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Marta Feuchtwanger, Widow of Famous Novelist, Dies

October 30, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Marta Feuchtwanger, whose hillside home in the Pacific Palisades was at first a friendly oasis for German intellectuals who had fled Hitler's Germany and later became the site of one of the most comprehensive private libraries on the West Coast, has died at age 96.

The widow of famed novelist-playwright Lion Feuchtwanger and curator of USC's Feuchtwanger Library died Sunday at a convalescent hospital near the home she and her husband had occupied since escaping from Germany in 1940.

It was a home that once had vibrated with the scintillating conversation of the most brilliant aesthetes of modern Germany: Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg, and occasionally the whimsy of Charlie Chaplin and Peter Lorre.

Talk of Happier Days

They might have been joined during an evening by Aldous Huxley or Albert Einstein, on his periodic visits to Southern California, to watch the sun set and talk of happier days in a Europe then decimated by World War II.

In her later years, she was known for her swept-back hair, the Oriental dresses she favored and a regal but warm presence that befitted the custodian of a 40,000-volume library that featured thousands of first editions published from the 16th through the 20th centuries and included such incunabula (books printed before 1501) as the "Nuremberg Chronicle."

As a girl, however, she was an independent but carefully guarded dark-haired beauty prone to gymnastics and skiing who was denied both a college education and voice studies because young girls from "good families" in her native Bavaria were permitted to attend only private finishing schools, and then only until they were 15. But she had developed a voracious appetite for reading and taught herself French, English and Italian.

Met at a Party

She met Feuchtwanger at a party when she was 18 and although he mocked her raven hair, telling her he liked only blondes, she was intrigued by his wan features, diminutive stature and Bohemian life style.

He was working as a theater critic and poet and living in a fourth-floor garret where they embraced in secret. She became pregnant, she told The Times in 1981, and they married. Their daughter died of puerperal fever and she was never to have another child.

They lost what little money Feuchtwanger had earned writing for magazines on their honeymoon in Monte Carlo and spent the next nine months wandering through Europe and sleeping outdoors.

Through friends they managed to attend concerts and plays in Frankfurt and Munich and began to meet some of the artists who would years later visit their two-story, red-tile roofed home on Paseo Miramar on a steep hill above Sunset Boulevard.

Switched to Novels

He had been writing plays but she encouraged him to switch to novels. In 1930, he wrote the first of his anti-Hitler novels, "Success," in the genre of historical tales that were to involve characters ranging from "Josephus" in the 1st Century to "Josephy Suss," the 18th-Century court Jew, or "Goya," "Proud Destiny" and "The Day Will Come."

They were set against the background of turbulent events--war, exile, intellectual strivings.

In one of the biographies that followed Feuchtwanger's death in 1958, he was called "a mirror of his times."

As he became known to the world for his novels, he also became a target of the Nazis. The Feuchtwangers, with many of their friends, fled to France after Hitler came to power in 1933 only to be interned there when France fell to Germany. From that odyssey came Feuchtwanger's "The Devil in France," an autobiographical treatment of the ordeal he and his wife suffered while imprisoned in separate camps.

Finally, with the help of some false identification and disguises provided by one of the American consuls still left in France, they managed to escape, hike through the Pyrenees and find their way to America.

Left Behind Libraries

Behind they had left two remarkable personal libraries, the first destroyed by the Nazis during the book-burning that accompanied Hitler's chancellery, the second the one they had put together in France. Their third now belongs to USC under an agreement Mrs. Feuchtwanger made with the university in 1959. (In 1977, she willed the remainder of her estate, more than $1 million, to USC to either maintain the library in the Palisades or build a new one on campus.)

After her husband's death she remained active, hiking the hills near her home and swimming in the nearby ocean almost daily. She spent hundreds of hours talking into a tape recorder for the oral history archives at UCLA; was honored by both the Federal Republic of Germany and the City of Los Angeles on her 75th birthday and in 1980 was made an honorary doctor of humane letters at USC.

And students from around the world sought her out for advice.

But mainly, she said in the 1981 interview she granted in connection with her 90th birthday, she listened to them rather than talked. "Nothing that's human is strange to me," she noted.

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