In early June, the Esotouric gang set off on a tour of Villa Aurora, the sprawling Spanish-Colonial Revival estate in Pacific Palisades that was for decades the home of the German emigrés Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger–he a journalist and novelist, she an athlete.
Lion’s pointed criticism of Hitler’s rise had landed the couple in concentration camps, and it was only through the efforts of powerful friends that they escaped with their lives. They entered the U.S. through Mexico, due to the vile immigration quota system which blocked the escape of thousands of less connected Jews.
Villa Aurora was built as an L.A. Times-sponsored showcase house in 1928, by a developer who soon went bankrupt. When the Feuchtwangers purchased it in 1941, it was a dilapidated, out-of-fashion pile half swallowed by underbrush.
Although the Feuchtwangers’ architectural tastes ran to modernism, a mock-Spanish castle better suited Lion’s need for wall space to house the tens of thousands of books that informed his historical novels. And the stunning views out over the Pacific were some solace. They made a home of it, and never left.
L.A.’s German and Jewish colony — Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Arnold Schonberg, Franz Werfel, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein and others — gathered frequently in the grand salon with its built-in pipe organ and broad terrace. Mann called it “truly a castle by the sea.”
Lion and Marta lived together in the Villa Aurora until his death in 1958, and she stayed on. Marta had already donated Lion’s books and papers to USC, and on her 1987 passing left the house as well, intending that the school maintain it as a tribute to her husband’s work.
USC countered that it would just as soon sell the house and move the books downtown.
It looked as though the lights would soon flicker out at Villa Aurora.
But Marta had many friends, and had kept her husband’s rebel spirit alive. A cultural preservation campaign was launched, a rare collaboration between book-loving Angelenos and the German government and intelligentsia. With Mayor Tom Bradley’s support, City Councilman Marvin Braude successfully sought to have the house declared an Historic-Cultural Monument. This bought time against any demolition attempt. In Germany, millions were raised.
The result was the establishment of Villa Aurora e.V., a non-profit organization that maintains the property, hosts visiting German artists, and stages cultural events. USC owns Feuchtwanger’s books, but many of the less delicate and valuable volumes from his working library still line the walls, between sculptural busts of Marta at all ages, and the bits of driftwood she collected on her shore walks.
Villa Aurora is home to one of the largest collections of intact tile from Harry C. Hicks’ mid-range Hispano-Moresque line, and the primary reason for our visit was to view this installation in the company of our favorite Southern California tile expert, Brian Kaiser.
It truly is an extraordinary display, although the years, and perhaps mineral seepage from the hillside, have not been kind to massive murals in the front courtyard.
But most of the tile has held up beautifully, as it was meant to do, and the house itself is rare time capsule, an astonishingly lovely place with a story that cannot fail to touch a visitor’s heart.
After climbing the winding hillside road, which the Los Angeles Times installed for the many thousands of visitors who toured their Demonstration House in the spring of 1928, we gathered in the secluded entry courtyard with our tour guide Mona, and a small group of German visitors, who fortunately did not object to the tour being given in English.
After introducing us to the history of the Demonstration House and the Feuchtwangers’ life in exile, our guide opened the door to Marta’s sitting room, and ushered us inside. We remarked upon the handsome red tile floor, the busts of Marta, the stunning wood- and ironwork and the moist, chilly air.
And then the odd thing happened.
“Meow! Meow!” called an insistent cat, from the hall leading into the grand salon.
Richard and I are cat people. Brian is, too. The tour was suddenly even more interesting. We were eager to meet the Villa Aurora’s resident pussycat.
“Where’s the cat?” interrupted Richard.
“There is no cat,” said Mona.
“But we heard the cat,” I insisted.
“There’s a small dog here, but no cat.” said Mona, a little confused and perhaps unnerved. We let the matter drop. But later, we heard the cat mew again, in the kitchen. We never saw or heard the little dog, who was far away upstairs in the visiting artists’ living quarters. And as it turned out, nobody else had heard the cat, not even Brian.
The cat’s call came from around this spot.
Later, we found a photograph of Lion Feuchtwanger holding a handsome black pussycat. Perhaps this was the spectral spirit who called out to us as we entered the Villa Aurora.
The house is packed with charming, thoughtful details.
Cast-iron door knobs.
Regal gargoyles who take rainwater in through their bottoms and spray it out their mouths.
A stylized, inverted swastika tucked beneath one of the bookshelves.
Bathrooms to die for.
Roof tiles hand-shaped on site, on the broad thighs of the workmen.
And a delightful photo of a grinning Lion with his beloved tortoises, who had the Villa Aurora phone number written on their shells, in case they should wander off into the canyon.
Villa Aurora is open for private tours by appointment, and hosts regular screenings and events. To learn more, click here.
And to see all of the photos from our visit, click here.