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Billy Wilder, Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg: Los Angeles Exiles

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Billy Wilder with Marilyn Monroe on the set of "The Seven Year Itch" (1955) | Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Cinematic Arts Collection.

In Partnership with USC Libraries: The USC Libraries actively support the discovery, creation, and preservation of knowledge at the University of Southern California and beyond.

Sunshine Sanctuary, a new series presented by the USC Libraries, investigates the legacies of exiled artists and cultural producers living in Los Angeles and Southern California. This series was prompted by an August 2013 conference on Weimar exiles in Los Angeles, sponsored by the London-based Legatum Institute and the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study.

By Anne-Marie Gregg

"A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also consciously and unconsciously the life of his epoch and his contemporaries."
- Thomas Mann

No singular case study or narrative frames the whole of the Los Angeles exile experience. Over the course of 3 days this past August, the London-based Legatum Institute and the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study examined how the stories of creative intellects struggling to find sanctuary intersect and diverge. In the early 1930s, the personal experience of displacement would shape and augment the work of exiled artists Billy Wilder, Thomas Mann, and Arnold Schoenberg. Their creative processes relied upon Los Angeles to give new breadth and meaning to their work. They sought sanctuary in the city and hoped it would unburden them from their homeland's political strife.

Filmmaker Billy Wilder so immersed himself into Hollywood and the American culture that his long time collaborator, film producer Walter Mirisch, described him as a, "sports-loving, bridge-playing Renaissance man, the most American guy I ever knew." Wilder, an Austro-Hungarian émigrés, arrived in Los Angeles in January 1934. His pursuit of filmmaking began in Berlin but was abruptly halted by Hitler's mounting domination. Wilder never saw his family after he moved to Hollywood; his mother, stepfather, and grandmother died in Auschwitz around 1941.

Billy Wilder on the set of "Witness for the Prosecution," 1957 | Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Cinematic Arts Collection.
Billy Wilder on the set of "Witness for the Prosecution," 1957 | Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Cinematic Arts Collection

Wilder's American influences began even long before he emigrated. His mother had lived in New York for a short time and learned to love all things American, especially Buffalo Bill. This led her to affectionately nickname her son Billy.1 Wilder was a complete unknown upon his arrival to Hollywood, and in the city's eyes he was a filmmaker trying to make a name for himself just like hundreds of other hopefuls who arrived daily. Early on Wilder struggled to make ends meet, and his support system was primarily creative émigrés like himself. For a time he shared a room with friend and German exiled actor Peter Lorre.2 It took 4 years before his career endeavors began showing results. In an effort to meet the mainstream American filmmaking style Wilder found the best way to success was by minimizing his "foreignness."3 His abrasive sense of humor and non-conformist persona left him somewhere between the Hollywood elite and the European cultural émigré salons happening in Pacific Palisades.

Regardless, Hollywood produced films for a world market, so the skills offered by Wilder and like-minded émigrés satisfied, within certain parameters, an existing market. His time in Berlin and his European sensibility would be key to his contributions to film noir. His early work such as "Double Indemnity" (1944) captured a pessimistic view of modern city life, which was originally missing from the genre. Over the span of his career his work became more appropriately attached to the cinema of his adopted country. Despite his American tendencies Wilder's experiences and struggles as an exile in Los Angeles are clear undertones in films like "Lost Weekend" (1945) and "Sunset Boulevard" (1950). Using German expressionist styling he presented the psychological turmoil of disturbed, insane, or alienated characters through warped surroundings or distorted camera angles. Wilder's films also balanced the dark side of human nature with biting wit and humor. In "A Foreign Affair" (1948) Wilder uses the setting of post-occupation Berlin for a satirical comedy starring Jean Arthur as an American spinster congresswoman and Marlene Dietrich as a cool corrupt nightclub singer.4 In many ways, "A Foreign Affair" emulates Wilder's own compromises and struggles with acclimation, and despite the loss of his own family in the concentration camps, the film is a sympathetic portrayal of the Germans struggling to survive in war-torn Berlin.

Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich, 1957 | Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Cinematic Arts Collection.
Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich, 1957 | Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Cinematic Arts Collection

Wilder lived in Los Angeles for the remainder of his life and became a highly regarded filmmaker, the quintessential Hollywood success story.

In contrast to Wilder, Thomas Mann was a well-established Nobel prize-winning author upon his arrival in Los Angeles. During a 1933 European lecture tour Thomas Mann denounced the Third Reich and defected from Germany. Shortly thereafter he was stripped of his German citizenship.5 Mann accepted a position at Princeton with a commitment to give lectures on German literature but was drawn by the milder climate and the glamour of Hollywood. He moved to Los Angeles, built a home in the Pacific Palisades and found that California had a "hilly landscape strikingly similar to Tuscany."

Despite the idyllic swaying palm trees and strange oceanic desert climate, he remained all too aware that the ocean view reflected a "blue theater of war."6 Mann is often referred to as the "emperor of exiles" and socialized more or less solely with displaced compatriots. His work centered on personal freedom and political tyranny, which at times caused turmoil in his tightly knit expatriate group. It was through that group of cultural European exiles that Mann met composer Arnold Schoenberg. Initially Schoenberg and Mann had great admiration for one another and soon developed a friendship. That friendship proved to be short-lived, however, due to the publication of Mann's novel "Doctor Faustus."

