When the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg settled in Brentwood, California, in the mid-nineteen-thirties, he found himself living across the street from Shirley Temple.
As you can imagine, in some alternate universe, tour buses are trundling around Los Angeles, showing gawkers the homes of a different class of celebrity – not the stars of the silver screen but the stars of music, literature, and philosophy, members of that extraordinary constellation of European émigrés who took refuge in Southern California during the Nazi period. “On your right, the home of Igor Stravinsky, the composer of The Rite of Spring. . . . That little white house belongs to the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht. . . .“ These or similar words you could hear spoken by the tour guides.
It’s not pure fantasy. Maps of émigré homes float around the Internet, and Cornelius Schnauber’s book Hollywood Haven proposes a series of tours. Sometimes intellectual tourists are so bold as to knock on doors. Geoff Dyer, in his new book White Sands, recounts what happened when he called at the former home of Theodor W. Adorno, the author of Minima Moralia. People living there, opening the door, might ask: “The writer? The philosopher?”, as you mention Adorno’s name.“I must find out more. How do you spell ‘Adorno’ again?”
These days, everybody is talking about a certain home: It can be found at 1550 San Remo Drive, in Pacific Palisades. Here, from 1942 to 1952, lived Thomas Mann, in a house built to his specifications. Here was written Doctor Faustus, a book that had an overpowering effect on literature. The tale of a composer in league with the devil, it bears the full weight of Mann’s grief, rage, and shame at what had happened in his native Germany. The house was hidden by tall trees and hedges: Many people said, that, while visiting the house they had the strange sense that the author was still there, imagining a ravaged spiritual landscape as he looked out over his avocado grove at the Pacific.
The house at 1550 San Remo is now for sale, at a list price of just under fifteen million dollars – rather high for a five-thousand-square-foot house on one acre. Remarkably, the property was last on the market in 1953, when a lawyer named Chester Lappen bought it from Mann for fifty thousand dollars. The real-estate listing, which makes no mention of Mann, invites buyers to “create your dream estate.” An architecture critic pointed out in a Californian newspaper that the house is effectively being marketed as a “teardown”: it is considered less valuable than the parcel of land on which it sits.
The threat of demolition has caused an outcry in Germany, where Mann’s reputation is as exalted as it has ever been. There is hope that a culturally sensitive buyer will come forward, as happened with the Brecht house in Santa Monica. The “magic villa” on San Remo, as the German press calls it, is more than the home of a great writer: it is a symbol of a fraught period in American history, one that gave a refugee from Nazism feelings of déjà vu.
The German government now is to buy the house in California where Thomas Mann wrote Doctor Faustus after fearing that it would be demolished to make way for another mansion.
Almost $15 million of taxpayers’ money will be spent on acquiring the two-storey villa, which the Nobel laureate commissioned from the modernist architect JR Davidson.
The author fled Europe and the Nazis for Los Angeles in 1942 and – as already mentioned above – lived in the villa until 1952, when the rise of McCarthyism drove him back to Switzerland where he died three years later.
Mann already bought the house in September, 1940 – “a property with seven palms and many citrus trees,” he wrote to his brother Heinrich. For seven years he had been a wanderer; when the Nazis took power, he was away on a lecture tour (“The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner”), and within a few months he had lost possession of the palatial home in Munich that he had occupied for twenty years. Like many émigrés, he struggled to find his place in American culture, but he grew to like the Mediterranean tinge of life in Southern California, the transfiguring quality of the light. He would go on long walks on the beach. Maybe reflecting about a plotline for a new book …