Künstlers in Paradise
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There was a time when the family Künstler lived in the fairy-tale city of Vienna. Circumstances transformed that fairy tale into a nightmare, and in 1939 the Künstlers found their way out of Vienna and into a new fairy tale: Los Angeles, California, United States of America.
For years Mamie Künstler, ninety-three-years-old, as clever and glamorous as ever, has lived happily in her bungalow in Venice, California with her inscrutable housekeeper and her gigantic St. Bernard dog. Their tranquility is upended when Mamie’s grandson, Julian, arrives from New York City. Like many a twenty-something, he has come to seek his fortune in Hollywood. But it is 2020, the global pandemic sweeps in, and Julian’s short visit suddenly has no end in sight.
Mamie was only eleven when the Künstlers escaped Vienna in 1939. They made their way, stunned and overwhelmed, to sunny, surreal Los Angeles where they joined a colony of distinguished Jewish musicians, writers and intellectuals also escaping Hitler. Now, faced with months of lockdown and a willing listener, Mamie begins to tell Julian the buried stories of her early years in Los Angeles: her escapades with eminent émigrés like Arnold Schoenberg, Christopher Isherwood, Thomas Mann. Oh, and Greta Garbo. While the pandemic cuts Julian off from the life he knows, Mamie’s tales open up a world of lives that came before him. They reveal to him just how much the past holds of the future.
Cathleen Schine’s captivating and comedic twelfth novel explores exile, émigrés, movie stars, musicians, family bonds and the power of stories—both those we hand down and the ones held secretly in the heart.
A Macmillan Audio production from Henry Holt & Company.
Release date: March 14, 2023
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Print pages: 272
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Künstlers in Paradise
They were told Los Angeles would be like the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Sea was a sea of many tales: of Homer and his Cyclops and Sirens and heroes and sheep. Los Angeles had its myths, too, Hollywood myths, and like the villages and cities on the shores of the Mediterranean, it was blazing with bougainvillea and geraniums, with lemon trees and orange trees. But when they saw the sea itself, the Pacific Ocean, they thought it was as unlike the Mediterranean Sea they knew as the Alps were unlike the Sahara dunes. They could spot dolphins leaping and playing from the beaches of Los Angeles just as they could from the rocks of Capri, but the Pacific Ocean was a noisy, industrious sea, working day and night in the manufacture of huge swollen waves, delivering them, one after the other, crashing, to the shore. The water in the Pacific was bone-chilling, nothing like the soft, silent water in which they’d bathed on their Mediterranean holidays. And the sun—the sun was different, too. It was bigger, flatter, paler, brighter than a Mediterranean sun—a flat glaring disc in a sky that was enormous and bleached of color. It was not that the Künstlers were unhappy with their new home, so unlike European shores. No, they were not unhappy, not at all. They were stunned.
* * *
THEY arrived at the brand-new Union Station in Los Angeles. A driver collected them. He’d been sent by the movie studio that had made their escape from Austria possible. Of all the experiences of that long journey by ship and by rail, they would later recount, that first glimpse of Los Angeles from an automobile was what struck them as the strangest. The drive through the city might as well have been skippered by Odysseus, they said. It was that unexpected, that odd.
“Is it an exhibition?” Mr. Künstler asked. Otto Künstler. Some had heard of him. Some not.
“Is it an exhibition?”
Little houses like Swiss chalets, like cottages in the woods, like miniature castles, like Persian mosques, like cabins in Wild West movies.
“Novelty,” said his wife, Ilse. “They like novelty here.” She laughed then. “What have we done?” But she was excited. The only one who spoke even a bit of English, she asked the driver, “All is like this?”
And they knew then that, yes, it was all like that: uneven, whimsical, nonsensical.
“I like it,” their daughter said. She was eleven years old, named Salomea, known as Mamie. She sat in the backseat, leaning out the window, her mother beside her.
Ilse patted her shoulder. Brave girl, bucking us all up, said the pat.
But Mamie did like it. She had always had a tendency to brood; her father liked to say she was a Romantic, but her mother said no, she was too literal-minded. That was before Los Angeles, however. In Los Angeles, almost immediately, Mamie’s brooding would become lighter, animated, transformed into something fanciful, into daydreaming, while her literal-mindedness revealed itself as something more subtle, something mischievous. Her grandfather, who understood her best, called it irony.
“I was born to be born in Los Angeles,” she would say, all her life.
“Why are their cars so big and their houses so small?” she asked, leaning even farther out of the car window. There were orange groves and oil wells side by side. What could be more decadent? “I don’t see a city. Do you? Where do they buy bread? They do eat bread, don’t they? I have not seen one bakery. The trees have no branches, just hats on top.”
“They’re palm trees. Surely you’ve seen palm trees, Mamie,” her father said.
“In paintings? Photographs? You must have,” her mother said.
“I do not call these trees,” her grandfather said. “They are potted plants. And they have outgrown their pots. Significantly.”
Mamie stared out the window. “Golly,” she said in English, a word she’d learned on the ship coming over.
Her father laughed. “This affectation of naivete is getting on my nerves a bit, darling daughter.”
