European flight to Hollywood

"Exiles in Hollywood" chronicles the European flight of creative talent to Hollywood during the late '30s early '40s.

“Exiles in Hollywood,” by David Wallace, chronicles the greatest flight of European creative talent, fleeing Nazi persecution, in history.

By Ward Lauren / Special to The Malibu Times

David Wallace, author of “Hollywoodland,” “Lost Hollywood” and “Dream Palaces of Hollywood’s Golden Age,” attributes his successful career as a celebrity writer to the fact that “I’m probably nosier than most people. I ask them questions that tend to embarrass them.”

He wasn’t able to pose questions of any sort to the subjects of his latest book, “Exiles in Hollywood,” however, because most of them are long gone. An outstanding compilation of true stories of personalities in what has been called the greatest flight of European creative and intellectual talent in history, the book profiles many of the actors, writers, directors, musicians, composers and architects who, fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s and early ’40s, for a time made Los Angeles the cultural capital of the world.

“Their arrival changed many things,” Wallace writes in the book, “but the most enduring change was to the movies, America’s great cultural product.”

The book goes on to chronicle these changes in a series of fascinating chapters-part biography, part anecdote and part history-describing the pursuits, performances and peccadilloes of such legendary names as Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, to name a few.

“It’s a situation that has always fascinated me,” Wallace said, “How all these people were thrown together in the last half of the thirties, in all kinds of cultural differences and income levels; how they interacted. That’s basically what the book is all about.

“It’s about the salons that came out so that the German-speaking refugees could keep their culture alive; about the way the Berlin-trained filmmakers like Billy Wilder basically changed American film forever. I think you could also say that film music was changed forever.”

Wallace weaves his theme with intriguing personal stories that often reveal lesser-known intimate details of the subjects’ lives that may seem to be unrelated to the main thread of the book. He admits that most of his books are anecdote-driven history, deliberately so because people today are not interested in dry history; they want gossip history.

“Most readers’ favorite chapter in ‘Exiles’ is the Hedy Lamarr chapter,” he said by way of example. “Here’s a woman who starts out in a soft porn movie, marries one of the biggest Nazi arms manufacturers, sneaks away in the middle of the night and goes to Paris, meets Louis B. Mayer and signs a contract with MGM on board the Normandie. Then she goes on not only to have one of the biggest careers in Hollywood, but, of all things, to invent the technology that evolved into what powers cell phones and satellite communications today.

“Of course, the irony is that her son, Tony Loder, now runs a cell phone company! I think that’s as indicative of anything as to why I wanted to do the book. They’re real situations that sort of draw an ‘Oh my God, only in Hollywood’ response out of people, you know?”

In the chapter entitled “Film Noir Goes Mainstream,” Wallace tells how famed director Billy Wilder, “newly arrived from Germany during the Christmas season of 1935, lived for a time in an anteroom outside the women’s toilets in the basement of the Chateau Marmont Hotel.”

In addition to his directorial genius, words, despite his difficulty with English, were also Wilder’s forte. The famous line “Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?,” spoken by Robert Benchley in Wilder’s first movie, “The Major and the Minor,” and thus forever attributed to Benchley, was actually written by Wilder.

“Most people agree that Marilyn Monroe’s best films were the pair directed by Wilder,” Wallace writes. “Although Monroe … was always late, bad-tempered, and unsure of her acting … Wilder managed to coax memorable performances out of her, syllable by syllable. ‘It was like pulling teeth,’ he later recalled… ‘You can take forty-two takes of her in one scene, and then you take her aside and say, to calm her down, ‘Don’t worry, Marilyn,’ she’ll look at you with wide-open eyes and say, ‘Don’t worry about what?'”

Less publicly known, screenwriter Salka Vertel, Wallace writes in Chapter 2, “hosted what was probably the most influential Hollywood salon of the 1930s, which gave many famous émigrés a place to gather, gossip, and recall their cultural roots. …It was common knowledge within the industry at the time that Salka, along with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and stars like Gloria Swanson, Janet Gaynor, and Barbara Stanwyck, were part of a huge underground lesbian-or at least bisexual-element in Hollywood society.”

These brief excerpts give only a titillating sample of the wealth of stories, confidences and details that make “Exiles in Hollywood” a treasure for anyone who admits to even a casual interest in films. Anecdote-driven it may be, but it’s history at the same time, and a beneficial addition to the reader’s overall knowledge.

The chapter on Hedy Lamarr is excerpted in the new online magazine,

Wallace is also a longtime contributor to The Malibu Times newspaper and Malibu Times Magazine. He also wrote the forward and history for “Malibu: A Century of Living by The Sea,” photographed by Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai.