If there’s any one person who embodies the culture and persona of a Viennese coffeehouse, it must be the owner of Café Korb, one of Vienna’s best-loved inner-city homes of caffeine, culture, and conversation. The décor is purposefully simple: mid-century furniture, campy glass chandeliers, and no tablecloths. Inside, you sit on wooden chairs and outside on multicolored metal as the celebrated waiters glide past – whisking Melange after Spritzer to the thirsty throngs.
Susanne Widl has moved freely among Hollywood glitterati, artists and notorious European stars of concert, stage and screen. She’s worked as an actress, model and performance artist as well as being an avid art collector. Throughout her career, she has been a cosmopolitan in Vienna, bringing stars to the city and for decades living in the lens of Austrian media. Throughout it all, she has remained unapolo getically Viennese.
“The coffeehouse experience in Vienna is unique,” she says. Widl sees it as much more personal than other café-rich cities. “I really appreciate the bistros in Paris and the trattorias in Rome, but the café culture in Paris, from Café Flores to La Coupole, was world famous for its guests. But Vienna is great be cause it doesn’t need famous guests. It’s famous in itself.”
None of the rest can be categorized as cof feehouse culture, Widl says. “The only real Kaffeehauskultur is Viennese Kaffeehauskultur. And if you don’t know Café Korb, you don’t know Vienna.”
The cafe, which was founded in 1904, acquired by Widl’s parents in the 1950s. She remembers fondly her childhood years at Korb: “I had my first ‘appearance’ in a coffeehouse as a toddler, and as an 8-year-old, I was already allowed to give my mother a hand.”
Occasionally, she manned the coat check and was even allowed to operate the large espresso machine. It was in the late 1950s, as a young teenager, that Widl began to take an interest in the guests and their behavior, equipping her to eventually take over and lead the establishment so successfully herself.
“There were countless widows with dogs who flirted fiercely with the waiters,” she remembers with a grin. “Since I also did my homework in the coffeehouse, I grew up in it. Back then, I was already convinced that this place would one day be run by me.”
Bright Lights, Gray City
Still, the city proved to be too small for her aspirations. “Vienna was not on the radar of the fashion and film industry in the 1970s.” Widl’s famous Austrian colleagues like Senta Berger and Marisa Mell celebrated their international acting successes in Italy, not in Vienna.
“I had my successes as a model in Rome and New York in the 1960s but returned to Vienna in 1970 because my mother was seriously ill.” She realized this was a career setback. “There were no internationally operating agencies in Vienna in the 1970s, neither for film or fashion or pop music. All that had yet to be built.”
Widl witnessed the rise of a new generation of artists in the 1970s in the art, theater, film and music scene, artists who would put Vienna back on the map as a place where stars are born and careers are made.
“The fruits of the 1970s began to ripen in the 1980s, from Falco to Michael Haneke.” When she shot the international success Unsichtbare Gegner (Invisible Enemies, 1979) with performance artist Valie Export and Peter Weibel, the man who was to become Widl’s life partner for decades, they were “still being bludgeoned to death by the Viennese press.”
Fortunately, Widl was able to have a strong career on stage in Hans Gratzer’s ensemble. “I could not invoke my Viennese roots and sell myself as a Viennese,” she explains.“I always had to sell myself as Susanne Widl.” She credits herself and her colleagues in film and fashion with creating the myth of the beautiful Viennese woman.
Vienna in the 1970s, neither for film or fashion or pop music. All that had yet to be built.”
Bold & Beautiful
In the ’70s, Widl was at the epicenter of Bohemian social life in Vienna. “I enjoyed spending relaxing hours with the playwright Arthur Miller and his wife, the Austrian photographer Inge Morath.” When Burt Lancaster shot the spy thriller Scorpio with Alain Delon in Vienna in 1973, the conversation at Café Korb sparkled during shooting breaks. “I knew Lancaster because I played with him and Peter Falk in the 1969 film Castle Keep by Sydney Pollack, in what was then Yugoslavia.”
Korb also hosted plenty of troublemakers. “I remember one unpleasant guest: the artist Dieter Roth.” Roth was Swiss and for years a frequent guest in Vienna, living on Tuchlauben at the apartment of painter Kurt (Widl calls him “Kurti”) Kalb’s. “He came into the coffeehouse and then started burping loudly in hopes that I would react.” Widl didn’t get upset. Her experience with clients had made her immune to games. “Then he started to beat the tablecloth over the food, again hoping that I would call him out. But I didn’t do him that favor either. Then he backed off and apologized and never behaved that way again.”
Brave New Vienna
“Over the last decades, Vienna has become an incredibly lovable and livable city,” she says, “a cultural superpower, not just institutionally, but in terms of the people.” The gray Vienna she remembers was like “a concrete ceiling instead of a sky.” Now, Vienna has changed into a vibrant parachute, a colorful tent, a dome under which the best artists, from gastronomy to quantum physics, from medicine to music, cavort together.
Widl’s Korb includes the versatile Art Lounge downstairs, which hosts readings, musical evenings and other social gatherings in less distanced times. In terms of COVID, she says keeping her team employed was crucial for Café Korb to stay in business. It is a social institution and lives from the regulars. The abundant expressions of solidarity from guests confirm this. But economic certainty remains a challenge.
“Café Korb has existed since 1904, it has gone through numerous crises, and I see my task as owner to master these difficult times. My wish for my Viennese colleagues is the ability to look into the future with confidence, to be steady and persevere.”
Widl believes the coronavirus will leave its mark on Viennese society, “but not on coffeehouse culture.” What will be interesting, she says, is the competition between coffee to go (i.e. Starbucks), and coffee to stay (the Viennese coffeehouse). “The going-out behavior will be different next year after the corona crisis, but it has also been changing for a long time. You can order goods online and do not have to go shopping. You can arrange a date online and don’t have to go to clubs and bars anymore.”
“But online can never replace a coffeehouse,” says Widl. “It is a completely different world. The coffeehouse is an invention for eternity.”