German Exiles in Southern California: A Castle by the Sea, Goethe in Hollywood, and L.A. as Hell | KCET
German Exiles in Southern California: A Castle by the Sea, Goethe in Hollywood, and L.A. as Hell
In the 1930s and 1940s, as the horrors of Nazi Germany engulfed the European continent, Los Angeles became a sanctuary for some of Europe's most celebrated artists and intellectuals. Playwright Bertolt Brecht, author Thomas Mann, and composer Arnold Schoenberg all made Southern California their home in the years surrounding World War II and—drawn by the region's favorable climate and the economic opportunities afforded by the Hollywood film industry—scores of other German-speaking exiles joined them.
Next week, scholars from around the world will convene at the University of Southern California for the fifth biennial conference of the International Feuchtwanger Society. From Wednesday, September 14 through Friday, September 16, historians, librarians, and other experts will discuss the experiences of the artists, intellectuals, and other German-speaking exiles who fled persecution in Nazi-controlled Europe for the safety of Southern California.
Although many chose to return to Europe after the Second World War's conclusion—a decision that is the theme of the upcoming conference—others remained, closing out their illustrious careers near the Mediterranean shores of California. Today, our region's archives preserve the record of these exiles and émigrés.
One of the most prominent exiles to make Southern California home was the German-Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger, who gave his name to the International Feuchtwanger Society.
Feuchtwanger was an internationally renowned historical novelist whose outspoken criticism of Hitler and National Socialism made him an enemy of the state when the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933. Driven into exile in France, Feuchtwanger was imprisoned by French authorities at the outbreak of World War II—an episode that Feuchtwanger recorded in his memoir, The Devil in France, recently revised and republished by the USC Libraries.
In 1940, Feuchtwanger escaped from an internment camp in Vichy France with the help of his wife and several sympathetic Americans, who then smuggled the couple out of Europe. Deciding upon Southern California as a new home, the Feuchtwangers heard of a sprawling 6,000 square-foot house in Pacific Palisades that had fallen into disrepair. Built in 1928 as the Los Angeles Times Demonstration Home, the house was meant to demonstrate not only the latest innovations in household design, but also the attraction of living far from the city's urban core.
Ironically, it was that very isolation that had undercut the house's value - it and others in the neighborhood were seen as too distant from basic amenities such as schools and medical care. The Feuchtwangers bought the estate for only $9,000, renovated the property and promptly filled the house with books.
Villa Aurora, as they called the house, soon became a hub of cultural fellowship among the émigré community. The Feuchtwangers were generous hosts and frequently welcomed their fellow exiles, along with American artists and intellectuals, for readings from upcoming works, discussions about art and culture, and to share the latest news from Germany. Feuchtwanger lived in Los Angeles until his death in 1958.
Thomas Mann—the Nobel Prize-winning author of Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain—was among those who attended the salons at Villa Aurora, calling the house a "true castle by the sea."
Mann, perhaps the most famous of the German émigrés in Los Angeles, would later build his own castle perched atop the hills of Pacific Palisades.
Strongly opposed to Nazi policies, Mann left Germany in 1933. After several years of exile in Switzerland and a short teaching stint at Princeton, he and his wife Katia arrived in Los Angeles in 1940.
Many within the exilic community held conflicted feelings about Los Angeles; some detested the city's perceived cultural and urban shortcomings and were only too happy to return to Europe after the war. Mann, however, took U.S. citizenship and planned to make Los Angeles his permanent home.
In his 1996 book German-speaking Artists in Hollywood, Cornelius Schnauber quoted Mann, who often enjoyed strolling down Santa Monica's Palisades Park, on his reasons for settling in Los Angeles:
"The climate has great advantages," he wrote a friend, "as does the countryside, living expenses are relatively cheap, and, in particular, the opportunities for our young musician-children are promising." Later, Mann wrote to his son: "We were just at Princeton and it is very pretty. But I am a bit afraid of the scholarly atmosphere, and I basically prefer the movie rabble in Hollywood."
A 1942 New Yorker profile proclaimed Mann to be "Goethe in Hollywood" and, according to Mann's fellow exile Bertolt Brecht, the author thought of himself as a "latter-day Goethe in search of the land where the lemons grow" (quoted in City of Quartz by Mike Davis).
Mann's years in Southern California were productive. He composed some of his most significant works while in Los Angeles, including Doctor Faustus and The Holy Sinner. Eventually, the draw of Europe's old world traditions was too strong. In 1952, Mann returned to Switzerland, where he died in 1955.
Feuchtwanger and Mann were only two of the many intellectual and artistic titans to reside under the Southern California sunshine.
The influential Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg left Vienna for Los Angeles in 1934. Schoenberg—the founder of the Second Viennese School—taught music at both UCLA and USC and his weekly tennis matches against George Gershwin became the stuff of local legends. He lived in Brentwood until his death in 1951.
In 1941, the famed dramatist Bertolt Brecht arrived in Southern California, settling into a house on 26th Street in Santa Monica. Like many exiles, Brecht found financial support from the Hollywood studios, although his actual contributions were limited: his one script was for Fritz Lang's 1943 film, Hangmen Also Die.
Brecht complained often of life in Los Angeles. In 1942, he wrote that "here one feels like Francis of Assisi in the aquarium, Lenin at the Prater (or Oktoberfest), a chrysanthemum in a mine pit, or a sausage in a hot-house." As Mike Davis noted in City of Quartz, "none of the anti-fascist exiles seemed more spiritually desolated by Los Angeles than the Berlin playwright and Marxist aesthetician." In his poem "Contemplating Hell," Brecht wrote:
Brecht lived in Santa Monica until the advent of the McCarthy era made life—and work—uncomfortable for him. Singled out for his leftist politics, Brecht was blacklisted by Hollywood executives and on October 30, 1947 controversially testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The following day, he returned to Europe, where he would live out his remaining years in East Germany.
Next week's conference, titled To Stay or Not to Stay? (Bleiben oder Zurück-kehren) will explore through seventeen panel discussions the reasons some exiles, like Feuchtwanger and Schoenberg, remained in Los Angeles, while others, like Mann and Brecht, emigrated back to Europe.
Southern California's archives have become a destination for scholars around the world researching the experience of German exiles in L.A. The extensive archives of USC's Feuchtwanger Memorial Library document the lives of Lion Feuchtwanger, novelist Heinrich Mann, and composer Hanns Eisler, among others. The UC Irvine Libraries' Special Collections preserve more than 1,000 editions of Thomas Mann's published works, in addition to thousands of manuscripts, letters, and other documents related to Mann and his family.
Villa Aurora also continues as a place for intellectual fellowship. Maintained by the German government, the Feuchtwangers' former house is today a monument to Southern California's exile community and a residence for artists who face persecution overseas.
Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.