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L.A.'s German accent

In the 1930s and '40s, German and Austrian emigres brought intellect, wit and Freudian theory to what was then a pretty staid place. Today, Germans are still a presence but are more disparate.

June 20, 2010|By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Villa Aurora was built in the 1920s as a model home to sell property. The former residence of writer Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife, Marta, is a cultural monument to German exiles.
Villa Aurora was built in the 1920s as a model home to sell property. The former… (Annie Wells, Los Angeles…)

At one time, Los Angeles was Weimar on the Pacific: Numerous German-speaking émigrés put their stamp on the city to which they'd fled.

What with directors such as Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch, writers such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, and assorted film composers and actors — many of whom gathered to express their love of German high culture and their hatred of fascism — it seemed at times that the Southland's intellectual life was conducted in German.

Despite the stereotype of the German as introverted and painfully cerebral, the scene was lively: Lavish Westside homes as well as parks, gyms and beer gardens were filled with exiles who'd come to California because their ethnicity or politics had provoked threats or loss of citizenship.

Today, things are different. "There are several areas where many German people live," says Christina Baitzel, who moved to the U.S. a decade ago and now works for Los Angeles Opera. "But I don't think they really connect to each other."

The German presence in L.A. — the exiles in paradise and the more disparate contemporary scene — has a renewed resonance these days, as the city's cultural organizations observe the Ring Festival LA (, which accompanies the opera's rollout of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle.

Los Angeles has a few German institutions and some people who follow the nation's music and letters. But it's not a community, says Cornelius Schnauber, a retired USC professor who is an eminent chronicler of German-language culture.

"In general, the Germans have never been a people who want to stick together when in foreign countries," he says. "It's different from Russian people or Asian people. In general, they're more assimilated: It was true before the exile period and true after the exile period."

The Southland's German roots can still be hard to find. On the surface, the Austrian impact may be easier to spot in 21st century L.A., whether the modern architecture of Neutra and Schindler, the post-Cold War politics of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or the cuisine of Wolfgang Puck.

Despite a visibility that doesn't compare to, say, Russians — whose voices are easy to overhear at classical concerts and operas — Germans have made their mark on Los Angeles and continue to do so today.

Back story: 1930s and '40s

Historian Kevin Starr calls the influx of 200,000 German and Austrian refugees — about 10,000 of whom settled around L.A. — "the most complete migration of artists and intellectuals in European history."

His book "The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s," chronicles some of their highs and lows, as they brought a culture of intellectualism, verbal wit, sexual freedom, Freudian theory and in some cases heavy drug and alcohol use to a city still essentially Midwestern Protestant. In 1930s and '40s L.A., a figure like Marlene Dietrich was considered a serious exotic.

These were the days when émigrés gathered at actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel's house in Santa Monica, or writer Lion Feuchtwanger's Spanish-revival mansion in the Palisades, or Lubitsch's witty, German-only soirees. Some, such as Mann, who wrote "Doctor Faustus" and other novels while here, thrived, while others — his son Klaus Mann, a writer who committed suicide in 1949 — did not fare as well.

Still others, such as the austere, puritanical Brecht — "stop paying the water bills," he wrote in his journals, "and everything stops blooming" — did not take to the Southland's natural setting: More sensual figures, such as Thomas Mann and Feuchtwanger, who responded to the ocean, the climate and the foliage, tended to do better. (For all of Brecht's grousing, his years in L.A. saw the completion of some of his most important plays, and " Galileo" opened at the Coronet Theatre in 1947.)

This chapter of cultural history has been well-chronicled. Less well-told is the social life of the ordinary German who moved to the Southland by choice. That's the subject of an online map and self-guided tour put together by the Los Angeles Conservancy as part of the Ring Festival.

"We were looking for a way to broaden it, to augment the story of the exiles," says Adam Rubin, who handles the conservancy's youth outreach. "I doubt Bertolt Brecht had much to do with the people who were going picnicking in the park."

Along with the exile haunts, the conservancy's map includes such places as an athletic club on Washington Boulevard that offered a German restaurant and beer garden, and La Crescenta's Hindenburg Park, run by the German- American League.

The park, with its statue of the Prussian-German soldier and politician who appointed Hitler chancellor, was the scene of easy-going picnics as well as less innocent gatherings led by the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization dedicated to polishing Hitler's image in the U.S. and rolling back the New Deal.

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