Did You Know That They Are Austrians?

By John Alan Irvin

Next time you order a “hearty breakfast” you can thank (or curse, depending on your waistline) none other than Austrian father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. How? Through his nephew, the Austrian-American father of modern public relations Edward Bernays. Bernays spent little time in Austria, immigrating with his family as an infant, but his continued contact with his uncle back in Austria gave him an inside track on Freud’s emerging theories on the unconscious psychological motivation behind human behavior.

Once settled on his career as a self-described Public Relations Counsel, Bernays drew from psychoanalysis and other academic theories regarding group behavior in order to apply them to the very practical business of manipulating public opinion in order to sell products or ideas (one wonders how his uncle felt about this). In 1925 Bernays was hired by a meat packing company to promote the sale of bacon. Not content to follow the traditional advertising approach of simply praising his employer’s product or condemning the competition, Bernays sought to promote the sale of bacon by entirely changing public opinion about what constituted a good breakfast. It may be hard to imagine, but up until that time most Americans ate what we would consider a “continental breakfast”, that is, toast or a roll washed down with coffee and orange juice.

Drawing on what he knew to be an unconscious tendency to defer to authority figures, Bernays commissioned a “scientific study” that asked 5,000 physicians whether a “hearty breakfast” was better than a “light breakfast” in replacing lost energy. Not surprisingly, most doctors supported a “hearty breakfast.” Then Bernays went on to define in the public mind what constituted such a breakfast and (again, not surprisingly) bacon turned out to be a vital part. Eggs were included (to the unintentional but welcome benefit of the egg industry) and soon America considered bacon and eggs the natural and necessary elements of a “hearty breakfast.”

There are many examples of how Austrian-Americans have impacted how we in the United States live our lives, from what we eat to where we live and shop, even the movies we watch and the music we listen to. Though certainly not a comprehensive compilation, here are a few more: Turn on the faucet in your kitchen or bathroom and you might very well want to thank Austrian-American industrialist John Michael Kohler, who founded a company that makes many of the bathroom and kitchen appliances we use every day. Kohler was born on November 3, 1844 in the Austrian Alpine village of Schnepfau, before his father immigrated to the United States in the 1850s. Kohler eventually settled in Wisconsin and married the daughter of a local steel and iron industrialist. He took over his father-in-law’s business in 1873 and in 1883, put ornamental feet on a cast-iron water trough and sold it as a bathtub. Four years later, more than two-thirds of the company’s business was in plumbing products and enamelware. Kohler, also civic- minded, was elected Mayor of Sheboygan in 1892.

If you like to enjoy your hearty breakfast while turning the pages of The Guardian or The Times, you can thank August Brentano, the Austrian-American newspaper dealer who’s New York City business first started importing newspapers from London and other cities in the United Kingdom. Born in Hohenems in 1829, he immigrated to New York in 1851 and started working as a newspaper carrier.

On the other hand, if you prefer reading a good book while downing your bacon and eggs, chances are you purchased it from the chain bookstore that eventually absorbed the eponymous (and sadly missed) book store he founded in New York. Ladies may think the origin of their favorite “little black dress” goes back to Coco Chanel, but at least in the United States most of the credit goes to Austrian- American fashion designer Nettie Rosenstein.

Born Nettie Rosenscrans in Salzburg in 1890, her family migrated to the U.S. in the 1890s and settled in New York City. She started making dresses as a home business, but by the early 1920s she had her own factory. While her clothes were retailed around the country, only one store in each city was permitted to carry fashions bearing Rosenstein’s label. In addition to her little black dresses, she was known for print dresses with matching gloves and a line of fine costume jewelry. She even designed the Neiman Marcus dress First Lady Mamie Eisenhower wore to her husband’s 1953 Inauguration Ball.

If you bought that little black dress at a shopping mall, give a brief thank you to Austrian-American architect Viktor David Grünbaum, better known as Victor Gruen, the pioneer designer of the first outdoor pedestrian mall in the United States, who was also known for his urban revitalization proposals.

Gruen’s story is unfortunately like that of many other notable mid-20th Century Austrian-Americans. As a Jew, he was forced to flee Vienna following Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria (the Anschluss). It is all the more tragic because so many of his fellow Austrians welcomed the new regime with little regard for the tremendous losses they would suffer. In driving away (or worse) so much of its Jewish citizenry, Austria lost an historic and irreplaceable part of its culture. However, Austria’s loss was the United States’ gain. In their new country, Austrian-American Jews found a place to thrive, we now celebrate such notables as the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, film director Fritz Lang, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and neuroscientist Eric Kandel, to name just a few.

While wandering through some of the more chic boutique shops at the mall, you may have heard piped-in jazz music, perhaps cuts from the many albums of the jazz-funk band Weather Report. In that case, thank one of the founding members of the group, Austrian-American musician Joe Zawinul. Born in Vienna in 1932, he studied classical music at the Konservatorium Wien and played in various broadcasting and studio bands before immigrating to the U.S. in 1959 on a musical scholarship.

In 1970, he along with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, founded Weather Report, considered one of the pre-eminent jazz fusion bands. In his career Zawinul also played with such legendary musicians as Miles Davis, Dinah Washington, and Cannonball Adderley. If you decide you need a break from the daily grind, you may wish to leave your modern home, based on a design by Austrian-American architect Richard Joseph Neutra (who was born in Vienna in 1892 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1923), and take a trip to our nation’s capital.

In Washington D.C. you will find that the oldest of the three United States Library of Congress buildings, the Thomas Jefferson Building, was designed by an Austrian- American. John Smithsmeyer was born in Vienna in 1832 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1848, where he studied architecture in Chicago, started working in Indianapolis, and served as a soldier in Indiana during the U.S. Civil War.

Later, he and German-American architect Paul Pelz won the competition to design the building that would be home to the Library of Congress. Before ending the partnership, they also collaborated on Georgetown University and the Carnegie Library in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Of course, any trip to Washington would be incomplete without a respectful visit to Arlington Cemetery, where you can see the Marine Corps War Memorial.

The memorial is topped with a statue based on the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph of Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. The sculptor who created the statue was Austrian-American artist Felix de Weldon, who was born in Vienna in 1907 and came to the United States via Canada in the 1930s. He himself served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, which would mean he is one of the countless American service-men and -women honored by the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in central Washington, designed by Austrian-American architect Friedrich St. Florian.

Born in Graz in 1932, St. Florian moved to the U.S. in 1961 and became a naturalized citizen in 1973. After a long day touring Washington, visiting a shopping mall, and going out to dinner in your “little black dress,” you can return to your hotel room and relax before bed by watching a classic film on the television, perhaps one starring such Austrian- American actors as Paul Muni, Hedy Lamarr, Oscar Homolka, Lilia Skala, or Walter Slezak. (Editor’s note: you can also thank Hedy Lamarr for your cellphone and wireless internet connection; more on that in a separate article in this issue.) Or you may prefer something more recent starring Arnold Schwarzenegger or Christoph Waltz. In any event, after a good night’s sleep, do not forget to begin the day with a “hearty breakfast” of bacon and eggs… and maybe include a brief thank you to Edward Bernays and his Austrian uncle.


(c) John Alan Irvin traveled extensively during his service as a U.S. Army officer and government official. He currently lives in Washington D.C. and is especially fond of (almost) all things Austrian.