“The palm trees are quite gauche,” she said to retaliate. She had no idea what gauche meant but she was sure it was apt.
Was her naivete an affectation? She would want you to think so, but in truth Mamie was wonderfully, liberatingly naïve. She wanted to clap her hands like a much younger child. She was delighted with the tall, skinny palm trees. She was fascinated by the landscape, dry and bright, the sky stretched thin, the oil wells lifting their prehistoric heads up and down. There were no shops on the streets, no people, no dogs or cats or cafés or museums or palaces. Just little troll houses, little troll lawns, overgrown potted-plant palm trees and smaller trees flowering above garish troll gardens. It was like a puppet show with no puppets.
* * *
THE Künstlers left Vienna very late, 1939, almost too late. They were lucky to get out. So many of their friends and relatives did not, too dazed by disbelief and the comforts of just a year or two before. It was only with the Anschluss in 1938 that the Künstlers were shaken out of their own complacency. The family had lived in Vienna for a hundred years, prospered for the last fifty, and it took German Nazis invading, troops goose-stepping beneath their windows, to convince the men in the family there was no hope.
Before that, Grandfather Künstler had refused even to consider abandoning the city of his birth. Austria was not like Germany! Vienna was a city of music and love! Of beauty! Then the changes began in earnest. Mamie’s school made her stand in the back of the classroom with no desk, then banned her from school altogether. Otto Künstler was relieved of his teaching duties at the conservatory. He was forbidden to perform in any concert hall. His compositions were banned.
The family left their house as little as possible that year. Mamie missed her long strolls through the city with Grandfather, though she did not argue. One day after the arrival of the Germans, she and her grandfather had been walking along when they saw a crowd of people jeering and laughing. The crowd—a mob, Mamie called it, years later—had circled around an old Jewish woman, forced her down on her hands and knees and made her scrub the filthy pavement. She was breathing hard, her face impassive, bent over the scrub brush. Two-handed. Back and forth. The dirty water stained the skirt of her dress. Back and forth. The sharp outline of her knees showed through the wet cotton. Back and forth went the scrub brush. And all around the old woman on the ground the gentiles—our neighbors! Mamie realized—mocked her. Old Jew whore, they said. Old Jew whore in the dirt where you belong. Scrub scrub. Back and forth. Then a woman kicked her. Then another woman kicked her. Then a man. Old Jew whore.
Mamie was pulled away by her grandfather. They walked home as fast as they could. Neither of them left the house after that day.
To stave off Mamie’s boredom and fear, her grandfather told her stories, which served also to stave off his own boredom and fear. They developed an unspoken, perhaps unconscious, understanding during those months: they would look after each other. And during that time they became friends, even better friends.
The outside world was gone, locked out, but there were also more visitors to the big house than was usual. Men slipping in the back, men in the kitchen where men never went, men in the parlor with Otto and Ilse bent over documents and envelopes, the room heavy with whispers. Mamie watched them come and go, but they barely noticed her.
And then one night, all the rustling papers and hoarse whispers stopped. Mamie was told to pack a bag with what she thought essential. Helga, the cook and bosomy friend whenever Mamie needed comfort, hugged her one last time, both of them crying, only the cook understanding why.
And the Künstler family left the city of Vienna.
They took the train, uneventfully in Mamie’s memory, to the Swiss border. Not for a minute did she believe she would never see her house again. She was frightened when soldiers or train officials boarded the train each time they stopped at a station. She was terrified of men in uniform; but men in uniform had been terrifying in Vienna, too. As soon as the train began again to chug and move rhythmically forward, Mamie dismissed the blustering men in uniform from consciousness. That instant and placid amnesia was not a feeling available to the adults, but Mamie noticed nothing of their feelings. She was on a fast-moving train. There were hills and mountains and pastures full of cows. She could hear the hollow clang of their bells.
When they reached the border, the family got out and presented various papers to various officials. Mamie sat on her little case and ate a roll her mother gave her, waiting. She didn’t mind waiting. The station was busy, and from her low vantage point she watched shoes of all kinds pass by. Stockings with ladders, men’s darned socks. There was such variety. Socks with clocks, argyle patterns; wool stockings, cotton stockings, now and then even silk stockings.
Hours later—Mamie had to be woken up—they were waved through a gate and Mamie saw her mother cry for the first time. Then her father cried, a shocking sight. She turned away and pretended, even to herself, that she had not seen anything of the sort.
They stayed in Switzerland with a family for three months. There were children in the family, but they spoke only French. Mamie slept in a room with her grandfather and played with the children during the day. It was summer and the children were out of school. The boy, Antoine, was a year older than Mamie. The girl, Yvette, was three years younger. Antoine taught her to play football and Mamie developed a thrilling crush on him. She watched his cheeks get red with exertion, admired his shorts with so many pockets, his tan legs. Mamie and Antoine were always together, Antoine leading the way on rock climbs, Yvette following Mamie like a puppy. And after a month or so, Mamie realized she was speaking to the children in French.
“You’re like Heidi,” her mother said when the three returned from a morning hike. “Brown and healthy.”
