Elektropolis Coked to the Eyeballs: Berlin’s Modernist Identity Crisis

By Casey Lawrence, Trinity College Dublin

In this month’s MSI New Writing about place in Modernism, TCD’s Casey Lawrence uncovers Berlin of the Modernist period, at once impoverished and decadent, as seen through the eyes of the oft-forgotten writer Robert McAlmon

Berlin underwent significant changes and took many names during La Belle Époque: The Garrison City. New Athens. The German Chicago. Elektropolis. Babylon-on-Spree. World City of the Future. This part of the city’s tumultuous history and its many identities can be hard to reconcile with the Berlin known today, but one might see traces of it written on the façade of the grand Adlon Hotel on Unter den Linden. Intended to compete with the luxury of The Savoy in London, L’Hôtel Ritz Paris, and New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, the Hotel Adlon opened in 1907 with 391 beds, 140 bathrooms (with both hot and cold running water), on-site laundry, its own power plant to supply electricity, a restaurant, café, library, barber shop, and numerous lounges and grand ballrooms.[1] Though the building was largely destroyed in the closing days of World War II, literature from the period solidifies the hotel’s importance to the city’s identity and culture as a modern, up-and-coming metropolis to rival Paris in style, luxury, and debauchery. Today’s Adlon-Kempinski, rebuilt on its original site adjoining Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, is an homage to this epicentre of modernist decadence.

The Adlon Hotel on Berlin’s Unter den Linden, c. 1910

The road to Berlin’s reputation as a World City of the Future—and the construction of the extravagantly modern Hotel Adlon—was not a smooth one. Prior to the German unification of 1871, Berlin was a Prussian military base lacking in modern sanitation and sewage facilities. Though not the most idyllic start for the new capital, the barracks and training grounds were soon overtaken by commercial and residential development under Kaiser Wilhelm I. By his death in 1888, Wilhelm I had overseen the installation of Berlin’s S-Bahn, city-wide electric lamps, and in a few places, telephones. Yet in 1892, when it was proposed that Berlin host the next World’s Fair, his grandson, Wilhelm II was staunchly opposed. He wrote to Leo von Caprivi, Bismarck’s successor as Chancellor, that

Berlin is not Paris. Paris is—what Berlin hopefully will never be—the great whorehouse of the world; therein lies its attraction independent of any exhibition. There is nothing in Berlin that can captivate the foreigner, except a few museums, castles, and soldiers.[2]

The Kaiser dreaded the attention a World’s Fair would bring to the still-developing city, believing that his uncle, King Edward VII of England, thought Berlin a “beastly hole.”[3] To prove him wrong, Wilhelm II was relentless in his modernization of the city, preparing the capital to enter the world stage once he was sure it could rival London and Paris.

Berlin underwent an unprecedented technological transformation over the next decade to become a true “Elektropolis,” allegedly boasting more electrical lighting than Paris at the turn of the century. The U-Bahn opened in 1902, and automobiles and electric streetcars quickly filled the streets. By 1905, Wilhelm II seems to have decided that the city could now call itself a Welstadt and was ready to entertain foreign visitors. At the cost of US$250 million in today’s money, the Kaiser invested in the construction of the Hotel Adlon, which he hoped would become the heart of a new luxury tourism industry in Germany.

Berlin’s economy boomed in the first decade of the twentieth century, and decadence accompanied in short order. Despite Wilhelm II’s hope that Berlin would “never be … the great whorehouse of the world,” David Clay Large estimates that just prior to World War I, Berlin had upwards of forty gay bars and between one and two thousand male prostitutes active in the city.[4] The Kaiser was also wrong that “nothing in Berlin … can captivate the foreigner,” as Berlin would soon be overrun with Americans who couldn’t care less about the city’s museums, castles, and war monuments.

