Sunday, April 27, 2014

124. Exiles in New York, part 4

      This is the fourth and last post about exiles in New York.  It deals with some who came here as a result of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the Fall of France.

Strife among the Gauls in exile

     In the lobby of a New York hotel, during World War II, the well-known French playwright Henri Bernstein, upon encountering fellow French exile André Maurois, slapped him twice -- once, he said, as a Frenchman, and once as a Jew.  “I shall pulverize you,” Bernstein reportedly warned Maurois.  “I know how to hate.  I shall ruin you.  I shall isolate you.  I shall reduce you to a position of helplessness.”  Such were the threats of one noted French author against another, the two of them wartime refugees in New York, and both Jewish.  Nor was Bernstein’s an idle threat.  He quickly launched a barrage of attacks on Maurois in the French-language press of the U.S. and Canada, and spread rumors that Maurois was a Vichy sympathizer, a fascist, a foe of the British, and an anti-Semitic Jew.  What was this all about?

     The collapse of France in the spring of 1940 had brought the end of the Third Republic and the installation, in that part of France not occupied by the Germans, of the right-wing Vichy regime, with Marshal Philippe Pétain, a venerable hero of World War I, as its head.  But even as the Vichy government told the French they must adjust to German hegemony in Europe and, in effect, make nice with Hitler, General Charles De Gaulle had launched the Free French movement in Great Britain so as continue the war against Germany.  Every French citizen – and above all the intellectuals, to whom many looked for guidance -- had to choose between Vichy and De Gaulle, the newly established regime and the rebel.  This conflict could assume a ferocity even among the French exiles in New York.

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Henri Bernstein
     For Bernstein, coming to the U.S. was easy: his mother was American, he had wealthy in-laws here, he spoke English fluently and had visited here often.  And getting out of France was necessary, since he was Jewish.  Only days after the Germans marched into Paris in June 1940, he left for England and sailed from there to New York.  Over here he lived sumptuously in the Waldorf Astoria, with a sampling of his art collection on the walls, including a Manet painting and a Toulouse-Lautrec drawing.  A notorious womanizer, he took up with Eve Curie, the daughter of the Curies of radium fame, and then with a popular singer.  But when it came to politics and the war he was a passionate supporter of De Gaulle, on whose behalf he wrote articles for the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune and other leading newspapers.  After the war he returned to France and continued writing plays until his death in 1953.

André Maurois, with a picture of Balzac on the
wall behind him.
     And Maurois?  Also a Jew (he was born Emile Herzog), he had done liaison work with the British army in World War I, making many British friends, and had lectured in the U.S. and as a result entertained a very positive feeling for the U.S. and its citizens.  In 1938 he was elected to the Académie Française, an honor coveted by some and scorned by others among the French intelligentsia.  Then, in June 1940, before the Germans entered Paris, the French army sent him on a mission to England, where De Gaulle tried to enlist him as a propagandist addressing the French from London.  He declined, fearing for the safety of his family back in France, but also out of loyalty to Pétain, for whom he felt respect and affection.  Instead, now demobilized, he accepted an invitation to give lectures in the U.S. and set sail with his wife for New York, where the managers of posh hotels, knowing him from previous visits, were glad to welcome him, assuring him he needn’t worry about paying until he had earned some money in America.  He and his wife stayed first at the Plaza, and then in a small apartment on the 17th floor of the Ritz Towers.  Invitations for weekends in the country followed.  As I have noted before, it pays to have connections, and Maurois had many.

     But comfy living was no defense against Bernstein’s attacks.  When Maurois wrote an article for Life magazine stressing how the French loved Pétain and asserting – sincerely, no doubt, but erroneously – that the Marshal’s more controversial measures had been taken under duress, it could only have stoked Bernstein’s anger and intensified his hostility.  Hence the two slaps in the hotel lobby, and the outpouring of threats and hate.  Maurois was by nature a moderate who could see more than one side to an issue, and in wartime moderates are not in great demand.

     Though deeply hurt by Bernstein’s attacks, Maurois lectured extensively throughout the U.S., stressing the menace of Nazi Germany to an America that was still technically neutral, and trying to convince skeptical audiences that France’s collapse was the result only of military inadequacies, and not of moral decadence, corruption, and defeatism.  In New York he socialized widely with Saint-Exupéry, Romains, and other French refugees, and numerous American friends as well, and even had a chat with Eleanor Roosevelt, who appreciated the positive effect of his lectures. 

