday in his Vienna hotel room while visiting his birth place.
Morton was the author of twelve books, all of which revolved around the theme of being uprooted, and countless articles, which appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Esquire and Playboy, as well as in Austrian outlets. Two of his books, his breakthrough family portrait “The Rothschilds” (1962) and “A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888 — 1889” (1980), were National Book Award Finalists. “The Rothschilds” was later made into a Tony-award winning musical. He received Vienna’s Golden Medal of Honor in 1986 and the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art in 2003.
Born into a well-to-do Jewish family who owned a metal goods factory, Morton first worked as a baker in New York before breaking into writing. Kurt Sonnenfeld, 89, a Vienna-born former social worker, has known Morton for more than 70 years. He attended classes at City College together with Morton, and remembers how they paid relatively little attention to class: “We joked and talked about Vienna and a bit about politics, since we were both from the left, politically.” Morton was a fixed part of the young Viennese émigrés in New York, who also attended a now defunct Austrian-American youth club.
“When he talked English, you could always hear he was from Vienna,” said Sonnenfeld. Unlike many other Jewish immigrants, Morton fostered his ties with Vienna after the Holocaust and returned to his birthplace frequently. He continued to identify strongly with the neighborhood he grew up in, Hernals, a demographically diverse district in the northwest of Vienna. In 2002, 100,000 copies of Morton’s book “The Forever Street” (1984) were distributed free of charge as part of the inaugural “One City — One Book” program.
In the speech he gave just days before his death, which was published by the Austrian news outlet Presse, Morton mentioned the high points of his exiles — the people who would help him: “The young, brash inhabitants of the second exile are often patient and considerate with regards to the clumsiness of the inhabitants of the old country.”
Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s culture fellow.