The Political Salons of Los Angeles

For this story we focus on the interwar period following the Treaty of Versailles, showing its effects, and centers on those German and Austrian members of the Weimar who were forced from Germany as the Second World War approached. We enter the next layer of those very famous and influential émigré members of the Weimar who travelled to America, paid for mainly by Rockefeller, Hiram Halle, and Julius Rosenwald as part of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars. Of specific interest herein are those most successful, influential, and well-known: Thomas Mann, Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, Salka and Berthold Viertel, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang and others.

Lion Feuchtwanger

Marta Feuchtwanger

Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger and ‘The Weimar by the Sea’

Built in 1927 the Villa Aurora was originally a demonstration home located at 520 Paseo Miramar in Pacific Palisades. With its panoramic views of Santa Monica Bay, the home was a demonstration home meant to showcase the latest technologies: a gas range, an electric refrigerator, a dishwasher, and a garage door opener. It was one of the very first homes built in the area and today the ‘Weimar by the Sea’ is well hidden, somewhat lost even among the multitude of similarly looking Spanish Villas. In 1943 the home was sold to Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger for a ridiculous, even for that time, $9,000 due to an alleged foreclosure on the property. Both Lion and Marta were instrumental in assisting the emigration of their friend and Lion’s protege, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was met upon his arrival at San Pedro, Port of Los Angeles by Marta Feuchtwanger. Marta also finding Brecht a place to live.

Lion overlooking the Pacific Palisades before development.

Lion Feuchtwanger was a prominent member of the Weimar and was influential within the intellectual and artistic circles in Los Angeles after arriving in 1941. He was a leading voice for the exiles and was put under FBI surveillance during the McCarthy era. In his influential writing, The Oppermanns, Lion clearly states the exiles modus operandi in its conclusion entitled, ‘Tomorrow’:

“It is upon us to begin the work. It is not upon us to complete it. – Talmud.”

Lion Feuchtwanger while still in France completed the definitive story of Flavius Josephus, entitled, The Day Will Come. Josephus an early advocate of global cosmopolitanism (internationalism, globalism), and the trilogy centers around the, Psalm of the World Citizen. Josephus hoped for a day in the future, as did Feuchtwanger, where internationalism would become a reality. Feuchtwanger’s interest in Favius Josephus and the Fabians being named after Fabius Maximus show a similarity in both method and means.

The Feuchtwanger’s lavish home, with its Mediterranean vistas, became a mecca for European writers, artists, and musicians of all types during the war years. Feuchtwanger’s books, The Wandering Jew(1933), and Jud Suss(1934), were adapted into British sponsored movies by Maurice Elvey and Lothar Mendes respectively. Jud Suss released in America under the title, Power. Both movies starring Conrad Veidt, well established as a leading man within Weimar culture before leaving Europe. In 1941 Veidt would also move to Los Angeles to help persuade American involvement in the Second World War. Veidt’s most famous Hollywood role was as Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca(1943). One of the most loved treasures of American cinema, nothing more than a propaganda film. In, Different from the Others (1919), a melodrama co-written by Richard Oswald and ‘the German Alfred Kinsey’, Magnus Hirschfeld. Different from the Others is looked upon by historians as the first ever feature length film aimed at a specifically gay audience and was funded by Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science.

Feuchtwanger acquired a large collection of the various editions and translations of the works of Flavius Josephus spanning 400 years of printing. Feuchtwanger wrote a trilogy covering the life of Favius Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century telling of the fall of the Second Temple: Josephus (1932), The Jew of Rome (1935), and The Day will Come (1942). He also had an extensive collection of first editions and secondary works from the French Revolution by Rousseau, Diderot, Condorcet and Helvetius. His collection also includes the first editions of many of the fellow exiles work including Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, Ludwig Marcuse, Alfred Doblin, Bruno Frank, Oskar Maria Graf, Franz Werfel, and Arnold Zweig.

Following Lion’s death his wife willed his library collection and personal papers to the University of Southern California, within the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, housed within the Special Collections of the Doheny Memorial Library. Their ‘castle by the sea’ was eventually sold to the German government and is today controlled and managed by the Villa Aurora Thomas Mann House (VATMH) consortium. Following the death of Marta, their home was repurposed as a study center and is now home of the Villa Aurora Foundation for European American Relations where they offer fellowships and a residency program promoting “transatlantic exchange”. A portion of the Feuchtwanger collection still lives at the Villa Aurora, on permanent loan from the University of California. Marta remained a very influential Los Angeles heiress living at the Villa Aurora for nearly thirty years after her husbands death and continued to promote her husbands work throughout this time.