Of course, catastrophic economic instability hit the Weimar Republic at the height of literary modernism and artistic prosperity elsewhere in Europe. From 1918 onward, political turmoil, assassinations, war reparations, debt and hyperinflation threw the city (and indeed the country) into a tailspin that contributed to the rise of Nazism. Mia Spiro writes in Anti-Nazi Modernism (2012) that “despite that which they could not know, the novels that Barnes, Isherwood, and Woolf wrote…reveal the historical, cultural, political, and social conditions in 1930s Europe that made the continent ripe for disaster”.[5] To this list I would like to add Robert McAlmon, an oft-forgotten Modernist whose Berlin stories provide a unique flavour of the city at its lowest point, the early 1920s.

Unemployment and homelessness were rampant for native Berliners during the 1920s, but the city’s misfortune was a boon for expatriates, whose lavish lifestyles gave Berlin new life as a haven for queers, prostitutes, drug addicts, and artists from the West. By police estimates, there were 25,000 prostitutes active in Berlin by 1920. American money could buy any luxury for cents on the dollar; when McAlmon visited the city in 1921, the dollar was worth nearly 300 marks.[6] While many businesses floundered, the Adlon Hotel thrived as Berlin became the European capital of sex, drugs, and decadence on the cheap. American tourists gorged themselves while Berliners starved, and when they ran out of money, they left. Set a decade before Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (1945),[7] which would become the musical Cabaret (1966), McAlmon’s Distinguished Air (1925) documents the lives of such “awful rats who have come to Berlin because of the low exchange” in 1921.[8] The stories, subtitled “Grim Fairy Tales” for their focus on queer characters and particularly gay men, offer an unsanitized look at a city on the verge of total collapse. Unlike Isherwood, McAlmon published his own work and thus had fewer concerns of censorship and public taste. As a result, his stories contain some of the frankest accounts of “under-world life in Berlin” (30), replete with homosexual sex, prostitution, cross-dressing, drag balls, violence, police corruption, and an astonishing amount of drug use, even to a contemporary audience.

Ernest Hemingway and Robert McAlmon, c. 1923. Credit: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

One of the more startling features of McAlmon’s Berlin stories is the excessive use of cocaine. In his memoir, Being Geniuses Together, McAlmon writes: “Dopes, mainly cocaine, were to be had in profusion at most night places. A deck of ‘snow,’ enough cocaine for quite too much excitement, cost the equivalent of ten cents”.[9] Throughout Distinguished Air, characters are depicted as “coked to the eyeballs” and often “completely intoxicated besides” (49). In the titular story, the unnamed narrator, who has never done cocaine, buys a ‘deck’ for the purpose of staying awake all night while giving a friend a tour of Berlin’s nightlife, and ends up partying until noon the next day. Hilariously inebriated characters flit in and out of the stories somewhat lightheartedly, yet the dual threats of overdose and withdrawal loom sinisterly over McAlmon’s Berlin. In the story “Miss Knight,” cocaine is served “by bowlful… [or] the barrel if you give them the sign” (4), and Miss Knight herself suffers several close calls. She describes waking “one night shivering all over” and worried that she “wuz going home in a crate” (6), and another time being “paralyzed from my nose to the top of my head with coke” (18). A friend of Miss Knight arrives at a party having “taken six decks of cocaine and uncounted cognacs—which she declared was the only safe drink to take when breathing snow” (10), but soon becomes belligerent and uncontrollable. Another woman is described rather glibly as being “batty in her belfry…from the d.t.’s” (27), and other addicts suffering withdrawal are similarly dismissed by the expatriate protagonists.

