Weimar on the West Coast

Posted on 9th February 2022 by simonbeattie

The following post was originally published on Engelsberg Ideas.

In 1927 the LA Times built a show home for modern high-tech living in the new Los Angeles neighbourhood of Pacific Palisades, updating its readers with weekly progress reports.  Perched in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, Villa Aurora, a large Spanish Colonial Revival-style house, was a mix of both the Old and New Worlds: wooden ceilings were shipped from Spain, a Renaissance fountain imported from Tuscany, with local redwood for the walls and Moorish-inspired tiling supplied by the Malibu Tile Company.  As a ‘demonstration home’ for twentieth-century Californian living, it was equipped with all mod cons: a refrigerator, a dishwasher, electric garage doors, and a theatre organ to accompany the projection of silent films.  Then came the financial crash of 1929, and the first residents were forced to rent the house from the bank before finally moving out. After that the house remained empty until it was bought by the German émigré author Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta, for $9000 (Peggy Guggenheim had already declined a purchase) in 1943.  The story goes that the building was so run down the couple had to spend their first nights at their new home sleeping in the garden. 

The Thomas Mann House which forms part of the Villa Aurora complex (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Villa Aurora soon became known as the ‘Weimar on the West Coast’, thanks to the Feuchtwangers’ hosting a variety of readings, concerts, and discussions for the likes of Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, and Fritz Lang, as well as composers such as Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill. Naturally, there were also books.  Before he was granted political asylum in the United States in 1941, Feuchtwanger had had two libraries: the first was confiscated by the Nazis in 1933 when he fled to France; the second he had left behind on the Côte d’Azur, when, as a German national, he was rounded up by the French authorities at the beginning of the Second World War.  Feuchtwanger’s third library (some 30,000 volumes), however, survives, and is now divided between the University of Southern California, in the Memorial Library which bears his name, and Villa Aurora itself, which for the past 25 years has served as an artist’s retreat with residency fellowships for writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and composers.

In 2000, five years after Villa Aurora embarked upon the next chapter in its history, the Los Angeles writer and curator Victoria Dailey published Roland Jaeger’s New Weimar on the Pacific: the Pazifische Presse and German Exile Publishing in Los Angeles 1942–48 (translated by Marion Philadelphia, edited by Dailey, and first published as ‘Exiles in Angeltown, Volume 1’), an overdue account of this little-known, yet important publishing project. As Dailey herself notes in an accompanying article on her website, ‘it still surprises people to learn that German culture flowered in Los Angeles, if only for a decade or so, and that leading German cultural figures managed to thrive there… they did so, in part, through the Pazifische Presse.’ The imprint was founded in 1942 by two Jewish émigré bibliophiles, Ernst Gottlieb (a busy portrait photographer in the Los Angeles German-speaking community) and Felix Guggenheim (the founder of a successful book club in Germany in the 1920s who made his money in the California citrus business and went on to open an antiquarian bookshop in Beverly Hills). They wanted to provide German writers in exile a forum where they could publish in their native language, ‘to give testimony to the eminent cultural force that was expelled by Hitler, and which has found a future in America.’  Naming the press ‘Pacific’ was to indicate not only its location, but the peaceful message of its activities. Most German-speaking émigrés settled in New York, but some headed further west to the bright lights (and more appealing climate) of Los Angeles, and the lure of Hollywood. The weather aside, the situation for German writers looked quite bleak: the language barrier and a lack of readers and publishers meant many lived in poverty, relying on one-year contracts with film studios.  Brecht, who was in Hollywood co-writing the noir war film Hangmen Also Die with Fritz Lang, summed it up in one of his Hollywood-Elegien:

the village of hollywood was planned according to the notion

people in these parts have of heaven. in these parts

they have come to the conclusion that god

requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to

plan two establishments but

just the one: heaven. it

serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful

as hell. 

Things were different if you were already a writer of means, such as Feuchtwanger or Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann who moved to Los Angeles from Princeton in 1941. It was to renowned writers such as these that Gottlieb and Guggenheim turned when looking for authors to publish.  Their partner in the project was Saul Marks (1905–1974) of the Plantin Press, which was, as Jaeger puts it ‘one of the most renowned American private presses of its day’. Their distributor, Mary S. Rosenberg (1900–1992), another Jewish émigré, had grown up working in her father’s bookshop in Fürth (where customers included a young Henry Kissinger) before starting her own bookselling business in New York soon after she arrived in the US in 1939.  Between 1942 and 1948, the Pazifische Presse published, by subscription, a total of eleven books by émigré authors, in both trade editions and signed limited editions, each beautifully printed in Los Angeles by the Plantin Press. The first was by Mann: Thamar, an excerpt from the concluding part of his great tetralogy Joseph und seine Brüder. These were followed by works by Franz Werfel (Die wahre Geschichte vom wiederhergestellten Kreuz, 1942; Gedichte aus den Jahren 1908–1945,1946), Bruno Frank (Sechzehntausend Francs,1943), Leonhard Frank (Mathilde, 1943), Alfred Neumann (Gitterwerk des Lebens, 1943), Friedrich Torberg (Mein ist die Rache,1943); and Alfred Döblin (Nocturno, 1944).  Mann contributed two more works (Das Gesetz,1944, and Leiden an Deutschland, 1946), before the Presse’s final production, by Feuchtwanger himself (Wahn oder der Teufel in Boston, 1948), appeared. 

Interest in exile studies has been building for some time: important exhibitions range from the first ever to be mounted at the new Deutsche Bibliothek in Frankfurt, in 1965, Exil-Literatur 1933–1945, through to a 2018/19 focus on Thomas Mann in America at the Deutsche Literaturarchiv in Marbach, Thomas Mann in Amerika.  The theme has been explored recently, too, by the ceramicist Edmund de Waal in his installation library of exile at the British Museum. 

Understandably perhaps, exhibitions tend to focus on writers in exile rather than others in the book world—the printers, publishers, and booksellers who take the writers’ words and get them to readers—so New Weimar on the Pacific provided important information, not least to another work on this period of book history: Ernst Fischer’s magisterial Verleger, Buchhändler & Antiquare aus Deutschland und Österreich in der Emigration nach 1933.  Ein biographisches Handbuch.  Published in 2011 by the Verband Deutscher Antiquare as a memorial to those publishers and booksellers who were driven out of Germany and Austria by the Nazis, it contains over 800 biographical entries, with a phenomenally wide compass, as writers, scientists, critics, and intellectuals who perhaps only worked briefly in publishing are also included.  Copies of both Jaeger and Fischer are still available and well worth seeking out.

In his 1986 Malkin Lecture at Columbia University, the late Barney Rosenthal noted that ‘something very important happened in the world of rare books in [the US] in the nineteen-thirties and forties … the exodus of the German and Austrian booksellers which followed the rise of Nazism in Europe.’  Barney termed this exodus the ‘Gentle Invasion’, ‘something which … changed this little world of ours dramatically, and permanently …  Since by far the largest number of these booksellers, and booksellers-to-be, settled in the United States, it is here that their impact has been most profound.  Yet their story as a whole has not been told.’  That has now been redressed by books such as Jaeger’s and Fischer’s.  Barney’s lecture reminds us that the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America was not created until 1949 (the same year the Verband Deutscher Antiquare was founded in Germany), after the Gentle Invasion had taken place, and it is heartening to read not just how my forebears in the trade managed to escape persecution, but how they were often supported by their bookselling peers.  As the motto of that other great post-war bibliopolic creation the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, founded in 1947, reminds us: Amor librorum nos unit – The love of books unites us.

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