Students of University of Southern California looking through primary sources.

The Thomas Mann House

Thomas Mann moved to Pacific Palisades in the spring of 1941 and lived at 740 Amalfi Drive, within a hundred meters of Aldous Huxley and his wife at 701 Amalfi Drive. Regular entries within the Thomas Mann diaries tell of regular “visits to the Huxley’s for dinner and tea as well as return invitations from the Manns.” The two couples “met while walking the streets of the nearby hills where the Manns’ future house was being built high up on San Remo Drive, or on the beach in Santa Monica.” When Huxley left for Llano del Rio, their domestic helped was offered and accepted by the Manns.

Mann delivered well over one hundred lectures to at least 60,000 people all over the United States and even Canada during his first lecture tour in the spring of 1938 beginning with his first, on March 23, titled, The Coming Victory of Democracy. The event was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and sponsored by the anti-Nazi League. The Los Angeles Times wrote of the event, “Self-Exiled German Author Sounds Fascism Rebuke”, and many famous emigres attended including William Dieterle, and author Elizabeth Meyer. The lecture at the Shrine was organized by the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which used the auditorium for many of their events. The league was formed in 1936 by people from the film industry to fight the fascism [sic] and Nazism. AVTMH Instagram account

Early Zionist, Rabbi Sonderling

Mann was closely associated with Rabbi Sonderling at the First Unitarian Church and the Society for Jewish Culture – Fairfax Temple. Mann was invited to speak several times and Sonderling publicly praised Mann’s tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers.
“By 1941, when the US entered the war, more than 6,000 German Jews had made it to Los Angeles, making the city the second-largest center of German-speaking Jews in America. An important hub and supporting organization for Jewish art and culture in Los Angeles was the Fairfax Temple and its Rabbi, Jacob Sonderling.” AVTMH

Thomas Mann was a frequent guest at the Villa Aurora and the Feuchtwanger’s were generous hosts and organized readings in Lion’s study. Thomas Mann was the guest of honor and moderator during the German speaking meetings, whereas Charlie Chaplin moderated the English readings. The Mann House was also a “focus of German émigré life in Southern California.” AVTMH

In 1947 Mann wrote, Doctor Faustus and today it “is considered to be one of the most important works of literature produced in the twentieth century.” His famous collaboration with Adorno “a study of music, of genius, of culture and of the political and aesthetic crises of modernism, centering on the nefarious pact the main character, a composer, makes with the devil. For many scholars the devil has become synonymous with the philosophical works of Mann’s collaborator on this project, the German philosopher and social theorist Theodor W. Adorno. The image of Adorno as the devil has continued to fascinate scholars in the decades since the publication of Mann’s novel, resulting in a wide range of critical and interpretive responses.” AVTMH

It is also interesting to note that Mann’s reflection on radio takes place just as Bertolt Brecht publishes several texts dealing with “radio as an apparatus of communication.” AVTMH

With this in mind, in 1941, Thomas Mann regularly contributed to BBC as part of a radio program broadcast back to Germany called German Listeners!, and “the regular broadcasts enabled the exiled writer to politically influence the German population in their mother tongue.”

“The aim was to convince the Americans of a united front against Nazi Germany.” (VATMH)

Thomas Mann broadcasting German Listeners!

NBC Studios photograph via The Thomas Mann House

Mann’s first speeches were broadcast from Princeton where the Princeton Radio Research Project had been underway since 1937 led by fellow émigré Paul Felix Lazarsfeld and around the time Theodor Adorno left the Project for Los Angeles. Lazarsfeld and the Little Annie Project, or the Stanton-Lazarsfeld Program Analyzer was a tool to record the listening habits of radio listeners. This also the same location from where The War of the Worlds was infamously broadcast in 1938 and Stanton an eventual chair at the Rand Corporation.

“What happened in Germany convinced me more and more of the value of Zionism for the Jew.” Thomas Mann.