The dry comedy of McAlmon’s prose encapsulates the disassociation and dislocation of Americans benefiting from hyperinflation. The narrator of “Distinguished Air” travels the city in pursuit of decadence, wandering from the Tiergarten to Der Sturm and then lunching at the Adlon: “There were cocktails; pâté de foie; three bottles of wine, pheasant, Russian eggs, pastry, coffee, and afterwards several fines to round out the meal” (29-30). The day’s indulgence in high society is followed by a long night of drug-fuelled debauchery across Berlin: the Germania Palast, “a slow hangout, for men mainly” (30); the Palais de Danse, a dancehall; a Nachtlokal in the Kurfürstendamm neighbourhood; a nude burlesque on the outskirts of the city; a small queer café; and the O-la-la, an upscale men’s hangout. Yet this supposedly lighthearted café-crawl is in the shadow of Berlin’s penury. Between the Tiergarten and Der Sturm, the narrator encounters a gay aesthete who has lived in Berlin since before the war, Carrol Timmons. Timmons ironically remarks that “with this after-war atmosphere, and poverty amongst the few really likeable Germans one knows… [i]t’s all too tragic, I suppose, but I just can’t feel any further about that sort of thing. People will starve to death; people will die; or kill themselves; or drink themselves to death” (26). Haunted by poverty and death that surrounds him, the narrator sees his acquaintances in a new light at the end of the night, suddenly having the notion that “the circumstances [have] managed to make me feel confused and mean, as though I were in a way responsible for the economic condition of these people” (52). He proceeds to give the random followers he has collected each 500 marks, and Flora, the cocaine addict who showed them around, five thousand. The story ends with him lunching again at the Adlon in fashionable company, though he has decided to leave Berlin.

In “Miss Night,” the protagonist undergoes the reverse realization, blaming poor Germans for her financial woes. A bawdy drag queen with distaste for ‘refinement’, Miss Knight is on the hunt for cheap drugs, booze, and boys. The story is told mainly in anecdotal monologues as she trades stories for food, alcohol, cocaine, and companionship. Following a script beset with gay slang, Miss Knight’s dialogue is a time capsule:

‘I’m snowbound now, Mary,’ she confided to inform the others that she had just sniffed cocaine. ‘Just coked to the eyeballs, you know, an’ I’m looking for a bigger skatin’ rink.” (8)

‘But Paris wasn’t nothing like I’m getting’ it in Berlin, and I couldn’t even get a job in a house here. And do you know, last night I picked up a cop. How that guy had the nerve to go home with anybody I don’t get. You know I hate—well, you know—blind meat…” (18)

Miss Knight’s lowbrow, raunchy comedy serves as “relief from [the] after-war Berlin atmosphere” (9) for her companions, but only under specific conditions. Miss Knight is affronted to learn that “some of the people who were ready to encounter her in cafés which they had visited ‘to see Berlin night-life’ said it was a bore to have her greet them so familiarly in more respectable gathering places: the Adlon Hotel lobby, or semi-fashionable dance rendezvous” (9). While the affluent, straight-passing narrator of “Distinguished Air” is welcome in classy places like the Adlon, Miss Knight is not; her demeanour, camp, and elaborate costumes make it hard to resurface from the queer underground, and the dissonance between these spaces leaves her disoriented and vulnerable. She blames everyone but herself for her predicament when she overdoses on drugs and then suddenly leaves Berlin for New York.

The economic, political, and social conditions of the early Weimar years created a peculiar atmosphere that drew in societal rejects like Miss Knight. Like Paris, which was besieged by expatriates fleeing the repressive puritan values and Prohibition in America, Berlin became a hub of queer activity. In “Distinguished Air,” the Germania Palast is filled with “the queer types of Berlin, many of them painted up, two or three in women’s clothes, and great numbers…who were not obvious” (32). Earlier in the day, the narrator warns a “chichi” fairy, Foster Graham, that his camping might get him “picked up in a way you don’t want” (23), but he is unconcerned by the police, saying, “Tut, tut, this isn’t New York. It’s a shame for me to make an effort to get off with anybody here… I wouldn’t look like this in Paris, but it goes down alright here” (24). In chic clothes, with freshly ‘waved’ hair, plucked eyebrows, and waxed moustache, Graham advertises his queerness publicly without fear of arrest, and during the events of “Miss Knight,” a grand ball is arranged where “all queer people could go to the limit with costumes and there would be no police interference” (12). As Robert Beachy, author of Gay Berlin (2014), described in an interview with NPR, gay subculture managed to flourish despite homosexuality being illegal due to practical difficulties enforcing the law. As Beachy argues, conviction was impossible without a confession or credible witness. Seeing the futility in seeking prosecutions, the police commissioner at the time, Meerscheidt-Hullessem, implemented a policy of observing and monitoring suspected homosexuals, rather than arresting them. In practice, says Beachy, the police “simply tolerated all kinds of different…public accommodations, [such as] bars, cafes [and] eventually, large transvestite balls, where obvious homosexuals, or, at least, obviously suspected homosexuals, could congregate and socialize.”[10]

