The shortlist for this year’s Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year was announced last week, with the winner to be declared on 28 July. Last year’s winner of the prize was Too naked for the Nazis by Alan Stafford (C212.c.7711), a biography of the music hall dance act Wilson, Keppel and Betty. As a Germanophile, this title caught my eye but I was then pleased to find further German connections as Betty Knox, the original Betty, got to know Erika Mann, the daughter of Thomas Mann.
The explanation of the book’s title is that in the mid-1930s the trio had performed in Berlin and Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister, had been in the audience. He found the bare legs of Wilson and Keppel (skinny and with bony knees, part of the humour of the act) to be indecent and bad for the morals of the Nazi youth.
Betty Knox had joined Wilson and Keppel in America in 1928. They performed there for four years before coming to Britain. After a further ten years of putting on shows in Britain and mainland Europe, she was ready for a new challenge and so in 1942 she left the act and was replaced by her daughter, Patsy. In a complete change of career she became a journalist for the London Evening Standard, writing a popular column called “Over here” three times a week. In 1944 she became a war reporter in Normandy and it was here that she met Erika Mann who was also working as a war correspondent. In September 1944 Erika wrote about Betty in a letter to her brother Klaus, making it clear that they had become lovers: “My Tomsky, as it were. We came over together by chance and accident and have been sharing cots, jeeps and cars ever since.” Klaus Mann would have understood her meaning as Tomsky was a nickname for his American boyfriend.
During the winter of 1944-45 the pair visited California where Erika’s parents were in exile. They did not approve of her and her rather wild behaviour. In autumn 1945 both Betty Knox and Erika Mann were employed as reporters covering the Nuremberg war trials. Lara Feigel, in her 2016 book The bitter taste of victory: in the ruins of the Reich (571:76.c.201.36), devotes a whole chapter to Nuremberg and mentions that Erika Mann and Betty Knox spent Christmas 1945 in Zürich together with Klaus Mann and a former lover of Erika’s.
Erika and Klaus, the two eldest children of Thomas Mann and his wife Katia, had always been close siblings, almost like twins. During the 1920s they were both involved in the theatrical world in Berlin, a curious coincidence given Betty Knox’s former occupation. In 1933 they founded a cabaret called Die Pfeffermühle and Erika was the main writer for this. To find out more about their interesting lives I would recommend:
- In the shadow of the magic mountain: the Erika and Klaus Mann story (746:19.c.200.4) by Andrea Weiss
- Cursed legacy: the tragic life of Klaus Mann (748:37.c.201.166) by Frederic Spotts
- Erika Mann: eine Biographie (748:37.c.95.1216) by Irmela von der Lühe