The Home of Salka and Bertold Viertel

“Los Angeles was as crowded with artists as the renaissance time. It was a sort of harmonic convergence of superstar European intellectuals who found themselves in this environment suddenly not really by their choice, but here they were, and it was Salka Viertel that was what you might think of as the glue that kept this community together.” Donna Rifkind, Remembering the Exiles: Salka Viertel

The Viertel’s were prominent in the early Weimar scene. As early as 1920 Berthold worked with UFA, the German film industry equivalent to Hollywood. Both Berthold and Salka members of the intelligentsia in Weimar. Berthold involved in the early silent era of film in Germany prior to coming to America. His, Joyless Street (1925), Uneasy Money (1926) are works of the New Objectivity film movement neue sachlichkeit. Films in this genre had story lines focused on what were social taboos of the time like abortion, prostitution, homosexuality and addictive personality disorder. This movement fell with that of the Weimar Republic.

Salka Viertel

Eva Herrmann

The Viertel home was an immensely important gathering place for landing emigres, famously hosting the 70th birthday of Heinrich Mann.

Salka Viertel (Salomea Sara Steuermann), was born into a political salon. She grew up in a small town on the edge of the Austro-Hungarian border in Galicia. Her parents were non observant and her father was a wealthy lawyer and the first Jewish mayor of the city in which she was born.  Salka became a prominent actress in German-speaking theatre, and was cast in several starring roles under famous Austrian director Max Reinhardt, born Maximilian Goldmann. Salka toured all the European capitals including Munich, Vienna, Berlin, and Dusseldorf, playing in the many Reinhardt owned Deutsches Theatres across Europe. It is here she met both F.W. Murnau and Ernst Lubitsch. Both actors in Reinhardt’s ensemble.

“Salka’s brother studied with Arnold Schoenberg and as a solo pianist he premiered the composer’s Pierrot lunaire.” (The Shlvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Woman)


Berthold Viertel

Eva Herrmann

Eva Herrmann, an exiled painter and illustrator moved to Los Angeles in 1940 and would live within walking distance of both Huxley and Mann. Hermann promoted through her art George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley and Bertolt Brecht and contributed the front cover art for the German, Russian, and English versions of Feuchtwanger’s 1939 novel, Exil. Hermmann, a close friend of the Manns, first joined them in exile in Sanary sur Mer. She would later move not far up the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara, known colloquially as ‘the American Riviera’, where her home too would become a important gathering place for many German-speaking emigres.

The Weimar culture that was being abolished in Germany for its alleged degeneracies just so happens to be the same type of ‘art’ that Hollywood began producing upon their arrival.

Bertholt Brecht

A famous poet and playwright, Bertholt Brecht worked with Fritz Lang, the director of Metropolis. The two launched their collaboration of Hangmen Also Die! in May of 1942 while on the beach reading The Los Angeles Times’ description of the assassination of Hitler’s hangman, Reinhard Heyrich. For Brecht, the collaboration with Lang was an opportunity to break into the Hollywood scene. The two would take considerable artistic liberty with the actual historical events portrayed in Hangmen Also Die! And like many of the films from this era, are today largely looked upon as propaganda films. By July, Brecht had declared the movie a “dismal fabrication” (Weimar on the Pacific, Erhard Bahr, pg. 135.) Brecht would continue working on the script through September of that year with John Wexley out of the United Artists studio on Las Palmas street in Hollywood, Wexley, an American writer of several film noir crime dramas and the author of the very first anti-Nazi film, Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939

BS  Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang moved to Hollywood in 1933 to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and by ’42 had directed six films, among them Fury (1936), a film about an alleged lynching. Lang was and still is considered a very successful American film director. Lang was a friend of the Brecht family, and had supported Brecht’s immigration with an affidavit and raised funds for his support. Fritz Lang’s, Woman in the Window (1944), along with Billy Wilder’s, Double Indemnity (1944), John Huston’s, The Maltese Falcon (1941), were some of the earliest of the film noir genre in America, and despite the term being first coined in France, the movement can be traced directly back to the Weimar Republic and Fritz Lang’s 1931 film, M.

M, is a story of a serial child murderer and the audience is asked to sympathize with a pedophile unable to control his urges to kill. In the end no verdict is levied. Film historian James Naremore charges that the film noir genre was meant to foment “sympathy for the devil”.

