Greta Keller: She carried the Viennese chanson around the world. “Parisian chic. US glamour and Viennese charm – this triad is the secret behind the Greta Keller phenomenon,” according to a contemporary press commentary.
Greta Keller was born Margaretha Keller in Vienna on February 8, 1903. She grew up near an opera house and from an early age had the desire to one day make it as an opera singer. At the age of eight, she was already taking ballet lessons, which were financed by her grandparents: When her ballet teacher visited her grandfather one day and suggested that he could make a professional ballet dancer out of his granddaughter, this ended the lessons abruptly: his granddaughter Greta was meant to do something more “proper”.
First appearance and unexpected discovery
Nevertheless, Greta Keller appeared on stage for the first time at the age of 12 in “Pfarrer von Kirchfeld”: she played a boy – her exceptionally low voice made this possible.
Through her famous aunt, the actress Hedwig Keller, she got a scholarship at a Viennese drama school.
She then moved to Berlin at the age of 16, where she was discovered by the well-known theater critic Herbert Ihering, as she recounted in an interview.
After the intermezzo in Berlin, Keller returned to Vienna and was employed there at the Kammerspiele: In 1927 Greta Keller was cast here – alongside the likes of Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich – as Chorus Girl in the boulevard play Broadway – the turning point of her career.
Greta Keller was discovered not during a performance, as was usual for an artist, but during the intermissions during Broadway: Marlene Dietrich brought along a travel gramophone on which she played American records. Fascinated by American music, Greta Keller hummed along while changing for the next act of Broadway during intermissions.
A well-known cabaret artist listened to Keller do this and recommended her to cabaret director Julius Wiesner, who invited her to audition. Wiesner hired her, thrilled by her low singing voice.
Mean To Me
Shortly afterwards, Greta Keller was invited to London, where she impressed a renowned record critic with her interpretation of Mean To Me. The BBC became aware of the young diseuse, who could hardly speak English yet, and engaged her immediately.
Greta Keller showed up in Vienna at Christmas 1929 with a sample record and played it for a well-known music publisher: Wilhelm Grosz, a musician from the Ultraphon record company in Berlin, snatched the record from her (Keller refused to give it to him) and then presented it in Berlin: Because of the engagement with Ultraphon that followed, Keller referred to Wilhelm Grosz as her “discoverer for the vinyl record” for the rest of her life – as she did in a 1967 interview.
After numerous recordings, Greta Keller went on tour in the 1930s: as part of her tour of Germany, she appeared in a program at the Berlin Scala in 1936 on the occasion of the Olympic Games in Berlin. Following this engagement, the Austrian resisted an offer from the Nazi leadership to remain in Germany.
Until 1938 Greta Keller continued to perform in Europe and recorded numerous records. After March 1938, when Austria became a part of the Nazi German Reich, Keller’s career played out largely in the United States – Greta Keller emigrated to the United States and left Europe. Because of her emigration, the diseuse considered herself an an exile for the rest of her life.
In the United States, film engagements followed (including in “Reunion in France” in 1942), until she opened her own club, Chez Greta, at the Hotel Algonquin in New York around 1941. Greta Keller also opened a club in St. Moritz after the war.
Greta Keller’s sound
Listening to an interpretation of Greta Keller, one is particularly captivated by her relatively low voice: However, that was not the only special component of her singing.
The diseuse herself always used to say that a Schlager had to be “refined” during performance in order to unfold its full range. Greta Keller did this refinement not through virtuoso singing techniques, but through her unmistakable expression. Her expression sparked not least because Keller sang in three different languages: English, French and German.
In a 1967 interview, she said what it meant to sing in another language:
“I don’t simply try to speak the language like a parrot. There are a lot of people who sing in different languages, and I have a certain feeling that they have no idea what they’re singing about, for example, when they sing an English song translated into German. (There are many of those, if you listen to the radio you will probably notice that too). I try to portray the country, the character and the atmosphere of the people when I sing in that language.”
From 1961 to 1971, the diseuse spent much of her time at her club Greta’s Keller at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Many live recordings from this period have been released on record. Among them this performance of Lamplight:
When she went on tour with a Kurt Weill program in 1975, she caused a sensation one last time. Greta Keller spent the last years of her career, which were also the last years of her life, on stage.
Greta Keller died in Vienna on November 5, 1977.
Greta Keller: Biographical overview
- February 8, 1903: birth in Vienna as Margaretha Keller
- around 1917: first stage apperance
- 1927: After a theatre scholarship Greta Keller is discovered during the intermissions of the play Broadway, first record engagements follow
- 1929: breakthrough – recording contract with Ultraphon (Berlin)
- 1936: Germany tour – resists offer of the NS leadership
- 1938: Emigration to the USA
- 1941: opening of her club Chez Greta in New York
- Post-war years until 1961: various engagements and recordings
- 1961 – 1971: own club Greta’s Keller in the Waldorf Astoria in New York
- November 5, 1977: Greta Keller dies at the age of 74 in Vienna
Cover picture: Greta Keller in December 1946 at the AVRO studios.
Picture credit: Nationaal Archief, CC0, Photographer: Wisman, Bram / Anefo
The main sources for this article are a 1967 interview with Greta Keller, her entry in the Dictionary of Persecuted Musicians in the Nazi Era (German), and inserts to various CDs and LPs containing recordings by her.