Tennis with Schoenberg

Adapted from “Exodus,” an essay published in the March 9, 2020, issue of The New Yorker, where Alex Ross, a member of the Civic Memory Working Group, is music critic.

You can visit all the addresses in the course of a long day. Bertolt Brecht lived in a two-story clapboard house on 26th Street, in Santa Monica. The novelist Heinrich Mann resided a few blocks away, on Montana Avenue. The screenwriter Salka Viertel held gatherings on Mabery Road, near the Santa Monica beach. Alfred Döblin, the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, had a place on Citrus Avenue, in Hollywood. His colleague Lion Feuchtwanger occupied the Villa Aurora, a Spanish-style mansion overlooking the Pacific; among its amusements was a Hitler dartboard. Vicki Baum, whose novel Grand Hotel brought her a screenwriting career, had a house on Amalfi Drive, near the leftist composer Hanns Eisler. Alma Mahler-Werfel, the widow of Gustav Mahler, lived with her third husband, the best-selling Austrian writer Franz Werfel, on North Bedford Drive, next door to the conductor Bruno Walter. Elisabeth Hauptmann, the co-author of The Threepenny Opera, lived in Mandeville Canyon, at the actor Peter Lorre’s ranch. The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno rented a duplex apartment on Kenter Avenue, meeting with Max Horkheimer, who lived nearby, to write the post-Marxist jeremiad Dialectic of Enlightenment. At a suitably lofty remove, on San Remo Drive, was Thomas Mann, Heinrich’s brother, the august author of The Magic Mountain.

In the 1940s, the West side of Los Angeles effectively became the capital of German literature in exile. It was as if the cafés of Berlin, Munich, and Vienna had disgorged their clientele onto Sunset Boulevard. The writers were at the core of a European émigré community that also included the film directors Fritz Lang, Max Ophuls, Otto Preminger, Jean Renoir, Robert Siodmak, Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler; the theatre directors Max Reinhardt and Leopold Jessner; the actors Marlene Dietrich and Hedy Lamarr; the architects Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra; and the composers Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Seldom in human history has one city hosted such a staggering convocation of talent.

The standard myth of this great emigration pits the elevated mentality of Central Europe against the supposed “wasteland” or “cultural desert” of Southern California. Indeed, a number of exiles fell to scowling under the palms. Brecht wrote, “The town of Hollywood has taught me this / Paradise and hell / can be one city.” The composer Eric Zeisl called California a “sunny blue grave.” Adorno could have had Muscle Beach in mind when he identified a social condition called the Health unto Death: “The very people who burst with proofs of exuberant vitality could easily be taken for prepared corpses, from whom the news of their not-quite-successful decease has been withheld for reasons of population policy.”

Anecdotes of dyspeptic aloofness belie the richness and the complexity of the émigrés’ cultural role. As Ehrhard Bahr argues in his 2007 book, Weimar on the Pacific, many exiles were able to form bonds with progressive elements in mid-century L.A. Even before the refugees from Nazi Germany arrived, Schindler and Neutra had launched a wave of modernist residential architecture. When Schoenberg taught at USC and UCLA, he guided such native-born radical spirits as John Cage and Lou Harrison. Surprising alliances sprang up among the newcomers and adventurous members of the Hollywood set. Charlie Chaplin and George Gershwin played tennis with Schoenberg. Charles Laughton took the lead in a production of Brecht’s Galileo.

By 1941, the full company of exiles had arrived in Los Angeles, blinking in the sun. Their daily routines were often absurd. Several writers, including Heinrich Mann and Döblin, were granted one-year contracts at Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. These offers had little to do with active interest in their talent; rather, the motivation was to help them obtain visas. Required to play their part in this benevolent charade, Mann and Döblin reported for work each day, even though their English was poor and their ideas had no hope of being produced. Once the contracts ran out, the two struggled financially. Döblin wrote, “On the West Coast there are only two categories of writers: those who sit in clover and those who sit in dirt.”

Such doleful tales raise the question of why so many writers fled to L.A. Why not go to New York, where exiled visual artists gathered in droves? Ehrhard Bahr answers that the “lack of a cultural infrastructure” in L.A. was attractive: it allowed refugees to reconstitute the ideals of the Weimar Republic instead of competing with an extant literary scene. In addition, film work was an undeniable draw. Brecht’s anti-Hollywood invective hides the fact that he worked industriously to find a place as a screenwriter, and co-wrote Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! Even Thomas Mann flirted with Hollywood; there was talk of a film adaptation of The Magic Mountain, with Montgomery Clift as Hans Castorp and Greta Garbo as Clavdia Chauchat.

The real explanation for the German literary migration to L.A., though, has to do with the steady growth of a network of friendly connections, and at its center was Salka Viertel. Donna Rifkind pays tribute to this irresistibly dynamic figure in The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood (Other Press), and New York Review Books recently reissued Viertel’s addictive memoir, The Kindness of Strangers. Viertel worked tirelessly to obtain visas for endangered artists, and to help them find their footing when they arrived. Weimar on the Pacific might never have existed without her.