The main objective of film noir was “disorientating the spectator, who can no longer find the familiar reference points”, lost in murky plotlines and the lives of ambiguous lead characters, “the resulting confusion and alienation were an intellectual dilemma that had to be solved.” (Film Noir Reader, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton)

Essential elements of Film Noir go beyond that of a police documentary, the “dark film” series portrayed consistently the presence of crime. Nino Frank called it “the dynamism of violent death.” Film Noir almost always told from within the criminal forcing the viewer to consider their own morality. If the police are portrayed they are ‘rotten cops’, and sympathy is built around the criminal milieu. “It abandoned the adventure film convention of a fair fight. A sporting chance has given way to settling scores, beatings, and cold-blooded murders.” (Film Noir Reader pg 22.)


Hanns Eisler

Arriving in Los Angeles from New York in 1942, where he was a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research, Eisler would also work with Brecht on many projects in which Brecht authored the poetry or screen play and Eisler contributed the musical score. The Eislers were able to purchase a home on Amalfi near Huxley and Mann due to Hanns’ musical composition on, Hangmen Also Die! Eisler contributed to at least nine feature films while in Los Angeles and “the Eisler’s house became a popular meeting place among European emigres. Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Kortner, Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, and the Manns became frequent guests. Eisler, like Mann, ‘acted as mediator between quarreling personalities.’ Brecht and Mann infamous combatants at these gatherings. And as early as 1943 Eisler was under FBI surveillance and was called, “the Karl Marx of music.” AVTMH 

The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Frankfurt School leaders Max Horkheimer and Theodor Ludwig Weisengrund Adorno were also living in the hills of Los Angeles, having both landed first at Columbia University in New York. Horkheimer established the University in Exile at Columbia through negotiations with Abbott Lawrence Lowell, while Adorno worked at Princeton under another Rockefeller émigré Paul Felix Lazarsfeld. Both Horkheimer and Adorno were major figures in the political salon activities and it is their critical theory that proved to be so effective as a dialectic to Western life. They were to use modernism as an entering wedge to create a “societal rupture”, removing Americans from their moorings and anchored tradition as a result. Like Herbert Croly’s, The Promise of American Life was the manifesto for the Progressive movement, or how Huxley’s A Brave New World, Doors of Perception, and The Perennial Philosophy were used to inspire the Human Potential movement and more, The Dialectic of Enlightenment we see being used as a blueprint.

Their critical theory laying the groundwork for all critical theorists to follow. Their book a manifesto. Horkheimer the early director of the Frankfurt School and Adorno a leading figure and eventual director when he returned to Germany. Horkheimer set up The University in Exile, in conjunction with Progressive founding fathers, Charles Beard and James Harvey Robinson. Adorno working at Princeton, where Lazarsfeld in his aformentioned study of radio listening habits first coined the terms, ‘narcotizing dysfunction’, the ‘two step’ and the ‘hypodermic needle flow of communication models’ describing perfectly the mainstream media of today.

Horkheimer and his wife Rose were witnesses at The Mann’s citizenship confirmation. Horkheimer lived “three minutes walking distance from the Mann’s home while finishing The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) together with his fellow Frankfurt exile Theodor Adorno, who lived a 10-minute drive away.” AVTMH Instagram

Head of Princeton Radio Research Project, Paul Felix Lazarsfeld.

Robert K. Merton, born Meyer Robert Schkolnick;

Prior to film noir, “the moviegoer [was] accustomed to certain conventions: a logical development of action, a clear distinction between good and evil, well-defined characters, sharp motives, scenes more showy then authentically violent, a beautiful heroine and an honest hero” (Borde and Chaumenton) In film noir however, the moviegoer was confronted with a world that did not conform to his expectations: there were “likeable killers and corrupt cops. Good and evil go hand in hand to the point of being indistinguishable. Robbers become ordinary guys … The victim seems as guilty as the hitman who is just doing his job.” (Border and Chaumeton 25). It was the moviegoer’s task to sort out this confusion – a task similar to that of the observer of epic theater. But while epic theater forced its spectators to make decisions as outside observers, film noir had the moviegoers emotionally involved in the action and inspired “that state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed. The aim of film noir was to create a specific alienation.”

(Towards a Definition of Film Noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, pg. 24,25)

For the film noir era, “the most marked and persistent influence … is surely that of German Expressionism. American horror films owe a huge amount to Caligarism.”

“The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation. Because pictures are made to meet market demands, they reflect, emphasize and even exaggerate broad popular tendencies, rather than stimulate new ideas and opinions. The motion picture avails itself only of ideas and facts which are in vogue. As the newspaper seeks to purvey news, it [the motion picture] seeks to purvey entertainment.” Edward Bernays, Propaganda, pg. 156.