     When the U.S. entered the war, Maurois played a more active role in the struggle, going with his friend Saint-Exupéry to join the Free French forces in North Africa, though what he did there isn’t clear.  After the war he rejoined his wife in New York, taught French literature at the University of Kansas City, Missouri, where he imparted to the children of those middle regions, so rich in corn and hogs, the glories of Proust and Balzac.  When he returned to Paris in 1946, he found that his apartment on the Boulevard Maurice Barrès had been occupied by the nephew of Herman Goering, who on departing had ordered all Maurois’s books removed or destroyed, the furniture mutilated, the Aubusson and oriental rugs torn, and the paintings carried off.  Maurois was crushed by the loss especially of his books and rare papers.  It would take him five years to reconstitute the library.

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Jules Romains
     Another French refugee in New York was the novelist Jules Romains, whose decision to leave France was motivated in part by the desire to protect his wife, who was Jewish.  Sailing from Lisbon, they arrived in New York in July 1940 and took a low-priced room at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th   Street, a famous gathering place for writers, journalists, and critics, where the management, knowing who their new guests were, upgraded them to a suite.  Then they moved to the Hotel Mayflower on Central Park West at 61st Street, where they ended up in a penthouse with a shared terrace: another example of the advantage of being preceded by one’s reputation and having the right connections.  In New York the French exiles were not skimping along in a garret, picturesque as that might have been. 

     Romains’s political views were not likely to please Bernstein, who was busy demolishing the image of Pétain that Maurois at first tried to preserve.  A pacifist who had avoided military service in World War I, Romains had argued in the postwar years that only a reconciliation between France and Germany could bring lasting peace in Europe.  This point of view, which might have been laudable in the years following World War II, was, to put it mildly, misguided and deplorable when he maintained it after Hitler’s rise to power.  But Bernstein never attacked him with the vehemence he showed to Maurois.  Romains participated in Voice of America radio broadcasts, then in 1941 went to Mexico, where he had many friends, to join with other French refugees in founding the Institut Français d’Amérique Latine.  By now he was done with pacifism and gave lectures attacking Vichy.   When peace came he returned to France, where he was elected to the Académie Française in 1946.

Bertolt Brecht

Brecht, looking like a son of the people.
     The fiercely anti-fascist German playwright Bertolt Brecht had collaborated with the composer Kurt Weill to create The Threepenny Opera (1928) and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), both of which, savagely critical of capitalism, were great successes despite the vehement protests of Nazis in the audience.  When Hitler came to power in 1933, Brecht left Germany, lived for a while in Denmark, and in July 1941, with his wife and harem (he always had a harem) came to the United States, where he wrote some of his most famous plays.  An American who met him in New York in 1946 described him as a short, wiry man with close-cropped hair and a thin, bony face with a stubble of beard.  Brecht, he reported, talked with a flow of nervous energy, his eyes sparkling with a wry sense of humor, as he radiated a great force of will that made him seem much younger than his age of 48.  And he smoked cheap cigars.

     Others were less generous, finding Brecht contentiously arrogant, manipulative, and even, since he disliked bathing, smelly.  Thomas Mann called him a gifted monster, and W. H. Auden, with whom he collaborated, remarked that Brecht was one of the few people on whom a death sentence might be justifiably carried out. Though born into a comfortably middle-class German family, in photographs he always managed to look “proletarian” – close-cropped hair, plain clothes, grim-faced or with a faint, sly smile -- and in so doing repeated the gesture of Walt Whitman who, in the 1850s, presented himself to his readers as working-class and “one of the roughs,” a parallel that Brecht, had he been aware of it, would probably have rejected with disdain.

     Though clearly an exile, Brecht was not really an exile in New York, which he visited occasionally, since he settled down in Hollywood -- the most curious of locales for an avowed Marxist in proletarian garb -- and then in Santa Monica.  While still in Germany Brecht had known the U.S. chiefly through film and fantasy, and the names of its cities and states had had a certain exotic allure; now he could experience first-hand the glories and horrors of this bastion of capitalism.  The U.S., for Brecht, was ignoble and loathsome, and Southern California a “Tahiti in metropolitan form” where the air was unbreathable and there was nothing to smell.  Why was he there at all?  Presumably because of the climate, the presence of a German-speaking community of fellow exiles (Brecht never learned English), and the possibility of making money in Hollywood (which he never did).

