Arts Desk

Viola Drath’s Cultural Legacy: A Look at the Works of a Murdered D.C. Writer

Viola Drath in 2010

It’s not hard to see why the alleged murder of socialite and journalist Viola Herms Drath has captured Washingtonians’ imaginations over the last week and a half. She was 91, and the man police have charged with her homicide, her husband Albrecht Gero Muth, is 47. An unemployed German, Muth sometimes wore an eye patch to Washington social functions, walked around their Georgetown neighborhood in military dress, and claimed he was an Iraqi general. According to court documents, Drath was strangled and beaten on Aug. 12—and a neighbor may have overheard the act, which ended with “a faint cry followed by a ‘sinister’ laugh.” Allegedly, Muth forged inheritance papers, claiming $200,000 of her estate. That’s following more than 20 years of what Muth called in an email to the Washington Post a “marriage of convenience,” complete with his own allowance of $1,800 to $2,000 a month. At one point, Drath and Muth were estranged for years, when he left her for a man.

If this wasn’t so tragic and real, it’d read like the plot of an Agatha Christie novel, complete with a bizarre, delusional villain.

So it’s no surprise that the crime stories and obituaries have mostly blown through Drath’s artistic accomplishments in a sentence or two. She was best-known as a policy journalist: For nearly 27 years, Drath wrote for the German business newspaper Handelsblatt, analyzing U.S. foreign and security policy. In 1975, she wrote a book about the West German statesman Willy Brandt. She penned German-language textbooks, as well as political commentary pieces for the Washington Times.

But she also had an eclectic literary life, writing plays, criticism of books and poetry, investigations into Washington’s art world, and later in life, according to one of her friends, an unpublished account of her tumultuous relationship with Muth.

In her prose, you see a writer who could be irreverent, dryly humorous, and precise, but at other times dense and cerebral. In early pieces, she praised stark, austere prose, but later displayed a taste for visual art that was daring and experimental. As an arts writer in the ’70s and ’80s for the highbrow, now-defunct society magazine the Washington Dossier—edited by her friend Warren Adler’s son David—she wrote about powerful institutions and powerful art-world players, but also alternative arts operators. According to her family, she was friends with Norman Mailer. (While members of Drath’s family, including her two daughters, declined to comment for this article, a spokesperson sent a statement containing biographical facts.)

Warren Adler included Drath in the acknowledgements of his popular novel The War of the Roses. “What I liked about her was she was very worldly,” he says. “We become great friends because we instantly were interested in a lot of the same things. She was very literary. I discussed many books with her.”

Drath was both Viola Herms in Germany in 1920, and her first career was in the theater. She wrote her first play, a comedy called Leb Wohl, Isabell (or Farewell, Isabell), at age 18. The Municipal Theater in Straubling, Germany, staged it in 1946. According to a biography in one of her textbooks, she worked around this time as a dramaturg at a Berlin theater, and later as a writer for a film company. A second comedy, Kein Verlass auf eine Frau (“No Reliance Upon a Wife”), made it to the stage of Munich’s Junge Bühne theater in 1948. But by then, Drath had left Germany with her new husband, U.S. Army Col. Francis S. Drath. According to Drath’s family, she was the colonel’s interpreter following World War II, when he was the military governor of Bavaria. You can still find a scant few copies of her plays in national libraries in France and Germany, according to online databases, but they seem to have mostly fallen into obscurity.

In the late ’40s, Drath moved with her husband to his home state of Nebraska, where she earned a master’s degree in philosophy and Germanic literature from the University of Nebraska. In 1960 and 1961 she contributed essays and criticism to the school’s prominent literary journal, Prairie Schooner, which also published her husband’s fiction. Here, Drath’s prose is efficient and incisive, almost slavishly Strunk. She praised the unshowy anomie of Bertolt Brecht in a 1960 review of a collection of his poems.

