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 impact they had on American culture was no greater than the impact American culture had on them. The movies would have been the movies, however sadly diminished, without them; they wouldn’t have been “Garbo” and “Dietrich” without America. Horowitz asks, about Garbo, “Would she have prospered better had she not been so closely bound to the United States?” But as what? A stage actress in Stockholm? A film star under Goebbels? Would this strange, unmoored narcissist really have been happier if MGM hadn’t helped her become the most striking of all screen presences?
Again and again Horowitz focuses on famous figures who were here because they chose to be—starting with his first extended example, George Balanchine, who got out of Russia in 1924 when he was twenty-one. In Europe, Diaghilev gave him the opportunity he needed, and later Lincoln Kirstein offered him America, with which he fell in love. Balanchine, as Horowitz understands, had the greatest impact on an American art form of any of the twentieth-century émigré geniuses, but although he had come to something of a dead end in Europe, in transplanting himself to America he was moving toward something, not away from something.
Balanchine remained Russian Orthodox in his religion, retaining his affection for his Russian friends, for Russian food and drink, for Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Glazounov, and Stravinsky (though not Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, who had offended him), but he had no nostalgia for Russia itself. When he finally returned there, in 1962, he hated it. He was fervent about his adopted country and proud of his American citizenship. In other words, his American years were not an exile but a fulfillment. Horowitz has done his homework, absorbing and quoting the work of various commentators on Balanchine (I’m one of them), but no one who really understands Balanchine could remark, as he does in his introduction, that Balanchine “shed” Petipa, who was his lifelong artistic lodestar. It’s all there in the ballets. Although Horowitz knows about them, he doesn’t really know them. That’s why he can also say that Balanchine created “an American ballet tradition utterly distinct from Petipa and Diaghilev.” Rather than reject the past, Balanchine absorbed it and built on it.
Fortunately, Horowitz’s knowledge of music gives him something insightful to tell us about Balanchine:
The evidence of his musical sophistication marks his ballets in ways obvious and hidden, general and specific. His Scotch Symphony solves the problems of Mendelssohn’s Scotch Symphony—a work undone by a long coda whose cheerful note of triumph is (at least for post-Victorian ears) impossibly thin. Balanchine’s ballet omits all but a few introductory measures of the symphony’s long A minor first movement. As a result, the entire work begins and ends in the major. With its most turbulent music left out, with the finale the only sonata form, the center of gravity is shifted toward the fortified close. This recomposition is clinched by the choreography, which (in addition to turning the repetitive Adagio into a pas de deux both central and sublime) achieves closure by pairing the dancers as “wedded” couples—a Shakespearean ending. No other choreographer could stage and “correct” a Mendelssohn symphony this persuasively, but there is a cost: the Scherzo must be slowed down for dancing.
This and other such telling passages, however, have nothing to do with Balanchine’s being a refugee, an immigrant, or in exile; they have to do with the specifics of his genius, which were just as evident in early works like Apollo, created in 1928, five years before he arrived in America.
By far the most interesting parts of Artists in Exile are those dealing with musicians, because this is material Horowitz knows in depth. He can’t stop returning to the years that Anton Dvorák spent here (1892–1895), and about which he’s written an entire book, Dvorák in America,1 but he also gives us a useful series of biographical essays on the lives and achievements of many of the composers, conductors, and instrumentalists who came here in the following century for one reason or another—by no means all political.
Some stories are tragic, others triumphant. Some composers embraced America and flourished; others—Krenek, Dohnanyi, Toch—either resisted their new home or were rejected by it. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith survived with varying degrees of success and comfort; all of them chose to become American citizens. Before he died in 1945, Bartók lived unhappily for a few years on West 57th Street in Manhattan, but although he did important work here, he was one of those who were unable to accommodate themselves to their new circumstances—as Horowitz wittily says of him, “one of those émigrés whose United States residence was an irreducible, implausible quirk of fate.”
Kurt Weill and Erich Korngold had big careers here, the first on Broadway, the second in Hollywood: too bad that they had to “go commercial” to do it. Horowitz is ambivalent about this. He goes on and on about Weill: Did he, in his eagerness to succeed, betray his real talent? Who can say? Yes, he never wrote another Threepenny Opera, but not necessarily because he emigrated; some artists never surpass or even equal their early successes. A perfect example is Michel Fokine, the most important choreographer of the first years of the twentieth century, whose career never recovered from his break with Diaghilev. His disappointing American sojourn, which lasted until his death in 1942, is the obverse of Balanchine’s, but you wouldn’t know it from this book. Inexplicably, Horowitz barely touches on him.
