Afew years ago, a Scottish newspaper carried the story of a bird-call imitator who, to his great pride, had sustained a conversation with an owl in the next door garden for over a decade. They would call to each other every evening from either side of the wall. One day his wife mentioned the matter to her neighbour. This lady’s husband, it appeared, had also been mimicking an owl for the past ten years. Is it conceivable that this Scottish misunderstanding might cast some light on the complex relationship between Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno—or Tommy and Teddy, as they called themselves?

Let us begin with the end. When Adorno learned of Mann’s death, he telegrammed his widow Katia:

Dear lady, they telephoned me from Frankfurt with the inconceivable news. I don’t know what to say—the blow is crippling. Just this—something that perhaps may be said only at such an hour—I loved him very, very much. Our thoughts are with you. Entirely your Teddy Adornofootnote1

It was indeed a love story, though a one-sided affair. Adorno really did love Mann. Their correspondence reveals him solicitous, faithful, flattering; unflagging in his enthusiasm, he heaped the great author with high praise to the last. In 1945, two years after their first encounter, Adorno offered Mann—at seventy one, nearly thirty years his senior—this moving confession:

When I met you, here on this far-flung western shore, I had the sense of physically encountering for the first and only time the German tradition from which I have received everything; including the strength to withstand that tradition. This feeling and the happiness it granted—theologians would speak of a blessing—will never leave me. Years ago, in Kampen, in the summer of 1921, I followed you, unobserved, on a long walk, wondering what it would be like if you turned round and spoke to me. That you have actually taken me for an interlocutor, twenty years later, is thus a sort of materialized Utopia, such as rarely falls within our lot.footnote2

This was written during that magical time when the two were neighbours in California and met several times a week to work together on Doctor Faustus. Their intimacy was short-lived, yet Adorno nourished the notion that it endured to the end. Near the conclusion of his extraordinary essay, ‘Towards a Portrait of Thomas Mann’, he touches on Mann’s playful nature, which survived the most extreme situations:

Nothing could subdue it; his playful spirit even sent out its feelers towards death. In the last letter I received from him, in Sils-Maria, a few days before he died, he juggled both his suffering and death itself—of whose possibility he had few illusions—with the ease of Rastelli.