She was one part sharp tailoring, and another part unruly bohemian. As a style icon Annemarie Schwarzenbach embodied simplicity in its most beautifully androgynous form, a simple shirt and trousers at a time when it was unheard of for a woman to dress like a man. Here is her story.
It was early September 1942 when Swiss writer and adventurer, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, finally opened her eyes. She was 34, brilliant, accomplished, traveled, troubled and addicted. She also had no idea who she was.
While enjoying a bicycle ride three days prior, Schwarzenbach had thrown her arms wide, coasting untethered until control finally escaped her. After the crash, the beautiful and enigmatic author lived the final nine weeks of her life in the limbo of amnesia, remembering nothing of what came before.
It is tempting to define Annemarie Schwarzenbach by her androgynous style and general air of confidence. In photographs she maintains a cool, steady gaze, and appears immune to pain or self-doubt. In truth, the steely facade masks years of morphine addiction, a string of failed romances across the gender spectrum, depression and painful conflict with her wealthy, Nazi-sympathizing family. It is better, then, to define Schwarzenbach by her life.
After earning a doctorate and publishing her first novel at just 23, Annemarie left Switzerland for the bohemian underground of Berlin. There, she met fellow writers and identified openly as a lesbian. Her life became a flurry of words, lovers, projects, international expeditions and disappointments. She also developed intense anti-Fascist political views and experimented with morphine – the drug that would haunt her.
Over the next decade, Annemarie explored dozens of countries, authored eight novels, wrote more than 300 articles and captured roughly 5,000 photographs. She spoke of her travels, support for union workers and the struggles of the poor. She joined archeological digs in Persia, married a homosexual French diplomat and shortly after began a sensational affair with the daughter of a Turkish ambassador.
Meanwhile, Annemarie also experienced debilitating bouts of depression and several unsuccessful attempts to conquer her addiction. Another unhappy love affair, followed by a second suicide attempt and a brief period of institutionalization, were the precursor to her final adventures.
Annemarie’s last years lead her on writing expeditions to Portugal, Belgian Congo and, briefly, back to her still husband. Just months after returning to Switzerland, Schwarzenbach’s unbounded passion and creativity were snuffed out in one fatal twist of a bicycle tire. Due in part to her grief stricken mother, who destroyed Schwarzenbach’s manuscripts, and society’s tendency to disregard disruptive women, Annemarie’s life and work were all but forgotten.
In life, Annemarie Schwarzenbach may have battled personal demons, but she also waged ideological war against the violent political regimes, social inequalities and gender norms of her time. She refused to live within the confines of traditional femininity or masculinity, and instead occupied a space of radical liberation. She traveled the world seeking the beautiful, the genuine, the original and the inspiring; and found it in words, photographs, lovers, friends and perhaps even in her struggles.
Despite wavering faith in her own purpose, Annemarie Schwarzenbach created art – and a legacy – that endured. Though her own memories were lost to her, they have been entrusted to all those who lose themselves in her novels, pour over her photographs, find courage in her courage and are captivated by her cool, steady gaze.