The publication lead to a heated feud as the protagonist of Mann's novel, Adrian Leverkum, was a brilliant composer whose musical genius stemmed from syphilitic degeneration and led to his creation of a twelve-tone system, similar to the technique Schoenberg had invented in 1921. Schoenberg was furious in part because his role as the actual creator of the method was not properly acknowledged, and mortified that readers would attribute the character's venereal disease to him. Mann refused Schoenberg's accusations and claimed the character was more closely modeled after Nietzsche, adding, "it is a painful drama to see how an important man, in an all too understandable over-irritation because of a life which has wavered between adoration and neglect, almost willfully burrows into ideas of persecution and theft and loses himself in poisonous quarrels. May he rise above bitterness and mistrust and find peace in the secure consciousness of his greatness and fame!"7

Arnold Schoenberg conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in a rehearsal for a 1935 concert. | Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Arnold Schoenberg conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in a rehearsal for a 1935 concert. | Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Despite Schoenberg's objections and the splintering of their social circles "Doctor Faustus" was Mann last great literary achievement. Mann's relationship with Los Angeles and the U.S. as a whole ultimately soured in 1952 when McCarthy's communist hearings drove him back to Europe. He lived with his wife in Switzerland until his death in 1955.

Long before his feud with fellow émigré Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg lived a relatively comfortable existence as a well regarded musician and held a professorship at the Berlin Academy. The Nazi regime and increasing anti-Semitism forced Schoenberg to leave Germany as well. This experience caused him to reflect upon his Jewish identity, and eventually lead to the composition of his "fragmentary masterpiece" Moses und Aron. After spending time in Boston and New York he was drawn to the Los Angeles sunshine and hoped the mild climate would help his asthma. Schoenberg was 60 years old when he decided to emigrate to the United States, and his adjustment to American culture and academia was not easy. He was recommended for forty-two different institutions before finding work. Starting over at his age in the haphazard cultural environment of Los Angeles, his assumptions and expectations were often frustrated, and his relationships were frequently difficult as he struggled to make a living.8

He arrived in Los Angeles in September 1934 on a visitor's visa and gave private instruction to students while lecturing at USC. During one early lecture entitled "Driven Into Paradise" he told his listeners that he was not prepared to talk about the horrors he had left behind since he had come here to forget them. Unlike the biblical snake, driven from paradise to crawl on its belly and eat dust, he announced, he had been driven into paradise: "I have come to a country where I am allowed to go on my feet, where my head can be erect, where kindness and cheerfulness dominate and where to live is a joy, where to be an expatriate of another country is the grace of God."9 By July 1935, he was a professor at UCLA. A good portion of his leisure time was spent on the tennis court with partners like George Gershwin. During the 1940s, Schoenberg began official proceedings to become an American citizen and his music was being performed more frequently. "Evenings on the Roof" chamber concerts organized by Peter Yates and Frances Muller took place in a studio built by R.M. Schindler.

Schoenberg struggled with his immersion into American culture.10 In many ways, his creative process and musical compositions were far ahead of their time and he was unwilling to compromise his commitment to his craft for the sake of monetary gains. His American citizenship did not lessen his struggle to achieve recognition and acceptance as both a modernist artist and an exile. Schoenberg's struggles with these issues are clearly evident in his final opera "Moses und Aron", which draws its figures and motifs from the Book of Exodus, and the conflict between the beliefs of the two central characters. Schoenberg died six years before its premiere, but he regarded "Moses und Aron" as his most important work.

The paths of these creative Los Angeles exiles intersect and diverge, forming a complex vast array. For exiled artists Wilder, Mann, and Schoenberg, Los Angeles served as a site of arguably their most important artistic achievements. Though they struggled with the city's cultural landscape, Los Angeles liberated them from the constrictive grief of expulsion, political strife, and war.


1 Robert Horton, Billy Wilder Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 48.

2 Robert Horton, Billy Wilder Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 49.

3 John Russell Taylor, Strangers in Paradise The Hollywood Emigres 1933-1950,(New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983), 58.

4 Scott McGee,"The Lost Weekend TCM Turner Classic Movies" accessed September 5,2013

5 Claude Hill, "Mirror of The German Soul Thomas Mann Closes an Account" The Saturday Review of Literature Vol. XXXI, no.4 (1948): 11.

6 Gene D. Phillips, Exiles in Hollywood (London: LeHigh University Press, 1998), 10.1

7 Lawrence Weschler, "Paradise: The Southern California Idyl of Hitler's Cultural Exiles" in Exiles + Emigres: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler, ed. Stephanie Barron, ed. et al.(Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1997), 160.

8 Alan Lesseum, "Four The émigré Experience: Schoenberg in America" in Constructive Dissonance: Arnold Schoenberg and the Transformations of Twentieth-Century Culture, ed. "¨Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1997), 58-61.

9 Dorothy Lamb Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler's Emigres and Exiles in Southern California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 103-104.

10 Ibid.

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