Viola Drath: A remarkable life hijacked
By Josh White,
Viola Herms Drath had been to the Blue Star Mothers convention the week of Aug. 8, and she spoke excitedly about an upcoming family dinner at the Prime Rib on K Street and her great-granddaughter’s first birthday. She was pleased that, even at 91 years old, her calendar was so full.
But by the end of the week, she was found dead.
Drath was determined not to let her age, or anything else for that matter, slow her down. Her wits sharp and her health steady, Drath navigated the worlds of journalism, foreign policy, art, fashion, travel and Georgetown life with the ease and style of someone decades younger. She still had dreams and aspirations.
But by Aug. 12, Drath’s remarkable life had been hijacked by a man described by those close to her as an eccentric opportunist. More than 40 years her junior, the man had looked to piggyback on Drath’s successes and ride them to social status and importance, several people who knew the couple said.
Drath’s second husband, Albrecht Gero Muth, 47, has been charged with beating and strangling her in their Q Street home in Northwest Washington. In court recently, Muth, who has claimed to be a general in the Iraqi army and a spy for several countries was granted the right to represent himself at trial.
Drath’s friends, co-workers and acquaintances described the Muth-Drath marriage as a quintessential Washington story of power and influence. But it was a relationship that got increasingly dysfunctional as Drath got older and Muth got more delusional and demanding, they said.
Although a strong and independent woman, Drath — widowed after a long and loving first marriage — became ensnared in a two-decade cycle of loneliness, love, dependence, abuse and reconciliation, her friends and family say.
But Drath never saw it that way. In an unpublished and previously undisclosed memoir — called “A Thoroughly Muddled Marriage: Report of an Inmate” — Drath acknowledged the many differences between Muth and her. But she also wrote of a true and genuine love and said the fights all were worth it.
In lengthy conversations over the past three months, Drath’s family members spoke of a woman they admired and loved and now sorely miss. They said the way she died and the person they think is responsible for her death have overshadowed her inspiring life.
“My mother was not ordinary in any way, not in the way she lived and not in the way she died,” said Connie Dwyer, Drath’s eldest daughter. “She had a very interesting life. . . . She said she’d like to live to 95, but we don’t get to choose when we die or how we die. Yes, she was robbed. There’s no doubt about it. Her day had not really come.”
Drath told her family that she truly loved Muth, just that it was a different kind of love affair. Those close to her said that Muth took over much of her life and that she relented because she didn’t want to be alone.
That could be seen in their Georgetown home. Photographs of Drath’s daughters and grandsons graced the living room piano until they gradually were replaced by signed head shots of top U.S. generals and a 1989 image of Drath shaking hands with President George H.W. Bush. Beautiful artistic works above the mantel were eventually surrounded by military challenge coins. Framed family memories on a wall in the English basement were pushed aside in favor of letters from dignitaries and photographs of senators, a Supreme Court justice and foreign officials.
All to impress a Washington society that often trades on influence and connections.
As police looked through the photographs Aug. 12, their attention turned to Muth. Drath’s body lay lifeless in an upstairs bathroom, steps from her longtime office, where a Blue Star Mothers conference folder had been tossed on a small couch.
Muth, authorities allege, had killed Drath before concocting a story that she was frail and had fallen and hit her head. Those who knew Drath said that the moment they heard of her passing they were certain that story could not have been true.
“She had a lot to look forward to,” Dwyer said of her mother. “She did like drama, and she would have been fascinated by this. She would have. The attention, the celebrity that comes with this right now. She probably wouldn’t have minded that.”
‘A big adventure’
Viola Herms was born in Dusseldorf in 1920, into a family that was doing quite well for post-World War I Germany. Relatives recalled stories of drivers and vacations and boarding school in Scotland. It was there that she learned flawless English.