The array of personalities was formidable and eccentric. The Manns, scions of an old North German merchant family, were bourgeois to the core. Thomas had “the reserved politeness of a diplomat on official duty,” Viertel wrote; Heinrich, the “manners of a nineteenth-century grand seigneur.” Feuchtwanger was tan and fit, though he liked nothing more than to withdraw into his vast library and burrow into rare books. Döblin, of Pomeranian-Jewish background, had a cutting wit, which was often directed at Thomas Mann. Werfel, the son of German-speaking Jews in Prague, was the most politically conservative of the group, prone to outbursts against the Bolsheviks. Nonetheless, he was well liked—a mystic in a crowd of skeptics.

Thomas Mann, the uncrowned emperor of Germany in exile, lived in a spacious, white-walled aerie in Pacific Palisades, which the émigré architect J. R. Davidson had designed to his specifications. He saw Bambi at the Fox Theatre in Westwood; he ate Chinese food; he listened to Jack Benny on the radio; he furtively admired handsome men in uniform; he puzzled over the phenomenon of the “Baryton-Boy Frankie Sinatra,” to quote his diaries. Like almost all the émigrés, he never attempted to write fiction about America. He was completing his own historical epic, the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, which is vastly more entertaining than its enormous length might suggest. The Biblical Joseph is reinvented as a wily, seductive youth who escapes spectacularly from predicaments of his own making, and eventually emerges, in the service of the Pharaoh, as a masterly bureaucrat of social reform. It’s as if Tadzio from Death in Venice grew up to become Henry Wallace.

Mann’s comfortable existence depended on a canny marketing plan devised by his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Sr. The scholar Tobias Boes, in Thomas Mann’s War (Cornell), describes how Knopf remade a difficult, quizzical author as the “Greatest Living Man of Letters,” an animate statue of European humanism. The supreme ironist became the high dean of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The florid and error-strewn translations of Helen Lowe-Porter added to this ponderous impression. (John E. Woods’s translations of the major novels, published between 1993 and 2005, are far superior.) Yet Knopf’s positioning enabled Mann to assume a new public role: that of spokesperson for the anti-Nazi cause. Boes writes, “Because he so manifestly stood above the partisan fray, Mann was able to speak out against Hitler and be perceived as a voice of reason rather than be dismissed as an agitator.”

Few obvious traces of the emigration persist in contemporary Los Angeles. A city that is flexing its power as an international arts capital ought to do more to honor this golden age of the not too distant past. But the evidence is there if you search for it. You can still hear stories about the principals from the composer Walter Arlen, aged ninety-nine, and the sublime actor and raconteur Norman Lloyd, aged a hundred and five. A modest tourist business has built up around the legacy of the émigré architects. The homes of Thomas Mann and Feuchtwanger are now under the purview of the German government, which offers residencies there to scholars and artists. The programmers at the Mann house, which has undergone a meticulous renovation, are soliciting video essays on the future of democracy—a topic as fraught today as it was when the author took it up in the nineteen-thirties.

The improbable idyll of Weimar on the Pacific dissipated quickly. Werfel and Bruno Frank both died in 1945. Nelly Mann, Heinrich’s wife, died the previous year, by suicide; Heinrich died in 1950. Döblin went to Germany to assist in the de-Nazification effort, meeting with considerable frustration. Those exiles who remained in America felt mounting insecurity as the Cold War took hold. McCarthyism made no exceptions for leftist writers who had been persecuted by the Nazis. Brecht left in 1947, the day after he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and later settled in East Germany. Feuchtwanger longed to return to Europe but, having never been granted U.S. citizenship, chose not to risk leaving.

Thomas Mann, who had become an American citizen in 1944, felt the dread of déjà vu. The likes of McCarthy, Hoover, and Nixon had crossed his line of sight before. In 1947, after the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten, he recorded a broadcast in which he warned of incipient Fascist tendencies: “Spiritual intolerance, political inquisition, and declining legal security, and all this in the name of an alleged ‘state of emergency’: that is how it started in Germany.” Two years later, he found his face featured in a Life magazine spread titled “Dupes and Fellow Travelers.” In his diary, he commented that it looked like a Steckbrief: a “Wanted” poster.

To stand in Mann’s study today, with editions of Goethe and Schiller on the shelves, is to feel pride in the country that took him in and shame for the country that drove him out—not two Americas but one. In this room, the erstwhile “Greatest Living Man of Letters” fell prey to the clammy fear of the hunted. Was the year 1933 about to repeat itself? Would he be detained, interrogated, even imprisoned? In 1952, Mann took a final walk through his house and made his exit. He died in Zurich, in 1955—no longer an émigré German but an American in exile.