One unsurprising phenomenon that emerges from all these stories is that those immigrants who were relatively young when they arrived—among them, Balanchine at twenty-nine, Weill at thirty-five, Korngold at thirty-seven—fitted into their new lives more easily and readily than those who were older and more settled in the world they came from (Fokine, for instance). No one, it would seem, planted himself here more firmly than Edgard Varèse, who arrived here in 1915 at the age of thirty-two: neither a refugee nor a political exile, he became wholeheartedly American (above all, like Balanchine, he loved New York). There’s no way Horowitz can shoehorn Varèse into his refugee-exile concept, but if you don’t know his story, this is a happy way to learn it.
Likewise, Horowitz’s account of the life of that imposter-cum-genius Leopold Stokowski, the grandson of an Anglo-Irish boot-maker, is riveting—I wish he’d give us a complete biography—but the only thing about Stokowski’s life and achievement that reflects his having emigrated here is that America gave him tremendous opportunities, and he grabbed them. Born in London, he became the organist at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in New York at the age of twenty-three, and he wasn’t yet thirty when he took over the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912; by 1915 he was an American citizen. I can’t take seriously Horowitz’s argument that “though he had lived in the United States since 1905, Stokowski was essentially exiled in America because of World War I.” Stokowski’s brand of self-dramatizing populism could only have thrived here, and he knew it.
Stokowski is a Horowitz favorite, partly because—unlike many of the other European conductors who succeeded here—he performed a lot of new American music. This is one of the author’s hobbyhorses, but I don’t see why just because America gave them sanctuary, great musicians raised in the European tradition owed it to modern American composers to play their music. Horowitz’s truculent bias in this regard—his disapproval of what he terms “the incurable Eurocentrism of classical music as imported to the United States”—seems to me to reflect an unfortunate streak of provincialism. Surely we were lucky to have these gifted men offering us the music they knew best.
Yet Horowitz’s regard for, and understanding of, the musical émigrés—by no means all of them refugees—makes a worthy contribution to our understanding of the history of music in this country. The noble Adolf Busch, the mandarin Serge Koussevitzky, the difficult Otto Klemperer, and the tragic Dimitri Mitropoulos are portrayed with sensitive discrimination. About the uniquely triumphalist Arturo Toscanini, Horowitz has already written in depth,2 but it’s useful to have his viewpoint recapitulated here, even though Toscanini—that fiercely anti-fascist and almost godlike symbolic figure to Americans of the 1930s and 1940s—is an exception to every rule.
Artists in Exile also provides a valuable reminder that many of the important institutions that have formed our musical experience were the brainchildren of émigrés—the Marlboro festival (the Busch family, including Adolf’s son-in-law, Rudolf Serkin); the Tanglewood festival (Koussevitzky)—while the influential Leventritt piano competition was greatly shaped by the Hungarian conductor George Szell and the Bohemian-born pianist Serkin. Serkin, in fact, is a central figure in Horowitz’s account—of all the émigré pianists, he was the one who most easily accommodated himself to his adopted country. Returning to Europe for a visit in 1947, he wrote:
When the first excitement of recognition is over, what is left is a terrible homesickness. I feel like an American tourist here…. I didn’t realize how deeply I have already taken root in America.
Yet Serkin is one of the performers Horowitz chides for essentially ignoring American music. But was it really misguided or ungrateful of a European artist to find Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms more congenial to his talent than Aaron Copland and Roy Harris?
As for the three most celebrated instrumentalists in America in the 1930s and 1940s, all of whom came from Eastern Europe and became American citizens, Arthur Rubinstein is barely mentioned and Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz are marginalized—as if they were outside the scope of this book. They just don’t fit its arguments. Both of them may have been beneficiaries of America’s “insatiable New World musical marketplace that propelled them toward maximum fame, fortune, and instrumental display,” but, according to the author, without an institutional base they were denied the creative and collaborative opportunities they might have found in Europe. “One may reasonably inquire whether their astounding instrumental gifts were to any degree squandered in the United States,” the implication being that, like Weill and Korngold and—as we shall see—like Lubitsch and Garbo, they were just too commercially successful on American terms. If only they hadn’t chosen, long before the war, to make the most of what America offered them!