A student of art and fashion, she began her adult life as a playwright. One of her early productions — “Farewell Isabell” — reached the stage in Munich in 1946. She wrote newspaper articles for German and Austrian papers and wrote plays that became movie scripts. A stunning beauty, she captured her bright blond hair and blue eyes in an oil self-portrait that hangs in her home.
It was about that time that she met Lt. Col. Francis S. Drath, a handsome U.S. Army officer who was serving as the deputy military governor of Bavaria. In an autobiographical manuscript that was never published, she wrote of finding him and a group of Americans on a small motorboat in the Swiss waters of Lake Constance.
“I caught the eye of a tall dark-haired Colonel with the most soulful brown eyes I had ever seen,” she wrote. “It was love at first sight.”
Col. Drath needed interpreters at his headquarters in Munich, and she showed up at his office the next day. It was a whirlwind romance. Within months, they married and moved to his home town of Lincoln, Neb., where she began studying for an advanced degree in literature and philosophy at the University of Nebraska.
Once in Nebraska, Drath worked hard to keep a connection with her past by taking a job with a German language weekly in Omaha and later working as an American correspondent for Germany’s Madame magazine.
The style writing required frequent travel to New York, where she circulated in the fashion, arts and book worlds and began hobnobbing with celebrities.
“She had about five dimensions,” said Parker Ladd, a friend who met Drath more than five decades ago when she was covering a New York fashion show his partner, Arnold Scaasi, was putting on. “She was an intellectual. She loved to dress up, a mid-European style. Hats and hair, it was really something. . . . She was a brilliant politician. She was a happy person, for a German. But there was a seriousness about her, her daily life and what she was involved in.”
Fran Drath, born in 1952, was in awe of her mother, whom she remembered as glamorous and fun. She remembered Drath banging away on a Remington typewriter, using only her index fingers.
The family also acted a bit differently. For vacations, they would use the colonel’s military position to fly space-available on military aircraft to Morocco, Spain, Germany, Antigua.
“It was like a big adventure; she was just loving her life in America,” Fran Drath said. “She was involved in the now, embracing what was before her. And they had a really solid marriage. They were totally in love.”
‘In an empty house’
In 1968, after 21 years in Lincoln, Col. Drath took a job as a legislative liaison with the Selective Service in Washington, allowing his wife to jump into Washington journalism. She quickly snagged a job as a political correspondent for Handelsblatt, Germany’s rough equivalent of the Wall Street Journal.
“He realized that she was quite brilliant and should be somewhere else and not Nebraska,” Ladd said.
The couple bought a house on Q Street just off Wisconsin Avenue, putting them within walking distance of Georgetown’s shops and restaurants.
Drath took advantage of the location to hit the Tuesday art show openings, and she was a regular at the P Street galleries. Family members said she befriended J. Carter Brown, then director of the U.S. National Gallery of Art, and famed Washington artist Leon Berkowitz.
Journalism gave Drath access to Washington’s elite, especially in the areas of politics and art. She pursued a lifelong interest in German reunification and studied foreign policy.
“She knew about art and was very educated,” said Sonia Adler, who edited Washington Dossier and hired Drath. “She wrote very well. She was wonderful and one of the real professionals I had.”
Warren Adler, Sonia’s husband and author of “War of the Roses” and numerous other novels, said Drath was one of the most interesting people he met in Washington.
“Our conversations were always lively and full of knowledge,” Warren Adler said. “She had a great take on what the world was all about, and she also had a certain style, which we liked.”
Because of her work for Handelsblatt, Drath was often on Capitol Hill. At a news conference in the early 1980s, she met an unpaid intern from Germany, a young man who impressed her with his intelligence and wit. They met for dinner at a Georgetown restaurant, and he would pop in on her Georgetown home. Once, he sported an eye patch and claimed that he had gotten in the way of an assassination attempt in Paraguay — an eye patch that Drath would remember in her memoirs as “an attention-getting prop.”
It was Albrecht Gero Muth.
As Drath neared her 66th birthday, she was dealt the biggest personal blow of her life. On Jan. 11, 1986, Col. Drath died after a battle with cancer. They had been married nearly 40 years. He was 81.