The poetic tension Brecht creates with the confrontation of brutal reality and his materialistic idealism makes for highly sophisticated, bitter satire....The coolness and the aloofness in treatment of his subjects, the method of alienation, do not allow one to lose oneself in compassion and emotional involvement but shock one into thought, if not action. This process is aided by blunt yet sensitive language of utmost clarity, a language so strong and vital, entirely lacking the ambiguity of symbols, indirectness of metaphors, or artiness, that it forges the intrinsic and extrinsic elements of Brechtian poetry into a whole of compelling primitive force.

Drath’s textbooks, for younger readers, have a much lighter tone. Her foreword to the 1961 volume Typisch Deutsch?, for which she penned short stories and plays for teaching German language and culture, is loose and playful:

This is a lighthearted and humourous book about the Germans for those who do not take themselves and others too seriously....Polemic hairsplitters who maintain that there is nothing typically German, nor typically American for that matter, will be happy to sense general agreement with their general contention. Yet, there are a few things about the Germans, their peculiar sense of dignity, the Wanderlust, their love of footnotes (shared only in degree by Americans) and their passion for hard work and fresh air, which strike one as “typical”. This may never pass for the definitive analysis of the German soul, but it might provide some insight into German life.

Drath wrote four other textbooks, and in the late ’60s, when she and her husband moved to Washington, gained notice for her policy writing in Handelsblatt and elsewhere. Her Willy Brandt book was panned by the New York Times—prompting a letter to the editor in which she defended her examination of the chancellor’s womanizing and alleged ties to the C.I.A.—and praised by Henry Kissinger.

From the late ’70s to 1983, her pieces for the Washington Dossier, which focused on political gossip, lifestyle advice, and culture, explored a diverse cross-section of the city’s fine-art world. She wrote stories on the intersections of art and power: A cover looked at former U.S. Sen. Hugh Scott’s vast collection of Chinese art; one of her regular Art & Artists columns pondered corporate art collections; another saw connections between a show of Latino art and D.C.’s diplomatic world. (“Castro’s Cuba has also expressed an interest in this exhibition through the Embassy of the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic in Washington!”) But she also kept an eye on lower-to-the-ground venues. A 1980 piece on a show at the forward-thinking Washington Project for the Arts balanced art criticism with a look into the economic drivers of the art scene. The former mode could be clunky:

Given the properties of impermanence, like Ed Mayer’s phantasmal labyrinth of stacked wood lath or Thomas Watcke’s environment of precariously structured two-by-fours, the ambiguous constructivist vocabulary, probing the relationship between time and space, mass and gravity, force and constraint, took on—not unlike the leaning Tower of Pisa—unexpected disquieting emotional overtones.

While Drath had Old World style—a Washington Post article last week cited her “bygone European look”—she at least didn’t have a stiff interpretation of what art is or how to enjoy it.

At the time she was covering the city’s arts scene, she wasn’t yet known as a socialite, says Warren Adler, although she would later become a regular of Washington foreign-policy circles. “Occasionally we had dinner but she wasn’t particularly social,” he says. “That must have come later when she married this guy. I think I met him once. I couldn’t understand why she married such a young man.”

To Drath’s acquaintances, the relationship never made sense—although, according to Warren Adler’s wife, Sonny, Drath might have shed light on it in a book she allegedly wrote about her years with Muth, penned during their estrangement. (The Drath family’s representative wouldn’t confirm or deny the book’s existence.) According to Sonny Adler, the manuscript was even edited. “[I]t wasn’t going to be published, it was just something interesting.”

Photo courtesy the family of Viola Drath.

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  • Helle Dale

    Thank you to Megan, for a real appreciation of Viola Drath's real legacy and work. She was a terrifically talented person and a great friend.
    I can confirm that she wrote a book about Muth, who is certainly stranger than any fiction. We discussed it in the course of our many lunches together. He threatened her with a libel suit to prevent its publication. Not surprising!

    Helle Dale