The Forgotten History of L.A.'s German Exiles, Which Included Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann

Left: Thomas Mann; right, his house on San Remo Drive, selling for $15 millionEXPAND
Left: Thomas Mann; right, his house on San Remo Drive, selling for $15 million
Wikipedia / public doman (left); house photos courtesy of Caldwell Banker

As Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne reported this week, the home of celebrated German novelist Thomas Mann is for sale. For just $15 million, you can enjoy the house's "parklike grounds with lush forest solitude ... on one of the most desired streets in the Pacific Palisades Riviera."

That's according to the listing agent's website, which makes no mention that the home on San Remo Drive was built by the author of The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice; instead the ad urges prospective buyers to "create your dream estate," leading Hawthorne to conclude that the home is being marketed as a teardown. That's led to all manner of consternation in Germany, where Mann is revered; according to LAist's Julia Wick, Germans have "posited that the brokers might be concealing Mann's identity so that the home doesn't become some kind of cultural monument, which could scare off potential buyers."

Interesting theory. But Mann is a largely forgotten figure today in Los Angeles, as are nearly all the German émigrés who found refuge here in the 1940s, escaping the rise of Adolf Hitler and the horrors of World War II. So large and thriving was the Austrian and German expat community back then that some called it "Weimar on the Pacific."

There were filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, composers like Arthur Schoenberg, playwrights like Bertolt Brecht and, of course, novelists like Thomas Mann and his older brother, Heinrich.

"America welcomed them, for the most part, with variations of apathy and dismay," wrote Otto Friedrich in his wonderful history of Hollywood in the 1940s, City of Nets.

Not all of the exiles liked Los Angeles. Brecht hated it, in part because he was labeled an "enemy alien" and barred from leaving his home after 8 p.m., and in part because his efforts to make it as a screenwriter ended in complete and utter rejection.

"Nothing could please him," Friedrich wrote. "The opulent fruits of California impressed him as having 'neither smell nor taste.' The pretty little houses on which Californians prided themselves were still worse — 'addition built onto the garages.' In fact, prettiness itself was an affront. 'Cheap prettiness,' said the exile, 'depraves everything.'"

Mann, however, thrived in Los Angeles. He moved to the Pacific Palisades — "one of Los Angeles' elegant scenic suburbs, near Hollywood," according to Janet Flanner in her two-part New Yorker profile of Mann, titled "Goethe in Hollywood."

Flanner wrote:

Though Hollywood is now the German intellectual émigrés' accepted center, Mann's interest in settling there was not altogether social. Apparently he has recently played with the idea of writing a Hollywood novel as a parallel to "The Magic Mountain" and its special theme of sickness. He thinks there is a psychological condition secular to Hollywood which makes of it an island not unlike his island of Davos, on its Swiss mountaintop. Mann also has a tiny Achilles' heel; he would love to have a movie made of one of his novels.

That dream was never realized (at least not in his lifetime — Death in Venice was made into a film in 1971). Not that Mann cared. As he wrote to his friend, the author Herman Hesse:

You ought to see the landscape around our house, with the view of the ocean, the garden with its trees — palm, olive, pepper, lemon and eucalyptus — the luxuriant flowers, the lawns that are ready for mowing a few days after the seeds are sown. Bright sensory impressions are no small matter in times like these, and the sky is bright here almost throughout the year, sending out an incomparable light which makes everything look beautiful."

His brother, meanwhile, toiled as a screenwriter for $125 a week. Heinrich Mann wrote of "loneliness and ingratitude," while Thomas wrote of being "enchanted by the light, by the special fragrance of the air, by the blue of the sky, the sun, the exhilarating ocean breeze, the spruceness and cleanness of this Southland."

Such enchantment would not last. Mann, who was one of the few Germans to publicly speak out against Hitler, became one of the few successful writers to speak out against the House of Un-American Activities Committee (or HUAC), which held nine days of hearings on Hollywood in 1947, kicking off the Hollywood blacklist. 

"As an American of German birth," Mann declared (as told by Friedrich), "I am painfully familiar with certain political trends. Spiritual intolerance, political inquisitions, and declining legal security, and all this in the name of an alleged 'state of emergency' ... that is how it started in Germany. What followed was fascism, and what filled fascism was war."

After Mann defied U.S. authorities by visiting Communist-bloc East Germany, his speeches began to get canceled. U.S. Representative Donald Jackson of Los Angeles, who sat on HUAC, said this about Mann, as relayed by Friedrich:

Our imminent guest within the gates of what we Americans consider to be a land of liberty and justice will do well to lard his obvious sympathies for communism and communists with a few strips of common sense and common gratitude. Mr. Mann should remember that guests who complain about the fare at the table of their hosts are seldom invited to another meal.

"This sick, tense atmosphere of this country oppresses me," Mann wrote in a letter to a friend. He wanted only to "go back to the old earth."

Just as Mann was part of a wave of Europeans fleeing the rise of Nazism, he joined other Europeans like Ingrid Bergman and Charlie Chaplin (as well as Brecht, who fled the country the day after he testified before HUAC), who were all but chased out of the country. Mann moved out of his beloved Palisades home in 1952, flying to Zurich, which would be his last home. 

Of Los Angeles, he wrote, like a spurned lover: "I have no desire to rest my bones in this soulless soil, which I owe nothing, and which knows nothing of me."

Now set to demolish his earthly paradise, L.A. still knows nothing of Mann, or any of his other German compatriots who once found sanctuary here. 


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