“Los Angeles was as crowded with artists as the renaissance time. It was a sort of harmonic convergence of superstar European intellectuals who found themselves in this environment suddenly not really by their choice, but here they were, and it was Salka Viertel that was what you might think of as the glue that kept this community together.” Donna Rifkind, Remembering the Exiles: Salka Viertel

As a result of public outrage at the corrupted storylines, The Hays Code was created as an attempt to regulate the content or subject matter of Hollywood movies. Named after William Harrison Hays Sr., the director of the newly appointed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA).  Previously unseen and even unknown concepts like sexual innuendo, sexual perversion, romantic and sexual relationships between white and black people (miscegenation), willful offense to any nation, race, or creed, mild profanity, illegal trafficking of drugs, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality were rampant and shocking, all of these topics have become normalized today.

“Special care” was to be used when broaching subjects like: international relations, arson, the use of firearms, theft, robbery, safe-cracking, technique of murder, torture, hangings, sedition, marriage consummation, cruelty to children, deliberate seduction of girls, excessive or lustful kissing and so on. This period coinciding precisely with the influx of German-speaking emigres. But not only that, they were generally practitioners of these behaviours themselves. Many within the Exile circle were bisexual. Huxley’s wife and even Huxley himself seem to have been willing participants.

In the Hays Code, we see in the section, Reasons Underlying the General Principles stated:

“no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin. This is done:

1. When evil is made to appear attractive or alluring, and good is made to appear unattractive.

2. When the sympathy of the audience is thrown on the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil, sin.

The same thing is true of a film that would throw sympathy against goodness, honor, innocence, purity or honesty.”

William Harrison Hays Sr.

Hollywood was always of questionable moral standards and today, as we trace back these less desirable qualities of society, we find their origins go directly back to the film noir era of the early twentieth century. Hollywood itself was meant to degrade Western life from the very beginning and despite all of the efforts to curb degeneracy and depravity from entering Hollywood movies, we see this explicit behaviour increase with the release of movies like: The Moon Is Blue, The Man With The Golden Arm, and Anatomy of a Murder, One Summer of Happiness, Summer with Monika, Suddenly Last Summer, Psycho, Some Like It Hot, Victim, A Taste of Honey, and The Leather Boys. All of these movies challenging existing taboos and traditional gender roles while confronting homophobia, infidelity and adultery. Many of the lead characters in film noir were homosexuals, had addictions, appeared androgynous or were troubled in some way. The movies nudged once controversial topics into the acceptable lexicon through our empathy for the protagonist.

It was a collective assault on the mind, body, and spirit of every American. When we talk about the demoralization of America, this is how it was done. When we talk about them removing our moorings and anchors this is how it was done. The removal of morality through the film noir genre was first made popular in Berlin in the interwar period and then emigrated to Hollywood. The Weimar culture began immediately following the signing of the Versailles Treaty and flourished under the Weimar Republic. They came to America already established in their roles. They were officially intelligentsia. Promoting dalliances, or one-night sexual encounters. It was a “buggers paradise” and even a cursory look into the Weimar and German expressionism we see all kinds of similarities to our Western world today, reminding us through its imagery of movies like Eyes Wide Shut, the rise of MTV culture, sadomasochism, and even bestiality.

Germany was crushed under the Versailles Treaty and German culture and its people quickly fell into chaos due to hyperinflation, starvation and Western occupation. A fifteen-year French occupation of German coal reserves and a reparation package the equivalent of trillions today, meant to be impossible to honour – was written by the Allies.  The Treaty authored vindictively, most likely through the Dulles brothers, was what British economist John Maynard Keynes called a Carthaginian peace. An agreement meant to cripple. A Debellatio.

From this background sprung the Weimar Republic and it is during this time Berlin becomes a cesspool of sexual depravity and excess. Brothels were everywhere and prostitutes numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The tawdry and salacious theatre and plays common at the time inspired various nicknames for Berlin: The Shangra-La by the Spree, The Edge City and Babylon Berlin. We today in the West witness so many similarities to this era of the Weimar, its hard not to make certain connections and wonder if the now even more brutal list of horror and neo-noir movies being released for public consumption aren’t just an extension of this movement, further engraining messages of immorality, absurdity and chaos into the minds of America well over one hundred years after it all began.