In addition to police indifference, sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld had significant influence on the treatment of queers in Berlin. In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a private research hospital where the first successful gender-affirming surgery took place over twenty years before similar procedures were attempted in the United States. Hirschfeld’s Institute is alluded to when “an elderly fairly, well known to various psychoanalysists in Germany” (32) arrives on the scene in “Distinguished Air.” Hirschfeld advocated for his patients extensively, eventually gaining them the right to “transvestite passes”, which would allow patients to present as their preferred gender in public without being arrested for cross-dressing.[11]

Transvestite pass issued to Gerd Katter on 23 November 28 by the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft

Yet evading police is a common theme in McAlmon’s Berlin stories, and their presence is keenly felt by many characters. Though in theory private sexual acts were not policed and public cross-dressing was tolerated, the threat of police violence nevertheless persisted for gay Berliners. Police efforts were concentrated on finding male prostitutes, drug addicts, and pushers, effectively targeting poor Germans while affluent foreigners with rooms at the Adlon were left in peace. Despite one character’s claims that the “chief of police in Berlin is as queer as they make them” and places like the Palast were thus “protected by the police” (31), raids of queer spaces were not uncommon. In “Distinguished Air,” a raid is conducted on a queer café in search of “unregistered prostitutes,” and the women in the establishment are placed under arrest—including one poor woman who “couldn’t get off with a man if she paid him” (49-50). Miss Knight, in contrast, tempts fate by sexually pursuing cops while in drag: “But, my god Mary, these Berlin cops is different. Please, Mister officer, won’t you arrest me? …I’m tellin’ you, Mary, if I sticks around Berlin much longer they’ll take me home in a little wooden box” (5). On one of her benders, Miss Knight succeeds in picking up “a beautiful blond policeman who was real rough trade” (11), and he accompanies her around the city, though she believes that “the policeman was just a war-made queer” (12). Many of Miss Knight’s anecdotes revolve around attempting to evade arrest in America while in drag, and though her stories quickly become stale to her Berlin audience, readers of McAlmon will find them a poignant reminder of state-sanctioned homophobic violence.

Robert McAlmon and James Joyce, drawn by Paul-Émile Becat, 1924

Now known almost exclusively as a minor friend of James Joyce or husband-of-convenience to lesbian poet Bryher, Robert McAlmon was once described by Ezra Pound as a better writer than Earnest Hemingway and was seen by many as a rising star. Though his creative work has mostly been excluded from the modernist canon, McAlmon’s memoir, Being Geniuses Together, which collects anecdotal stories of some of the most famous modernist writers, is highly regarded. Joyce dismissed the memoir as “the office boy’s revenge” for its depiction of his drunken escapades on the streets of Paris in the 1920s, and certainly parts of it were exaggerated; in a particularly apocryphal anecdote, McAlmon claims to have ignored the placement of Joyce’s additions while typing handwritten pages of “Penelope” and merely inserted them “wherever [he] happened to be typing”.[12] McAlmon’s recollection of events (which imply that Joyce did not care that he tampered with the text) have since been proven unlikely.[13]

