Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2022-06-26/Serendipity

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Was she really a Swiss lesbian automobile racer?: What's the deal with Anita Forrer, redlinked woman of mystery who saved Schwarzenbach archives?


At its best, Wikipedia offers eloquently written articles, pulled together from a variety of sources. At its worst, Wikipedia offers hastily written abstracts from a single source. And, perhaps just as bad, one-to-one translations from the English Wikipedia to less-active language versions. Why just as bad? Because direct translations fail to address topics that might not be important for an English speaking audience, yet are very important for others. Italian translations of books by James Joyce, for example, are important for Italian readers of Wikipedia – while many English speaking Wikipedians couldn’t care less.

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Annemarie Schwarzenbarch (photo by Anita Forrer)

Seven years ago, I uploaded a photograph of the Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Schwarzenbach was a rich, independent and eccentric writer and journalist, who travelled the world as if she was walking through the woods of rural Switzerland, where she was born. She was an ardent photographer too, who took photos in Afghanistan, Belgian Congo, Eritrea, Georgia, India, Iraq, Russia, the United States and 20 other countries.

Photos of her were then quite hard to find: I had to browse through several books before I found a suitable photograph which also had a suitable copyright status. That photo (right), with Schwarzenbach holding a Rolleiflex Standard 621-Camera, looked like a selfie from around 1938 – at first sight.

Death & archives

Schwarzenbach died from a fall on her bicycle in the Swiss Alps. Her mother destroyed most of her letters and diaries. Wikipedia tells us: "A friend took care of her writings and photographs, which were later archived in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern." That's almost true. The executors of her will, Erika Mann and Anita Forrer, weren't exactly close friends. In the end, Anita Forrer took care of the photographic and literary archives of Schwarzenbach. She treated the archives as a treasure in the library she founded, the Biblioteca Engiadinaisa, and later donated the Schwarzenbach archives to the Swiss Literary Archives. And in that archive I found the supposed selfie again: as a photo made by Anita Forrer in Malans, Switzerland, in 1938.

Hell of a woman

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Letter from Rilke to Anita Forrer (1920)

Anita Forrer, the guardian of the Schwarzenbach archives, was a hell of a woman. Born in 1901 in St. Gallen, she visited a poetry reading by Rainer Maria Rilke when she was 18 years old. Lightning struck and, as Rilke later put it in a letter to her, he became an external reference point to her "in the geometry of the heart to somehow get the measure of the distances and relations in the vast space of feeling". Their correspondence (70 letters over a period of seven years) was published in 1982. Forrer developed, worked in Paris and Luzern, was briefly married and travelled the world. She had an affair with Annemarie Schwarzenbach, and travelled to the United States before WWII. A photograph of Forrer was not hard to find: the UC Berkeley Library's digital collections had a nice photograph, shot by Johnny Florea in 1938.

An automobile racer?

But there's something odd about the files in the UC Berkeley collections. Three photographs of Anita Forrer are accompanied by a photo card calling "Miss Anita Forrer" a "Swiss woman auto racer". I was not surprised at all. As Forrer was a graphologist, photographer and a spy, she might as well be an auto racer. After all, she had been a driver for the American Red Cross Motor Corps in WWII, so why shouldn't she race cars? But, as one source is no source, I removed that assertion from a Wikipedia article. I hope this piece encourages others to find out if Anita Forrer really was an automobile racer. Any help would be appreciated. The English Wikipedia still lacks an article about Anita Forrer (which will be written soon, of course), but the German and Dutch Wikipedias have made the attempt.