Falling Stars

Joseph Horowitz’s Artists in Exile is very ambitious, very stimulating, and very confused. Much of the confusion comes from the disparity between what the book says it’s going to be about—in the words of its subtitle, “How refugees from twentieth-century war and revolution transformed the American performing arts”—and what it actually turns out to be: the stories of scores of European artists who happened to come to America in the twentieth century. Almost none of them “transformed” the American performing arts, and many of them weren’t refugees at all but immigrants in the great American tradition. After all, we all came from somewhere else.

Who is an “exile”? Someone who’s been compelled, by fiat or circumstance, to abandon his native land and reside elsewhere—and who would rather be back where he came from. Napoleon: the moment he could escape from Elba he was on his way home to Paris (and Waterloo). Ovid: banished in disgrace to the shores of the faraway Black Sea and forever pining to return to Rome. There are true exiles in Horowitz’s book, most of them Jews or Gentile anti-Nazis who fled Europe to find sanctuary in America. But all but a few of these were content to stay on after the war, claiming the possibilities of the New World and embracing their new life; in other words, ceasing to be refugees and becoming immigrants and, usually, citizens.

Take the two most famous stars Horowitz summons up to make his points: Garbo and Dietrich. He gives us potted versions of their hardly obscure life stories and not very illuminating commentary on their work, but sidesteps the fact that neither of them was either an exile or a refugee. Garbo arrived in America from Sweden in 1925 to work for MGM; she had almost, instead, stayed on in Germany, where she had just filmed Pabst’s The Joyless Street. And although she made trips home to see family and friends, and claimed to hate Hollywood, she chose to go on living in America, spending her final decades in famous seclusion in the East Fifties in Manhattan. There was never a moment when she couldn’t have repatriated herself.

Dietrich got to America in 1930, well before the Nazis took power in Germany, and although they were eager to lure her home, she stayed on, as an American citizen, until she moved to Paris a decade before her death. Horowitz acknowledges that “the United States, clearly, was more to Dietrich than refuge from the storm,” and he’s certainly right in stating that “her identification with the language and culture of Germany was permanent.” But that’s true of just about all immigrants and the cultures they come from: it’s their children (like Dietrich’s daughter) who morph from immigrant mentality to American mentality.

To a certain extent Garbo and Dietrich were what Horowitz calls “agents of cultural change,” but they had never been on the run, and the …

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Letters

Artists in Exile’ June 12, 2008