However, despite perhaps smudging the facts to increase his own importance when writing nonfiction, McAlmon’s “Grim Fairy Tales” capture the essence of the fragile queer spaces of Weimar Berlin. Unlike his recollections of Paris, which are full of name-dropping and exaggeration, McAlmon’s Berlin stories gently obscure the identities of its flamboyant characters to reveal essential truths about that moment in time without risking libel: the slang, the atmosphere, the sex, the drugs, the music, the strippers, the policemen, the cafés, the balls, and the not-so-underground gay subculture that would, in short order, be wiped out of Berlin. As with the Nazi book burning of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft’s entire library, which set sexological research and civil rights back decades, the “cleansing” of Berlin in 1935 is a great loss to queer historians and the identity of a city that was divided along the lines of class, race, gender, sexuality, and nationality long before the Wall.


Casey Lawrence is a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin. Her thesis, supervised by Sam Slote, compares literary representations of crossdressing in Modernist texts. She works primarily on the novels of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Djuna Barnes, with a soft focus on textual genetics and the historical context of queer cultural undergrounds in the early twentieth century. Casey is also a published fiction author, with two YA novels, Out of Order (2015) and Order in the Court (2016), published by Harmony Ink Press. Both of her novels were nominated at the Bisexual Book Awards. Together with Tiana Fischer of NUI Galway, Casey convenes the weekly online Modernist Studies Ireland Finnegans Wake Reading Group. She is currently co-organizing the 2022 Wilde and Joyce Symposium


[1] Laurenz Demps and Carl-Ludwig Paeschke, The Hotel Adlon. Nicolai, 2004, p. 77.

[2] Letter from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Count von Caprivi dated July 20, 1892. In Norman Rich, MH Fisher and Werner Frauendienst (eds.), The Secret Papers of Friedrich von Holsteins. Vol. 3: Correspondence (January 30, 1861 to December 28, 1896), Göttingen, 1961, 375-6.

[3] See Victorino Matus, “The Once and Future Berlin.” Policy Review, 2001, pp. 61-71.

[4] David Clay Large, Berlin: A Modern History. Allen Lane, 2001, p. 97.

[5] Mia Spiro, Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction. Northwestern UP, 2012, p. 244.

[6] Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1943). Banking and Monetary Statistics 1914-1941. Washington, DC. p. 671.

[7] The Berlin Stories (1945) is a republished collection of two Christopher Isherwood texts: Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). The stories collected therein are set between late 1929 and early 1933.

[8] Robert McAlmon, Miss Knight and Others. Edited by Edward Lorusso, University of New Mexico Press, 1992, p. 24. Originally published under the title Distinguished Air (subtitled “Grim fairy Tales”), McAlmon and William Bird printed the book by hand at Three Mountains Press with a run of 115 copies in 1925. In-text references are to the 1992 reprint.

[9] Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together: 1920-1930. Revised and with complementary chapters by Kay Boyle. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968, p. 107.

[10] Robert Beachy, “Between World Wars, Gay Culture Flourished in Berlin.” Fresh Air, interviewed by

Terry Gross, host. National Public Radio, 17 December 2014. https://www.npr.org/2014/12/17/371424790/between-world-wars-gay-culture-flourished-in-berlin?t=1629454375625

[11] See Michael T. Taylor, Annette Timm, and Rainer Herrn, Not Straight from Germany: Sexual Publics and Sexual Citizenship Since Magnus Hirschfeld (University of Michigan Press, 2017) for discussion on the implications of “transvestite passes.”

[12] McAlmon first made this claim in 1938, on page 91 of the first printing of Being Geniuses Together. It can be found on pages 130-131 of the revised edition. He apparently repeated this story to Richard Ellmann in 1954, who takes the claim as fact (see Ellmann, James Joyce [New York, 1959], p. 528).

[13] See, for example, James Van Dyck Card, “The Misleading Mr. McAlmon and Joyce’s Typescript.” James Joyce Quarterly, Winter 1970, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 143-7.