The Ghosts of My City.

I wrote yesterday about Anaïs Nin and Rupert Pole: she, the last great voice of interwar expat Paris; he, my junior high school biology teacher.

Growing up in L.A. in the 60s and 70s, I never heard of Anaïs Nin. No surprise there: few kids know about the world they inherit from adults and, at any event, neither she nor Henry Miller would have been on junior high or high school reading lists.

As I got older, though, she loomed ever larger. L.A. still, in the late 1970s, borrowed some of its cultural energy from the European expats who had washed up in Silverlake, Brentwood, and the Palisades forty years earlier. Architects Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler; writers Thomas Mann, Theodor Adorno, Berthold Brecht, and Alfred Döblin; composers Arnold Schoenberg and Otto Klemperer; conductor Leon Fürchtwanger, and dozens of directors, actors, and screenwriters.

Born in 1957, I was just about able, in the mid-70s, to catch sight of a few of them. I saw them at bookstores – Pickwick’s, Papa Bach’s, Chatterton’s: older well-dressed men and women, lingering in narrow aisles. Sometimes their names came up in casual conversation over dinner with friends of my parents, a generation of Adlai Stevenson liberals who’d made common cause with the city’s dwindling band of German Social Democrats. Still others I ran into at the Central Library, their books stacked on the heavy oak tables.

A few Germans and Austrians were still around when I got to UCLA; I ended up rooming in a dorm converted from Richard Neutra’s Landfair Apartments, and there were people around who remembered the man. Starting my career a few years later, I taught alongside Herbert Zipper, an Austrian conductor and educator, who taught music theory to high school students until his death at 93.

These experiences certainly distorted my understanding of Los Angeles. During the 1970s and 1980s the city held its breath, suspended between Watts and Rodney King, between Sylmar and Northridge, between a city shaped by migrants from the Midwest and Mitteleuropa and one increasingly defined by the many Latin American and Asian incomers whose numbers swelled in the wake of mid-60s immigration reform. Raymond Chandler, John Fante, and Nathaniel West had written into existence the city I “remembered” from before my birth, a city I further populated with barely remembered German and Austrian exiles. In those years, rather than seeing the people walking with me daily on the streets, I imagined the city’s ghosts, in their smart tailored suits, living in Hollywood and the West Side, their suitcases in closets, packed and ready at any moment for a last-minute flight to some other refuge.

Anaïs Nin was not that kind of expat: she didn’t come to L.A. fleeing from something sinister. But she stood in for all of that.

(For more on the expats of the 1930s and 40s, seek out Ehrhard Bahr’s Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture I Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernity . Also see Nathan Master’s essay, “German Exiles in Southern California for KCET’s “Lost L.A.” series).

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