“Heidi was always healthy, Mother. You’re thinking of Clara,” Mamie said in French.
Ilse, whose French was perfect, answered in German, “Yes, of course,” and silently hoped Mamie would not turn out to be a show-off and a prig, then thought, Just let her be safe, prig or no.
Just when Mamie felt she was settling in, her family packed its bags again and took a train to Paris. Yvette cried at the station, Antoine took Mamie behind a pillar and kissed her on the lips.
“Why can’t we stay?” she asked her parents.
“No place in Europe is safe for us, Mamie. There is only one place for us now,” Otto said.
“America,” said Ilse.
Mamie’s grandfather said, “I do not like this.” But he went along with the rest of them.
On the train to Paris, Mamie liked looking out the train window at fields of hay piled high into domes. Telephone poles flashed by and manicured trees lined one-lane roads. Were her parents frightened they would be questioned, their papers examined and rejected? They never said so, but looking back years later Mamie realized what they must have been going through. At the time, nothing seemed real to her. Not leaving Vienna, not the sunny months in Switzerland kicking a ball, not Antoine and the kiss, not his little sister trailing after her. Everything since she left Vienna had a dreamlike quality—off-kilter but thick with detail, all of it unexpected, all of it without explanation.
The Künstlers stayed with a Jewish musician and his family in Paris for just a week. The train they took from Paris to Le Havre left early in the morning, and Ilse and Otto stared nervously at everyone and everything. At first Mamie thought they were excited about going on an ocean liner. She certainly was. But she soon sensed their tension. Grandfather held her on his lap, tighter than usual. His beard was pungent with the smell of cigar, almost unbearable against her cheek.
When they got to Le Havre, Ilse and Otto were surprised by the crowds of American students boarding the ship.
“They must be running home,” Ilse said.
“And we are running from home,” said Otto.
Now, looking at the enormous ocean liner, Mamie began to take in the truth. They were leaving their world. She cried because she missed her best friend, Frieda, and Helga the cook and Muschi the kitchen cat in Vienna; she cried for Antoine and even Yvette. At the same time, even as she cried, she could not help being excited. There were four hundred extra passengers, the steward told them. Four hundred American students who would be sleeping on cots in one of the dining rooms, in the library, anywhere they could find space.
The Île de France was a beautiful ocean liner, even crowded with pink, rowdy American university students and gray, silent refugees. When they boarded, and found their cramped staterooms, Mamie was thrilled to see the bunk beds.
“Oh! I want the top bunk!”
“For you,” Grandfather said, “I will make the sacrifice.”
Back on deck, they waited for the ship to pull out of the harbor.
“Bound for New York,” Otto said, now openly excited. “New York is unlike any city you have ever seen.”
Mamie looked at all the people on the dock who did not have to go to New York.
“Do we really have to leave?”
“We’re lucky to have the chance,” Ilse said.
“Refugees,” Grandfather said bitterly.
“We are lucky to be refugees,” Otto said angrily.
“Oh, yes. We lucky, lucky Jews.”
Grandfather took her hand and led her through the other passengers on the deck to the rail.
“When the ship moves, you wave my handkerchief,” he said. “That is how it’s done. And people on the dock shout, ‘Bon voyage!’”
Mamie was crying again, but her grandfather diplomatically said nothing, just handed her his enormous white handkerchief that smelled, like everything he owned, of tobacco. The vigil began. They waited hours for the ship to sail. They went to their cabins and waited all night until, in the morning, the ship just where it had been the night before, they had a lifeboat drill.
“At this pace, we will get to New York faster in one of these,” Grandfather said.
He continued to hold Mamie’s hand, and she continued to hold the white handkerchief.
Ilse and Otto knew several of the other passengers who would be in their lifeboat if a lifeboat was really needed.
“I think your father would be pleased as can be if we ended up in that lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic,” Ilse said.
“To be in a boat with Piatigorsky, the finest cellist in the world? And as if that were not blessing enough, my friend Nathan Mulstein playing the violin? Yes, I would happily drown to such music.”
“If only they could fit a piano for you, Otto. We would drown faster, but what music!”
Mamie found their hilarity offensive and said so. In French.
“Oh dear,” Ilse said.
“Don’t worry, little Mamie mouse. We will not need the lifeboats. We’re safe here,” Otto said.
“They joke to cover worry,” Grandfather whispered. “Let them be.”
* * *
THEY did not actually sail until ten that night, when engines finally began to heave, smoke puffed from the three smokestacks, and the Künstlers watched France recede into darkness.
No one shouted “bon voyage” from the dock.
By then they knew that Germany had invaded Poland.
By the time they reached Southampton to pick up even more fleeing passengers, both England and France had declared war on Germany.
Mamie still worried about the lifeboats and the darkness each night when every light had to be extinguished to protect them from enemy ships. But watching the milky churning wake of the ocean liner, knowing that with each day they were getting closer to New York, she began to enjoy herself. The Americans called die Schaumkronen “whitecaps,” the few English passengers called them “white horses.” Mamie watched the white-topped waves from the deck and imagined they were Apollo’s horses pulling their chariot westward to America.
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