      When the Cold War took hold, Brecht’s avowed Marxism got him into trouble.  Summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he testified that he had never been a member of the Communist Party, but smoked an acrid cigar that made some of the committee members slightly sick; the very next day he left the U.S. for Europe.  In 1949 the offer of his own theater where he could fully realize his vision of epic theater induced him to return to Berlin, but to East Berlin in Communist-ruled East Germany, where his Berliner Ensemble became world-famous.  A canny Marxist, he retained his Austrian passport while in East Germany and stashed the money from the Stalin Peace Prize, which he received in 1955, in a Swiss bank account.  His detractors are quick to point out that he never denounced Stalin’s atrocities or the oppressiveness of the East German regime, but he influenced U.S. and European theater to a remarkable extent.    He died of a heart attack in 1956 and is buried in Berlin.

Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya

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Goggle glasses and a patterned bow tie
perched at his throat like a butterfly:
most definitely a bourgeois.

     The German composer Kurt Weill was born into a middle-class Jewish family and was composing music by the age of thirteen.  Photos show him, young or old, as a good bourgeois, serious, unsmiling, tightly buttoned and neat, with glasses – a far cry from Brecht’s proletarian (or pseudo-proletarian) image.  In 1924 he met Lotte Lenya (an assumed stage name), an actress of Viennese working-class origins, whom he married in 1926.  Though no classic beauty, as an actress and singer she had great stage presence, an untrained soprano voice that was unforgettable, and a raw, gutsy quality that suited perfectly the work of Weill and his collaborator Brecht, and that brought her instant fame in the role of Jenny in The Threepenny Opera (1928).  Though hard to classify – opera, musical, or play with music? -- this work, an adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728), was an immediate success, treating audiences to a world of thieves, murderers, and prostitutes that shocked and fascinated them.  By 1933 it had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages.

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Not a great beauty, but incredibly
dynamic on the stage, unforgettable.
     In spite of this success, Brecht and Weill soon distanced themselves from each other, primarily because, by 1929, Brecht’s ideas were tinged more and more with Marxism, and he was becoming increasingly opinionated and dictatorial.  The rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party put Brecht, Weill, and Lenya in danger, since they were known leftists and Weill was Jewish.  Lenya was now living with the singer Otto Pasetti, and early in 1933 she initiated divorce proceedings against Weill, which may have been in part a tactical move, since it would let her reclaim some of his assets that might otherwise be seized by the Nazis.  When Hitler came to power in March of that year, Weill and Lenya fled Germany separately.  The pending divorce did not keep Lenya from performing in Brecht and Weill’s sung ballet (ballet chanté) The Seven Deadly Sins, which opened in Paris in June 1933 to mixed reviews and would be Brecht and Weill’s last collaboration.  Three months later Lenya and Weill’s divorce became final.  But by sometime in 1934 Lenya’s affair with Pasetti was over, and after a brief fling with the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, she became reconciled with Weill, who had been having an affair of his own with Erika Neher, the wife of the renowned set designer Caspar Neher, who worked closely with Brecht.  In spite of their infidelities, Weill and Lenya always remained friends and collaborators and finally resumed their relationship.  Even in free-living artistic circles old friends, it seems, are best.

     In September 1935 the, dare we say, happy couple came to New York, residing first at the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South (not exactly a refuge for the impecunious) and later in an apartment at 231 East 62nd Street; they married again in January 1937.  Convinced that his scores in Germany had been destroyed by the Nazis, Weill broke dramatically with his German past, speaking and writing German rarely, and studying American popular music so as to create works completely different from what he had done in Germany.  Unlike Brecht, he and Lenya adapted to the capitalist American society and prospered.  His American works never matched the earlier ones in bite, but some of his creations, notably “September Song,” had remarkable success.  There are those who argue that his American career was not a sharp break with his past, but simply a new phase of it, but I’m not convinced.  It’s quite a leap from “Mack the Knife” to “September Song,” and I can’t believe that any of the Broadway musicals he helped create had the keen edge of The Threepenny Opera, where Mack the Knife pronounces, “What is the robbing of a bank, compared to the founding of one?” (a statement that might well have resonance today).

     Weill and Lenya moved into a house of their own in New City, Rockland County, in May 1941.  He became a U.S. citizen in 1943 and died of a heart attack in a New York hospital soon after his fiftieth birthday on April 3, 1950; for weeks afterward, Lenya was so distraught that neighbors were afraid to let her stay alone at night.  Despite the off-and-on infidelities, her life had been intimately linked to his ever since their first meeting in 1924.

     After Weill’s death Lenya, who in turn became a citizen in 1944, returned to the stage and performed memorably as Jenny in Marc Blitzstein’s brilliant 1955 Off Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera at the Theatre de Lys in the West Village, a production that I was privileged to see twice.  The first time, worn out from a long trip by car back from vacation on Cape Cod, I was swept along into the theater by some adventurous friends who followed some other people in, and so witnessed a dress rehearsal where I kept telling myself that this was a remarkable production, even as I caught myself nodding off and pinched myself awake.  

