Muriel Buttinger Gardiner was a wealthy American psychoanalyst and member of the Austrian underground resistance in the 1930s. Moving to Vienna in the hope of being analysed by Sigmund Freud, she quickly became embroiled in the turbulent politics of the inter-war years. Her work with the resistance saved the lives of hundreds of Austrian Jews and helped hundreds of refugees.
Her life was thought to have been the inspiration for the Oscar-winning film Julia, and her financial generosity benefitted many, including securing the existence of the Freud Museum in London: a testimony to her respect and admiration for Freud’s work.
Born into privilege
Muriel Morris was born in 1901 in Chicago: her parents were wealthy industrialists and she wanted for nothing growing up. Despite, or perhaps because of, her privilege, the young Muriel became interested in radical causes. She enrolled at Wellesley College in 1918 and used some of her allowance to send funds to friends in post-war Europe.
In 1922 she left for Europe, visiting Italy (which was on the cusp of fascism at this point) and spending 2 years studying at the University of Oxford. In 1926 she arrived in Vienna: fascinated by Sigmund Freud’s pioneering development of psychoanalysis, she hoped to be analysed by the man himself.
The Vienna years
When Muriel arrived in Vienna, the country was run by the Socialist Democratic Party: Austria was undergoing major change, including the introduction of new housing projects, schools and labour laws, all of which promised better working conditions and life for the working classes.
Psychoanalysis was a new and somewhat avant-garde discipline at this point, and Muriel was keen to understand this new science further. Despite her pleas, Sigmund Freud declined to analyse Muriel himself, instead referring her to one of his colleagues, Ruth Mack Brunswick. The two women shared a keen interest in psychoanalysis and politics, and Muriel decided she wanted to pursue further study.
Following her marriage to Julian Gardiner and the birth of their daughter Connie, in 1932, Muriel enrolled to study medicine at the University of Vienna. As the 1930s progressed, the political climate of Vienna changed sharply. Fascist support was growing, and with it anti-Semitism. Muriel witnessed much of this first-hand and was determined to do something to help those targeted by vicious abuse.
Helping the resistance
By the mid-1930s, Muriel was established in Vienna: she owned several properties in Austria and was studying for her degree. Alongside this, she began to use her influence and contacts to try and smuggle Jews out of the country, persuading British families to give domestic jobs to young women which would allow them to leave the country and providing affidavits to get American visas for Jewish families.
On the ground, she also helped smuggle passports, papers and money to those in need, hiding people in her cottage, forging official documents and facilitating illegal border crossings into Czechoslovakia. No-one suspected the wealthy, slightly eccentric American heiress of working with the underground resistance.
In 1936, she began a relationship with the leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialists, Joe Buttinger, with whom she had fallen in love. They shared the same politics and she hid him in her isolated cottage at Sulz for periods.
A heightened level of danger
In March 1938, the Nazis invaded Austria in what became known as the Anschluss. All of a sudden Muriel’s work took on a new urgency as life for Austrian Jews quickly deteriorated under the new Nazi regime. Working for the resistance also became more dangerous, with severe punishments for those caught.
Muriel managed to get Buttinger, now her husband and young daughter out of Austria to Paris in 1938, but she remained in Vienna, ostensibly to complete her medical exams, but also in order to continue her work for the resistance.
The Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, infiltrated every part of Austrian society, and the stakes were higher than ever for the work Muriel was doing. Nevertheless, she kept her cool, smuggling passports across the border to help get Jewish families out of the country, giving money to those who needed it and helping people out of the country where necessary.
In solidarity with the Jewish people she lived and worked with, Muriel registered herself as Jewish at the University of Vienna: her father was indeed Jewish, which made her so in the eyes of many (ethnically, even if not religiously). She took and passed her final medical exams and left Austria permanently in 1939.
Outbreak of war
When the Second World War began on 1 September 1939, Muriel and her family were in Paris. Under no illusions about the dangers and power of Nazi Germany, they fled to New York in November 1939.
Once Muriel was back in New York, she began helping German and Austrian refugees by giving them a place to stay as they began to build their new lives and used her connections in America and Austria to try and apply for as many emergency visas as possible for those in Austria who still wanted to get out.
Working tirelessly throughout the war, Muriel returned to Europe in 1945 as part of the International Rescue and Relief Committee.
Muriel worked as a psychiatrist in America for many years, and was well-respected in her field. She was good friends with Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, a respected psychiatrist herself, and the two became closer after the war. It was Muriel who helped fund the creation of the Freud Museum in London in order to preserve the house in which Freud died and Anna lived for many years.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Muriel’s remarkable actions in the 1930s were remembered and became almost legendary. In 1973, Lilliam Hellman published a book called Pentiemento, in which the main character was a American millionairess who helped in the Austrian resistance. Many believed Hellman had used Muriel’s life story without permission in her book, although she denied this.
Spurred on by the fictionalised portrayal of her life, Muriel ended up writing her own memoirs, Code Name: Mary, in order to record her experiences and actions. She died in New Jersey in 1985, having been awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour (First Class) after her work for the resistance became public knowledge.
Code Name ‘Mary’: The Extraordinary Life of Muriel Gardiner is currently running at the Freud Museum, London until 23 January 2022.