Dibelius and her husband, Alexander—a former surgeon who is now managing director of Goldman Sachs overseeing operations in several European countries and a rainmaker who helped broker some of the company’s biggest corporate deals of the last decade—bought the property in 2002. (Dibelius’s interest in contemporary art, she admits, is for the most part a solo affair—“my husband’s kind of busy these days,” she says, laughing.)
The couple opted to reconstruct the house’s exterior with fidelity to the 1913 original but went their own way indoors. Along one long wall of the now-minimalist interior looms a large grisaille canvas from 1973 by the noted Hungarian artist László Lakner that contains a facsimile of a page from the handwritten manuscript of Mann’s masterpiece The Magic Mountain. On a wall above the staircase, the artist Heike Weber has spelled out the words auf eigene art using a network of red-tipped pins. The phrase comes from a speech by Mann that Dibelius elegantly renders for me in English: “Tradition,” she says, “is to follow an example in your own way.” She has drawn on the expression not just in how the villa was conceived but also in her support of the Thomas Mann Association, for which she makes the villa and its garden available for events. “There is a kind of obligation. You have to honor the fact that Mann lived here,” she says matter-of-factly, though she’ll readily admit that when she discovered the then-derelict site, she didn’t realize it had once belonged to the writer. “I wasn’t among the craziest of Mann fans,” she says.
After buying the property, though, Dibelius began to study the writer’s life and read more of his work. The house’s environs feature prominently in several novellas, particularly A Man and His Dog, which recounts Mann’s daily constitutionals around the local landscape with his pointer mix Bashan when the area was still a semiforested stretch of wilderness. And though the splendid sense of isolation that Mann evoked is long gone, the regal, leafy beauty remains: The passage up what is now Thomas-Mann-Allee and on to the trail named for his brother Heinrich still makes for one of the most gorgeous and tranquil strolls in all of Munich.
It’s not hard to understand how Mannian ideas have helped Dibelius focus her own philanthropic pursuits. “I’ve learned a lot in particular about Katharina, the really strong woman behind Mann,” she says. “She allowed him to be just a creative artist, and she took care of everything else: the kids, the family life.” It’s a supporting role Dibelius hopes her new foundation, nearly a century later, can continue anew.