     The second time I saw Threepenny I was fully rested and alert, and confirmed my first impression that this was a remarkable event, and her now husky voice inimitable.  From then on I was a devoted fan of anything that Brecht and Weill had worked on together, and anything that Lotte Lenya sang or performed in; she became a part of my New York experience.  I will never forget her rendering of the song “Pirate Jenny” in The Threepenny Opera, where she plays a lowly and exploited hotel maid who imagines a pirate ship coming into the harbor to avenge her; when the pirates ask if she should kill some or all of the people, she answers tersely, in the German version, “Alle,” in that one short word conveying unforgettably the resentment and hatred toward their masters of the downcast and oppressed.

     In the 1950s “Mack the Knife” became popular in the U.S.; you couldn’t avoid it.  I loved the song but was troubled by its new status as a hit show tune that every pop singer wanted to have a crack at; divorced from its context in The Threepenny Opera, it was less sinister, less haunting.

     Another New York triumph for Lotte Lenya was George Balanchine’s City Ballet production of The Seven Deadly Sins, newly translated by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, which opened in December 1958.  The main character, Anna, is presented as a split personality.  Lenya had the speaking and acting role, the rational Anna, her face framed by orange hair and bangs, with bold red lips and garish mascara, a grotesque appearance suggesting figures out of German Expressionism, the flagrant streetwalkers of Kirchner or the caricatures of Gross.  The dancing role was performed by Allegra Kent, who would experience the seven sins in seven cities of a mythological America.  By way of introduction Lenya informed the audience in her inimitable down-to-earth voice, with a glance at the lovely young dancer, “She’s the good-looking one; I’m practical.”  In the original 1933 production by George Balanchine in Paris, Lenya had done the same role with Tilly Losch as the dancer, with the two of them about the same age and Losch bearing a remarkable resemblance to Lenya.  In this New York production the fact that Lenya was 60 and Kent a mere 21 seemed irrelevant, given Lenya’s effectiveness in the role.  As the two Annas seek their fortune and encounter the seven deadly sins in the cities of America, a male quartet (with the mother a bass in drag, another grotesque Expressionist touch) watch smugly and receive their earnings, which they use to gradually build a little house for themselves.  Needless to say, the quartet represents the capitalist bourgeoisie  exploiting the labor of workers.  I’ll never forget the quartet’s insistent repetition:

                  Lazy bones are for the Devil’s stockpot.
                  Lazy bones are for the Devil’s stockpot.

I saw the ballet twice and was overwhelmed by it.  Amazingly, it was not revived by City Ballet until 2011.

     From 1960 on Lenya lived in an apartment at 404 East 55th Street in New York.  In 1961 she appeared in the movie version of Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as the enterprising Contessa who helps Vivian Leigh find a young Roman lover; for her performance Lenya was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  She would marry again three times but, being determined to promote the works of her deceased husband, in 1962 she created the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music and oversaw vigilantly the revivals of his works, even to the point of attending rehearsals script in hand and following the performers line by line.     More performances and recordings followed, and more honors.  Keeper of the flame even when her own life was sputtering out, in her last days she embraced the acclaimed opera singer Teresa Stratas as her successor in keeping Weill’s music alive.  Stratas moved in with her to see her through her last days as she succumbed to cancer.  Lenya died on November 27, 1981, aged 83, and was buried beside Weill in Haverstraw, New York. 

     Source note:  For information on Bernstein, Maurois, and Romains in New York, I am indebted to my longtime friend and comrade in the study and appreciation of French literature and culture, Jeanine Parisier-Plottel.  Bernstein’s attack on Maurois is recounted in Maurois’s Mémoires; though Maurois doesn’t identify his attacker by name, it is obviously Bernstein.

This is New York

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Jorge Royan

     Coming soon:  A post on Remarkable Women: a prostitute’s daughter who slept in an empress’s bed, married and divorced an ex-vice president, and hobnobbed with ex-kings and a future emperor. 

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


  1. Thank you for the interesting history lesson, I didn't know much about NYC and I've recently fallen in love with it. It's culture and atmosphere is one of the most unique things in the USA. I'm currently trying to find its rate on but I somehow can't find it. I suppose it isn't exactly cheap, but I hope it won't be a rip-off.

    1. B&Bs are probably the bargain option. No, New York isn't cheap. Hope you enjoy this crazy, fascinating place.