Of the arts dealt with by Horowitz, perhaps we know least about early-to-mid-twentieth-century theater. It’s also the area about which he’s least convincing on the subject of émigré cultural impact. Yes, the exotic and talented Alla Nazimova had a splashy career after she arrived here from Russia in 1905, specializing in, and helping to popularize, Ibsen and originating the role of Christine in Mourning Becomes Electra. What was she like as a stage actress? Many found her magnificent, others over the top. What’s left to us of the years of her career that mattered are a few of her silent-screen melodramas, including her demented Salome (you can find her “Dance of the Seven Veils” on YouTube—be prepared) and her bizarre art-deco Camille opposite an effective Valentino, in which she’s maddeningly stylized.
Essentially she changed nothing, although her example may well have inspired Eva Le Gallienne and Stella Adler. But European stage actresses had been impressing (and/or scandalizing) Americans since the mid-1800s, and Rachel, Bernhardt (nine American tours), Duse (she even died in Pittsburgh), and Modjeska were far bigger sensations than Nazimova, as Garbo and Dietrich would be after her. Nor does Nazimova fit the pattern of refugee or exile. She quickly learned English—by 1907 she was appearing in something called Madame Coquette—and after her silent-screen moment of notoriety, went on to a long though spotty career on the stage and in Hollywood, her name still honored, but a has-been. She had been an interesting sideshow but in no way a catalytic presence.
The saddest story is that of Max Reinhardt, a genuine refugee, who had been the emperor of German-language theater—one of the greatest and most powerful of all director/impresarios. His The Miracle had successfully toured America in the 1920s, but after he filmed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Hollywood in 1935 (he was sixty-two), things went downhill, and though he was well regarded as a teacher in Los Angeles, by 1943, when he died, he was a relic of a distant and mostly forgotten past, unable to transplant his huge-scale vision of theater to the world of Broadway. No other theater really mattered in America, and the great Reinhardt was too much of an institution, too planted in his formidable history, to fit comfortably among us.
A very different story is that of the talented stage designer Boris Aronson, to which Horowitz devotes well over twenty pages. But what does it prove? Aronson was very young—about twenty-three—when he arrived in New York in 1923, and although his aesthetic preferences may have been formed in Europe, he developed his style here, his chosen home. All in all, his work is no more “European” than that of his famous predecessor Robert Edmund Jones, who in his youth spent a year in Germany observing Reinhardt’s theater but was as American as one can be: New Hampshire, Harvard, the Provincetown Playhouse. (Among his great successes were The Green Pastures, The Philadelphia Story, and a number of plays by O’Neill, including Mourning Becomes Electra, Ah! Wilderness, and The Iceman Cometh.) According to Frank Rich in his magisterial The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson,3 Jones was “the American designer Aronson most admired,” even if he didn’t acknowledge being directly influenced by him.
But the person Horowitz most admires of the transplanted European theatrical figures is Rouben Mamoulian, who in 1923, at the age of twenty-six—neither a refugee nor in exile—arrived here via Paris, Moscow, and London. He was clearly a real talent, working in opera, operetta, and dance as well as theater, breaking through on Broadway with the original play of Porgy. (He would later direct—thrillingly—Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.) After enjoying a significant but hardly central early career in sound films, he triumphed yet again on Broadway with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel before, in the late 1940s, it all began to peter out. Of Mamoulian’s films Horowitz most appreciates the novel and sparkling Love Me Tonight, with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, and in fact indulges himself by using up five pages to walk us through it.
Unfortunately, he also uses it as a stick with which to beat Ernst Lubitsch, whom he consistently disparages. Mamoulian, you see, “eschewed nostalgic regard for Old World sentiment and locales. With no anchored ‘past,’ he enthusiastically lived in the present.” On the other hand, “Lubitsch’s adaptability—to sound, to Hollywood, to America generally—may be read as a lack of depth.” Poor Lubitsch—he can’t do anything right. “An undeniable defect of Lubitsch’s films is the absence of memorable star turns by Americans.” Even when he uses James Stewart and Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper, “these powerful screen icons are more powerful in the films of other directors.” (Lombard in To Be or Not to Be? Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner?) That masterpiece Trouble in Paradise? Not only is it “synthetic” but “there is no emotional tension between the three principal players.” Besides, it has the temerity to employ a European locale, which “has a distancing effect: these shenanigans would play out differently in ‘Boston.'” So true—that’s why it has a European locale: it’s about Europe.
