I never think about the 12 years Thomas Mann spent in Los Angeles without remembering Susan Sontag’s “Pilgrimage.” The piece—which appeared in the New Yorker in 1987—blurs the boundary between memoir and fiction, changing the chronology and other details of a visit the younger writer once paid to the elder in favor of what let’s call emotional truth. I’m sympathetic to such moves (a writer should use every tool at her disposal), which work because the subject is not so much Mann per se as Sontag’s sense of shame and inadequacy in his presence. “It seemed a vast impertinence that I should be forced to meet Thomas Mann,” she writes. “And grotesque that he should waste his time meeting me.”
The encounter receives a brief but pointed treatment in Thomas Mann’s Los Angeles: Stories from Exile 1940–1952, a Festschrift of sorts, edited by Nikolai Blaumer and Benno Herz, that features 60 brief essays by contributors including Alex Ross, Donna Rifkind, and Lawrence Weschler. The intent of the collection is less biographical than contextual, to re-create not only Mann’s experience during his period of exile in Southern California but also the milieu, the landscape, both physical and aesthetic, through which he moved. The project grew out of the editors’ work at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles; Blaumer is the former program director and Herz the acting program director. Now a cultural center, the Mann House is the author’s former residence, at 1550 San Remo Drive in Pacific Palisades. It was here that Sontag visited him in 1949.
By that point, of course, Mann was fully entrenched in his U.S. life, having become a citizen in 1944. Three years later, he published Doctor Faustus, his last great novel, after having spent the war lecturing and writing about the Nazis. As Blaumer observes in his preface, Mann’s “years in Los Angeles were an intense time in which he interacted with the city and its public in a variety of ways. These included political appearances, such as at the Shrine Auditorium or Hollywood Fairfax Temple, where Mann sought to rouse his American audiences and raise awareness of the urgency of military intervention in the war against Nazism.” He also became involved in helping “persecuted people and refugees.”
What makes this fascinating is how it complicates our sense of Mann—encouraged, incidentally, by Sontag—as forbidding and intellectually aloof. It’s a long-overdue reclamation. “Mann broke several years of political silence in February 1936,” Blaumer writes. “In an open letter to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, he condemned German anti-Semitism.” Although he’d already fled to Switzerland, his German citizenship was revoked. “Within a few months,” Blaumer continues, “a writer who had been careful and discreet once again became a public intellectual who made the fight against National Socialism his most important task.”
It’s impossible to read about such efforts without drawing parallels to the present, when U.S. democracy is at risk. In that regard, Mann becomes an unexpected role model—a writer whose acute sense of morals required that he act. “In 1938,” Morten Høi Jensen writes, the author and then–First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt “were instrumental in the establishment of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), led by the journalist Varian Fry, who was sent to France with a list of names of endangered writers and intellectuals provided by Mann.” As a result, “somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 Jewish refugees” were saved.
The irony is that by the late 1940s, Mann himself would be targeted by the U.S. security apparatus, described in his FBI dossier as “a warm defender of Moscow” and “strongly radical and particularly strongly pro-USSR.” It was for this reason that he and his family left the United States for Switzerland in 1952.
Thomas Mann’s Los Angeles does not attempt to be comprehensive; it offers a more impressionistic overview. This makes for a mixed bag, if I’m being honest. Besides the political material, the book is at its strongest when it focuses on Mann’s Southern California lifestyle. He liked to walk his poodle, Niko, to whom he was devoted—“If one searches for ‘Niko’ in the author’s diaries,” Rembert Hüser writes, “one will find more than a hundred entries”—and he enjoyed the beach, although, as Herz points out, “even for a casual walk, he always dressed up in a chic white suit and stylish beach shoes.” Conversely, he detested “Traffic,” which he always wrote with a capital T, as if it were, suggests Josh Widera, “something exalted to the level of an institution, an event, a particular.”
There’s a charming aspect to these details, which portray Mann in three dimensions, as a figure of his moment but also as an individual on his own terms. And yet, that identity, or personality, recedes in too many of the essays, particularly those that deal with Mann’s contemporaries, such as Bertolt Brecht or the Austrian-born screenwriter and novelist Vicki Baum. It’s not that the accounts are uninteresting, although the short and mostly uniform length of the pieces (almost all come in at two pages) can create a static effect.
More to the point, it feels less than necessary to read about, say, the failure of Elysian Park Heights, the massive, and never constructed, public housing project designed by Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander for Chavez Ravine in the early 1950s, since Mann had nothing to do with it. (The site would eventually become the home of Dodger Stadium.)
Equally disappointing is the dearth of Mann’s own writing, which is represented primarily in passages from his correspondence and diaries. Although it’s a stretch to claim him as a Los Angeles writer, he remained a cogent observer of the place. One entry, from January 13, 1947, reads almost like Joan Didion: “Cool, half sunny weather. — Always new airplane disasters and hotel fires.” Another further highlights his fascination with air travel: “White-soft cloudscape under the light blue. Above calm, fast ride. Efficient Swiss stewardess. 12 o’clock lunch: bouillon and ham sandwich, Cigarettes. Just a touch of excitement in my heart.”
Here we see Mann as he was—present, engaged by the world around him, a private and a public person all at once. Both of those versions are on display in Thomas Mann’s Los Angeles, but both are narrated, mostly, from the outside. The book is full of vivid information, but what’s missing is a closer glimpse at the author’s heart. In that, it reminds me once again of Sontag’s “Pilgrimage,” which in its own way also holds Mann at a distance, as if he were an icon rather than a human being.•