Gone was Drath’s main support system, the man who cooked and handled the finances and did the shopping and tended to the spacious back yard. Gone was her true love.
“It was hard for her,” Fran Drath said. “It was very hard. It turned her world upside down. What scared her the most is that she knew she couldn’t replace him.”
Ethan Drath said his grandmother was devastated.
“She was grieving,” he said, “and she didn’t know what the next step was.”
In her autobiographical manuscript, Drath wrote that she was truly alone: “In an empty house with nobody to talk to, nobody to share laughter and tears, nobody to hug, nobody to love!”
She vowed to herself never to attend a mate’s funeral again.
Soon, Muth was again on her Q Street doorstep.
‘It was so bizarre’
Muth was in almost every way the opposite of the colonel, according to those close to Drath. He was in his 20s, he was German, he was outspoken and he liked to name-drop. He loved to argue politics and carried a formal European air about him. He was eccentric.
But to Drath, he was charming, attentive and fresh.
“I was impressed by his natural eloquence, his polished speech, his grasp of affairs of state, of governance and the intricacies of political chess,” Drath wrote. “Often, after our talks, he sat down at the baby grand to play and sing for me into the wee hours of the evening.”
After months of teas and phone calls, Muth showed up unannounced at Drath’s home in a tuxedo and carrying a bottle of Moet. He proposed marriage, and she accepted.
In an anecdote that Drath and Muth told many people over the years, Muth the next day cold-called Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia asking if he would marry him, drawing out the reply: “But I’m already married.” It was a conversation that Drath wrote in her memoir was “the beginning of an animated relationship that lasted many years.”
Instead, Muth used a fictional relationship with a senator to persuade a Virginia Supreme Court judge to marry the couple in early 1990.
For the next two decades, Drath’s family and friends said, Muth tried to climb Washington’s social and political ladders, often gaining an advantage from his wife’s status or from carefully crafted stories that usually had a kernel of truth but upon inspection did not hold up.
He threw unusually formal parties, filled with pomp and circumstance and protocol, trying to bring the city’s elite together under his auspices — often successfully. Generals, top journalists, foreign dignitaries and government officials accepted his invitations to parties at the Q Street home and at the Dacor Bacon House in Foggy Bottom.
Muth, in e-mails to The Washington Post before his arrest in August, said his relationship with Drath was a “marriage of convenience” and part of an arrangement that included a prenuptial agreement.
He wrote that he was “an agent of the East German foreign intelligence service” in the early 1980s when he met Drath, who had been “one of my icons.”
Muth’s court-appointed defense attorney did not return calls seeking comment.
Prosecutors have labeled Muth a liar, saying in court papers that he has concocted much of his own history — calling himself a spy for various countries, an Iraqi general, European nobility — all the while unemployed and living on a monthly allowance from Drath.
He would walk around his Georgetown neighborhood in a uniform detectives say was made by a tailor in South Carolina, carrying a swagger stick, and law enforcement officials said he used a Maryland copy shop to make certificates showing that he was an Iraqi general. The Iraqi Embassy in Washington has disavowed any connection to Muth, though it is clear from photographs in Drath’s home that some Iraqi officials attended his events.
Muth at one point officially changed his name to “Count Albi” in a nod to aristocracy. He showed Drath’s family members — and others — a 1999 letter that purported to be from a relative who was conferring his title on Muth after suffering serious physical injury from a fall off an elephant in Mumbai.
“I asked her how she could marry him. It was so bizarre, I couldn’t understand it,” Warren Adler said.
Muth, according to Drath’s account, made her feel young, alive and excited. They traveled the world, often trading on embassy contacts Muth cultivated.
He supported her efforts to work on the 1988 Bush campaign as a foreign policy adviser and encouraged her involvement in memorializing war veterans through the White House Commission on Remembrance and the Blue Star Mothers.