Not only that, but Lubitsch wasn’t an intellectual: “He was not at ease in the presence of a Thomas Mann or Max Reinhardt.” In fact, “like Korngold, he was a clever middlebrow craftsman mistaken for a highbrow genius.” Another strike against him: Lubitsch, according to Samson Raphaelson, had “a wretched, meaningless home life.” Of Lubitsch’s films, only Ninotchka comes up to Horowitz’s standards. Even so, the fact “that Ninotchka is Garbo’s most enduring film must be considered a disappointment. She deserved to attempt Hamlet or Joan of Arc.” Does Horowitz have any sense of humor at all? Anyone who so totally fails to appreciate Lubitsch simply has no business writing about the movies, since he so obviously fails to understand what a movie is.
Artists in Exile anatomizes many of the important European directors who came to Hollywood and either succeeded there (that is, Americanized themselves), or couldn’t or wouldn’t forget their European roots and after the war went home. Not surprisingly, the ones who stayed and became recognizably American directors—including Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Douglas Sirk, William Wyler, and (exceptions to the rule) Lubitsch and Michael Curtiz—were younger than the ones who departed: Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Victor Sjöström, all of whom had had important careers in Europe and so had major reputations to return to. F.W. Murnau, alas, died in California in a car crash, leaving behind two masterpieces—Sunrise and Tabu—but he was essentially peripheral to Hollywood, and knew it. To get the full flavor of what the exiles experienced, one should read Ophuls’s wonderful memoir, Souvenirs, with commentaries in which his son, Marcel, and his widow describe how he was taken up in Hollywood—and let down—by Preston Sturges.
Horowitz industriously sketches all these careers, giving us his (somewhat naive) take on their accomplishments and failures. But although he writes feelingly of a few individual films—Sunrise, The Wind—the movies come across as new territory for him; he seems to be learning on the job. What can we make of someone who cites Hollywood’s “dual German-American beginnings?” What German-American beginnings are those? Edison? Griffith? DeMille?
In a footnote early in his book, Horowitz acknowledges the ambiguous nature of his project: “In my title, I use the terms exile and refugee loosely.” But this title has set up expectations that not only go unfulfilled but baffle the reader as he tries to follow the book’s argument. At other points Horowitz says that his book is really about the impact of immigrant artists on our culture. No foreign movie star, however, had a more sensational impact on America than Rudolf Valentino, who is barely mentioned. (Even his sometime lover, the Polish silent star Pola Negri, is given a few paragraphs, and she was no more a refugee than he was.) Don’t Italians count—unless they’re Toscanini?
No one could expect Horowitz to be all-inclusive, but glaring omissions like Valentino throw the reader off balance. The author declares that he’s concentrating on émigrés who resided here a long time (as Valentino did, until his death), even if they eventually went home or chose not to become citizens. Which is fair enough if “exile” is really his subject. But if it’s “impact,” who, say, had more of it than Enrico Caruso, who dominated opera in America for close to twenty years and, indeed, married an American? (He’s mentioned several times, but only in passing.) A number of great opera singers, in fact, settled here permanently: Ezio Pinza and Lauritz Melchior, two of the greatest and neither a political exile, were here before the war, stayed through the war, and remained after the war, going on to successful careers on Broadway and Hollywood. Don’t singers count?
Despite its claim to a coherent large idea, what, finally, we have in Artists in Exile is a highly arbitrary catch-all of mini-biographies, plus perceptions and analyses of widely disparate originality and merit. Perhaps we should just relax and salute Horowitz for the brave effort that’s gone into piecing together an account of so many different disciplines and packing in so much information. But the difference between his solid grasp of musical history and his fragile hold on dance, theater, and the movies exposes the pitfalls of amateur interdisciplinary scholarship. A hot track in today’s academy, this approach to cultural history generally adds up to knowing a little bit about a lot of things, and—without solid underpinnings—forcing shaky connections in order to fit a concept. Horowitz just doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know, and by stretching himself so widely and arbitrarily, he’s built his edifice on treacherous ground.
May 15, 2008