The gift of $21 million by the Annenberg Foundation to restore the Marion Davies estate complex at 415 Pacific Coast Highway for public use is undoubtedly Santa Monica’s best big step forward culturally in 20 years and one can only hope that – on behalf of all of us – the Mayor and Council can rouse themselves sufficiently at some point to demonstrate our gratitude in some suitable way.
Whatever other uses may be found for the complex, I would like to hear readers’ responses to a suggestion that I’ve made to the project’s planners for a Santa Monica Exile Talents’ Center of Memory (a less cumbersome name would be welcome) at 415.
As of now, Santa Monica lacks any marker (or statue or prominently named thoroughfare!) that acknowledges the great debt it owes to the intellectual exiles of the late 1930s and the World War II years – refugees, most of them, from Nazi persecution or the fall of free Europe to the Nazis.
The Lion Feuchtwanger residence in the Palisades, Villa Aurora, and its library, run by USC, is open to students and scholars but it is not designed for tourists, or school children.
The list of wartime exiles is staggering if one includes all those who lived and worked in southern California, but Santa Monica – owing to its central west side position, scenery and shoreline, and its long established entertainment industry residents (William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer, Cary Grant, and so on) was the immediate and lasting focus of the group.
New residents in the area included brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann (the former wrote his great Doctor Faustus after daily morning walks along the cliffs), son Karl, daughter Erica, at times her husband, poet W.H. Auden, Bertoldt Brecht, Feuchtwanger, Christopher Isherwood, Salka Viertel, Greta Garbo, and – within cultural and political aphorism range no doubt – Aldous Huxley, Jean Renoir, Eric Remarque, Igor Stravinsky, Ludwig Bemelmans — and I’ve barely touched the full list of exiled movie directors, writers, actors, scenic artists, photographers, dancers, mimes – famous or daily toilers in the arts.
What has brought this matter to mind again is the recent publication of Quicksands, the memoirs of the novelist Sybille Bedford (A Legacy, A Visit To Don Octavio, etc.). An active and no-nonsense 94 and now living in London, she was both biographer and close friend of Aldous and Maria Huxley, and a friend of the entire Mann family. As such, she is just possibly a last link and witness to the group in the Santa Monica setting of that time, but it is Quicksands’ witness to the exiles in another setting that connects and is the spur to this proposal.
In the book, Bedford writes of friends in the earlier 1930s flight of many members of the group from newly Nazi Germany to uneasy exile in the South of France where she then lived. Later on, she describes the post-war phenomenon of interest in this lost ‘heritage’ by emerging German and other European youth and the steps taken by French resorts like Sanary-sur-mer to identify connected sites and cater to an on-going flow of visitors.
With such an example already established, clearly a Santa Monica ‘homage’ to its own past is long overdue, and I, like many other residents, can attest to encounters with any number of ‘lost’ or ‘undirected’ foreign seekers of this past.
A final thought, or argument, or perhaps a clincher in a movie town: as Disney and others have long known a ‘real’ historical structure (Mount Vernon, etc) has a charisma, a draw, that no lath-and-plaster ‘re-imagining’ of place or event can ever beat. And the Marion Davies estate is the real thing.
It has her name in movie memory, as well as that of Hearst and, trailing along the edge of beach, the ghosts of a thousand stars. Their shenanigans as well as their achievements are all on film and stills. But what is less generally known is that the property has an ace up its sleeve – and a name which through legend (and late-night TV) can still light up imagination and curiosity from Antarctica across the Russian steppes – Marlene Dietrich.In 1937 and ‘38 – or two years thereabouts, the Davies guest house, a columned white ‘Movie Georgian’ structure that still stands and is to be featured in the restoration – was Dietrich’s only home. And Heinreich Mann’s astonishing Blue Angel should lead any band of tourists straight across PCH to the rest of the exiles’ band – in film, in photograph, in time past brought to life in a Museum of Memory.