Drath’s family members generally declined to speak about Muth because of the criminal case, but they said they questioned the need for them to marry and over time barely saw him because he did not attend family events.
“She did things her way. She made her own decisions and wasn’t overly concerned about what people would say about her,” Dwyer said. “We kind of were two minds about all of this. We have to respect the decisions she makes.”
The trouble began not long into their marriage. Muth was arrested in 1992 and was charged with domestic assault, ultimately serving jail time.
It was the first of several alleged violent outbursts from Muth, usually after drinking. Drath wrote of a threat in a Scottish castle when the two were traveling — she said she ran down a hall in her underwear to escape him — and friends recall several times when she would seek help after claims of abuse, such as being hit with a chair or threatened.
Some of those incidents led to lengthy breakups. In 2002, after an alleged attack, Muth became romantically involved with a man and moved into his apartment.
To support himself during the breakup, Muth worked at an Embassy Suites hotel in Foggy Bottom.
In her autobiography, Drath wrote that she was cognizant of the situation but was consistently drawn to Muth anyway.
“The bumpy ride was propelled by an unchallenged ego, incapable of understanding the dynamics of teamwork, and partially steadied by a romantic concept of unconditional love on my part,” Drath wrote. “As his dreams of fame and fortune faded, the smart kid with the promising potential, the ready smile and witty asides turned into a frustrated champagne guzzler, a braggart and relentless user. It was a chilling experience to see his small creative deceptions that had fascinated and amused me during the early years of our marriage turning into ever bolder and calculating schemes and games teetering on the brink of legality.”
Yet amid the domestic abuse and the lies, the couple continued to get back together.
“She missed having someone in the house, and she was lonely,” said Helle Dale, former editorial page editor at the Washington Times, who published Drath’s works on foreign policy. “I told her she should not take this man back, because he’s dangerous.”
In 2008, Drath advertised one of her rooms on craigslist, hoping to take in a boarder to have a third person in the house. The boarder’s room — now Muth’s study — was next to the bedroom where Muth and Drath slept in separate beds.
Alan Burns, who was starting graduate school, moved in for $1,000 a month. Things were great, for a few weeks. One Saturday night, Drath busted his door open, visibly shaken.
“She said that he had threatened to hit her,” Burns said. “I asked her if she wanted to call the police, and I told her she should. But she didn’t want to.”
“The next day, they just acted like it didn’t happen, which is even more bizarre,” he said.
Drath told Burns that she wanted to rent out a room because she thought it would change Muth’s behavior. Burns moved out suddenly early one morning and sent an e-mail to his former hosts telling them that he was uncomfortable with the situation.
‘A strange feeling’
Ethan and Lindsay Drath had wanted their daughter, who celebrated her first birthday on Halloween, to get to know her great-grandmother. Viola Drath lit up when she saw her.
“She was interesting, alive, relevant and busy,” Lindsay Drath said. “Even at 91, it wasn’t easy to get on her calendar. She was a different kind of 91-year-old.”
Even at 91, Drath was planning for the future. Even at 91, she was aware that she was in a volatile relationship but felt drawn back to her husband. Even at 91, such blind love and drama can be deadly.
In her memoir, Drath appears to clearly understand the two sides of her relationship, even if no one else did.
“It was a strange feeling to mount the front steps to my house knowing that my longtime mate and comrade would not be there, would never hold my hand again, never play the piano for me again and never vocally or physically abuse me,” Drath wrote. “Walking through the rooms with mixed emotions I was as scared of an encroaching emptiness as I was relieved to realize that I would never have to be afraid of the man whom I once entrusted my life and in a perverse way still cared for.”
She wrote that she had no regrets.
“In hindsight, my friends ask, would I do it again? Most of them shudder when I answer: I would,” Drath wrote. “You see, I had fallen in love with this man.”
Staff writers Keith L. Alexander, Robert Barnes, Jenna Johnson, Allison Klein and Clarence Williams and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.