Before World War II broke out, numerous prominent writers, artists and musical composers escaped from fascism and Nazi Germany. A number of them moved to Los Angeles and settled in Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica.
Keeping in the tradition of salons, the Palisades Historical Society held a Sunday afternoon program at the Thomas Mann House on San Remo Drive on December 3.
Benno Herz, the Mann House program director, welcomed 72 members of the Historical Society and guests to a gathering in the living room.
The German government purchased the house in 2016, and it is part of the Mann Houses Network, which includes residences in Lubeck, Munich, Nida and Zurich.
Annually, about 10 to 15 scholars live in the house for three-to-five-month sabbaticals.
German émigré Thomas Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929, built the house in 1941 and lived there with his family until 1952. His library is much as it was when he wrote “Joseph the Provider” and “Doctor Faustus,” as he wrestled with questions about democracy, freedom, migration and exile.
Those attending the Mann event were allowed inside the library, where the light streamed in through the windows of a room that is lined with books.
A piano sits in the corner of the living room and Herz explained that Mann’s grandson had just donated the piano (which had traveled to Switzerland with the family in 1952) back to its original home in the Riviera neighborhood.
After Herz welcomed everybody, guests listened to Palisades historian Randy Young, who provided interesting tidbits about the famous exiles who settled in this sleepy community in the 1930s and ‘40s. He also showed photographs from that era.
“This is not a history but a search,” Young said of his remarks, explaining that when he and his mother, Betty Lou, began to write a book about Rustic Canyon in 1973-74, “it started us on an historical Easter Egg hunt.”
He spoke about the notable people who lived in “Weimar By the Sea” before and after World War II, including Christopher Isherwood, Berthold Viertel and his wife Salka, Bertolt Brecht, composers Hanns Eisler and Ernst Toch, Charles Laughton, director Max Reinhardt and Aldous Huxley.
“Greta Garbo lived on Mabery (in Santa Monica Canyon) for a while,” Young said. “We had the fruit of Europe living here: the intellectual elite.”
He was asked why and answered, “It was Hollywood. Hollywood was known as a magical place.” The writers and actors were sought by Hollywood and “Marlene Dietrich got a lot of people hired here.”
Young had long conversations with Marta Feuchtwanger, who with her German-Jewish author husband Lion had purchased the Villa Aurora on Paseo Miramar, which today also serves as a scholar’s residence.
He touched briefly on the Josepho Ranch, which was supposedly going to be a Nazi outpost, once the Germans won WWII.
Paul Williams, a noted architect, planned a grand mansion in upper Rustic Canyon that would include a power station and other buildings. But when they started to bulldoze the property, Will Rogers, who lived adjacent, sued and possibly stopped the construction.
During the afternoon, City Councilwoman Traci Park’s field deputy, Michael Amster, presented a certificate of appreciation from the L.A. City Council to Palisades Historical Society board member Shirley Haggstrom, in honor of all she has done in her various volunteer roles, including with the Temescal Canyon Association and serving on the Pacific Palisades Community Council.
Shirley is one of the unsung heroes who gracefully and gladly work to keep Pacific Palisades alive and true to its traditions and beauty.