'Extraordinary' tale of Freud Museum founder's Nazi resistance

Muriel Gardiner

Muriel Gardiner in the 1920s before she joined the Austrian resistance against the fascist regime - Credit: Image courtesy Freud Museum London

Muriel Gardiner was an extraordinary figure who risked her life to rescue hundreds from Nazi oppression.

And the American heiress did it while raising a child single-handed, and studying medicine in a foreign language.

A friend of Sigmund Freud's analyst daughter Anna, she later bought their former home in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead through a trust, and founded The Freud Museum.

To celebrate their benefactor and her story of courage, the Museum's exhibition Code Name Mary opens this month attended by Muriel's grandson Hal Harvey. To mark the opening, on September 18, actor Vanessa Redgrave, who wrote about Muriel in her play Vienna 1934 –Munich 1938 , talks to Lord Alf Dubs - one of the Czech Jewish children rescued by Hampstead stockbroker Nicholas Winton on the Kinderstransport.

Museum director Carol Siegel said the exhibition is "a thank you and a tribute to Muriel Gardiner who was responsible for founding the museum and supported it for many years, but it also throws light on such an interesting life."

Gardiner was born into a wealthy Chicago family in 1901. Uncomfortable with her wealth and with a keen sense of injustice, she travelled to Europe, settling in Vienna in 1924 where she hoped to be analysed by Sigmund Freud.

"He passed her onto a close American friend and she realised she wanted to become an analyst," says Seigel. "In those days you needed a medical degree, so she studied at the University of Vienna while bringing up her daughter from her short-lived marriage."

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In 1934, as Austria descended into fascism, Muriel joined the resistance movement to help the Social Democrats who were falling foul of the fascists.

"She was leading an extraordinary triple life, studying, caring for Connie and - under the code name Mary - heavily involved in dangerous activities to ferry false passports, hide people, and smuggle them out of the country."

Muriel Gardiner

Muriel Gardiner's cottage in the Vienna Woods, 1930s where she enjoyed trysts with Stephen Spender and hid opponents of the fascist regime - Credit: Image courtesy Freud Museum London

Gardiner used a rented flat and her cottage in the Vienna Woods to hide political opponents of the fascists. She also had a passionate affair with the gay poet Stephen Spender, influencing his poetry and political stance against fascism.

She then fell in love with Joseph Buttinger, leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialists, who opposed the government. They married and returned to America in October 1939 where they supported the International Rescue Committee to help displaced refugees fleeing Europe.

"The core of her story is this enormous courage that she showed during her years working for the resistance," adds Siegel.

"She was committed to the idea of freedom, utterly disliked the way the fascist government was behaving, and wanted to protect and rescue people. She was a genuinely good and brave person who acted in a way that was of no personal benefit to her. She had a young child to protect but felt strongly that this what she had to do."

Muriel's memoir, which the Freud Museum is republishing, reveals how as an American woman she was less under suspicion and could travel between Austria and Czechoslovakia to bring back false passports - on one trip concealing five in her corset. The Freuds fled to England after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, and some months later, Muriel got Connie and Joseph out of the country on the pretext of a skiing trip. But she remained in Vienna until the outbreak of war to finish her degree and continue her activities.

Muriel Gardiner

Muriel Gardiner, c.1960 - Credit: Image courtesy Freud Museum London

"She was very careful about not drawing attention to herself so she could keep her clandestine activities going. She was still getting false passports, evading the Gestapo, and came to terms with the fact that her wealth was of enormous help to bribe people or pay living expenses. She arranged affidavits from the US to stand surety for Visas to leave Austria, and for Connie's Jewish nanny Fini to marry Stephen Spender's lover Tony Hyndman so she would have a British passport. Fini went to work in The Hampstead War Nurseries with Anna Freud."

Muriel and Anna's friendship deepened after the war. Muriel often visited Maresfield Gardens and helped fund The Hampstead nurseries, while Anna would stay with her on trips to the States. Gardiner practiced for decades as a respected analyst, even writing a book on one of Freud's patients The Wolf Man.

The exhibition includes personal artefacts, family photos, letters and a cardigan knitted for Muriel's grandchild by Anna Freud, all loaned by Connie.

Accusations that American writer Lillian Hellman had plagiarised Gardiner's story in her memoir - which was turned into the Oscar-winning film Julia - prompted Muriel to write her own account of the war years.

"She was modest, self effacing and didn't want to get into it with Lilian, but felt that some of the story was unrealistic and heroic, in reality you took extreme care to avoid giving yourself away."

The film won Redgrave a best supporting actress Oscar, but Siegel says her championing the exhibition stems from having written about Muriel and "genuinely admiring her courage and activities in resisting fascism."

"I am thrilled that we are telling this extraordinary story. From descriptions Muriel was a charismatic and beautiful woman with immense joie de vivre, who grabbed life with both hands. She must have known people who died. It is hard to know how scared she was, but she never decided it was too risky and she couldn't go on."