Best known as a stage performer and recording artist, and the wife of composer Kurt Weill -- whose songs made up the repertory for which she was most widely recognized as an interpreter -- Lotte Lenya also made a handful of notable film appearances across her six-decade career. Born Karoline Blamauer in Hitzing, Austria, to a working-class Catholic family, her childhood associations with music were somewhat harrowing, centered on her physically abusive father who, in his drunken rages, would pull her out of bed to have her sing to him and then berate her; she was forced to go to work at an early age and did her best, mostly out of love for her mother Johanna. It was her mother and her aunt, Sophie, who conspired to get the girl out of the household and away to Zurich, where she went to work as a maid to a couple who, by chance, were photographers.
It was a chance look at a photo of ballet dancer Steffi Herzeg that stimulated her interest in dance, and she became a pupil of Herzeg's. She was good enough at age 13 to get engaged as an apprentice ballerina in Zurich, which enabled her -- though officially an Austrian national -- to remain in Switzerland at the outbreak of World War I. The next year allowed her to experience all of the exposure to art and music that she had missed growing up under her father's abusive regimen, and she began to get known as a dancer, and a protégée of Richard Revy, the chief director of the Schauspielhaus. By 1916, after a period as an apprentice, she became a full-fledged member of the ballet company at the Stadttheater in Zurich; and by 1918 she was giving solo performances, and also taking on acting roles, in plays by Ludwig Anzengruber and George Bernard Shaw.