Wednesday, 26 May 2010

CITY OF ANGELS: Santa Monica, part 1 - Introduction

The history of Santa Monica goes back to the 18th century, when the Spaniard Gaspar de Portala ordered his soldiers to explore the coast north of San Diego, accompanied by a priest who, according to legend, is credited with giving Santa Moniva its name as the waters of the nearby springs reminded him of the tears shed by Santa Monica over her unruly son before his conversion.

Santa Monica: Palisades Park and Pacific Coast Highway

Santa Monica was officially founded in 1875 to be incorporated in 1886. By 1899, a mere 14 years after its foundation, Santa Monica was already a burgeoning suburb of Los Angeles, boasting a public library, three schools, connection to transcontinental railways, two public parks, a daily newspaper and, last but not least, three bathing establishments. The tremor and sparkle of the first film companies settling within the Los Angeles area by 1907 spilled over to Santa Monica, for film makers not only frequently used its coastline as a film set, Santa Monica also became one of the choice locations for the homes of the Hollywood crowd. The stretch between Santa Monica Pier and Santa Monica Canon, known as the Gold Coast, is where in the 1930s, Cary Grant, Louis B. Mayer, Irving G. Thalberg and, most famously, Marion Davies, erected their sprawling mansions. And, as always the case - where movie stars go, the rest of the world follows. Thus began Santa Monica ascent as the sophisticated seaside resort it still is today.

Los Angeles' wittiest chronicler, Raymond Chandler, was a Santa Monica resident during the 1930, the days when gambling on ships moored three miles off the coast was rampant in order to avoid clashes with California State Regulations which prohibited gambling on Santa Monica territory. These gambling ships offered fun and games to Los Angeles' demi-monde who were conveniently shuttled back and forth from ship to shore by water taxis. Dubbing it Bay City in his novels, a place "as quiet as it was because the entire police force was in the pocket of mobsters", Santa Monica was not Chandler's city of choice as his chief reason for living there was because after having lost his well-paid job as an oil executive he found himself on the skids and Santa Monica in those days still offered affordable housing. According to Chandler's biographer, Tom Hiney, he was appalled by "the way Santa Monica prided itself on being a community of old American vales, while allowing gambling ships to operate visibly off its beaches". Chandler had no time for this kind of hypocrisy, as evident in his novel, Farewell My Lovely, in which the showdown takes place on one of these very ships.

However, Santa Monica also became a haven for refugees from Nazi Germany, some of whom had previously settled in Sanary-sur-Mer, until the German invasion of France in June 1940 forced them to go elsewhere. Headed for Los Angeles, where a sizeable emigre community was already in existence, many of them opted to settle in Santa Monica or nearby Brentwood and Pacific Palisades as the climate and vegetation were reminiscent of Sanary. This trend may already have been set by Salka Viertel who arrived in Los Angeles as early as 1928 when her husband, Berthold Viertel, was offered a contract by William Fox, who previously had already lured Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau away from Berlin to sunny Southern California. Shortly after their arrival, the Viertels bought a house on scenic Mabery Road in Santa Monica Canon which back then was considered out of the way and unfashionable. Salka didn't care. Eventually, Salka became one of the Los Angeles emigre community premier hostesses, entertaining writers and artists such as Bruno Frank, Franz Werfel, Emil Ludwig, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Max Reinhard, Fritzi Massary and the Feuchtwangers, all of whom exiled in and around Santa Monica. In his biography on Billy Wilder, an emigre himself, Ed Sikov writes how the editor and screenwriter Robert Parrish recalled being a guest at Salka's house and found "Greta Garbo asleep on the couch, Arthur Rubinstein was playing the piano, and an unkempt guy in the backyard was busily grilling something on the barbecue". Salka wouldn't tell young Bob Parrish who it was and it wasn't until later that he realised it was none other than Bertolt Brecht.

As mentioned in my introduction to Los Angeles, after the war the population of Los Angeles and its surrounded communities exploded, Santa Monica included. Between 1940 and 1950 the number of its inhabitants jumped from 53,500 to 71,600. Consequently, the ravages of time also left their mark on Santa Monica, and during the 1950s a lot of the old had to make way for the new. All but a dim memory remains of the once secluded tranquillity of Gold Coast's Beach Palisades Road for it has since been turned into the Pacific Coast Highway, a busy thoroughfare connecting Santa Monica with Malibu. With that, the halcyon days when Chandler deemed Santa Monica an affordable place to live were gone as prices for houses have since sky-rocketed.

Villa Aurora: Marta and Lion Feuchtwanger's erstwhile home

Although Salka's - as well as the houses of many other emigres - are still standing, traces of its illustrious past as the Weimar on the Pacific are few and far between as the city's increasing appeal as an elegant seaside resort for the affluent has all but erased its former significance as a haven for emigres. In fact, by looking at Santa Monica today, it is almost unimaginable that for a brief moment in time, it should have been, as Salka Viertel once called it, the "Parnassus of German culture", however, remnants of it are most visible still at the Villa Aurora, which strictly speaking, is located in Pacific Palisades. It used to be the home of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger who purchased it in 1943 after their arrival from Sanary. Designed in 1928 by architect Mark Daniels, whose other buildings include the legendary Bel-Air Hotel and the Bel-Air Gate, the Villa Aurora is nothing less than "a castle by the sea", as Thomas Mann referred to it. The grandness of Villa Aurora is testimony to the fact that Feuchtwanger, unlike many of his fellow writers who had fled Nazi Germany, was able to live - in comfort - on his proceeds from the US market. After Marta's death in 1988, it was purchased by the Federal Republic of Germany which - fittingly - has since turned it into an artists' retreat not dissimilar to the Villa Massimo in Rome. In commemoration of its previous owners, the Feuchtwangers, the Villa Aurora also offers one-year residence-ships to artists who are persecuted in their home countries.