Thomas Mann and his family in the United States

After having lived in exile in France and Switzerland, the Mann family arrived in the United States in 1938. Initially, they lived in Princeton before moving to Los Angeles in 1941. Geographically far removed from the place of his birth and his original readership, Thomas Mann called upon his „German listeners“ via radio. From 1940 to 1945, he commented on the war in monthly dispatches, spoke up early against the Holocaust, specifically addressed German atrocities, but also his hopes for the future: “Hitler-Germany has neither tradition nor future.” As a result of its downfall, a new Germany would emerge, a country conquering hate and bringing about hope and reconciliation once again.

By 1943, Thomas Mann had completed the tetralogy “Joseph and his Brothers“. The last volume, “Joseph the Provider“ can be interpreted as an indirect homage to President Roosevelt’s America. From 1943 to 1947, the “most beautiful study I ever had“ saw the creation of the quintessential German novel, “Dr. Faustus“, the fictional biography of an artist striving for exceptionalism, whose protagonist sells his soul to the devil and perishes as a result, just as Germany is destroyed by the madness of National Socialism. Thomas Mann called it the “novel of my time, disguised as the story of a highly precarious and sinful artist’s life“, not without a trace of “self-mockery”.

In the spring of 1946, Thomas Mann had to undergo major lung surgery in Chicago, but recovered quickly. In spite of his political activism, his many lecture tours throughout the United States and his health problems, the author was admirably productive during the years spent in the house at San Remo Drive. In addition to narrative works (including “The Tables of the Law“, a Moses-novella), Mann penned important essays, such as „Germany and the Germans“. „Nietzsche’s philosophy in the Light of Recent History“, „Goethe and Democracy“, but also „My Time“, a jovial and extremely vivid review of his life.

It was also at his new house that the Nobel laureate wrote his supposedly most personal book, „The Genesis of Dr. Faustus“, published in 1949. This superb account paints a lively picture of Thomas Mann and his world in American exile. Mann grants an insight into his daily routine and his work, as well as his family and social life; he offers glimpses into his diary and his extensive reading list. Readers are able to follow his musings on Germany, the United States, exile, and also music. This self-portrait, offering an inside view of Thomas Mann’s personal sphere, is at once elegantly at ease and self-ironic, a masterful synthesis in which the spirit of the new house manifests itself  in a place so far removed from Europe.

Once again he dives deeply into his own history, tracing his journey from realistic to mythical narrative. He lists the authors that influenced him in the most profound way, Nietzsche, Heine, Kierkegaard, Tolstoi. He writes about his travel across the U.S., his illness, surgery, and his naturalization as American citizen. Those close to him make an appearance as well: Brother Heinrich, Heinrich’s wife Nelly, his wife Katia, all six of his children, as well as friends and advisors with common professional interests, from Theodor Adorno to Bruno Walter.

Thomas and Katia Mann with grandchildren. TMA_3072 - ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Thomas-Mann-Archiv / Photographer: Unknown

The new abode rarely functioned as a family home. Erika Mann initially served as a war correspondent in British uniform, reporting from Lisbon and Cairo, and later on from defeated and occupied Germany. After the war, she began to work primarily for Thomas Mann, as his “adjutant“ and later his executor.

Klaus Mann was accepted into the American Army after a long wait and served in a propaganda unit during the perilous Italian Campaign. Previously, he had completed two major works, an essay on André Gide and the autobiographical novel “The Turning Point.” After the war, he visited the partially destroyed family home in Munich’s Herzogpark, bombed-out Berlin, but also liberated Prague and Theresienstadt concentration camp. When he was discharged from the army, he plunged into a personal crisis, attempted suicide in 1948, and fled California for the Côte d'Azur, where he took his own life in 1949.

His sister Monica suffered a personal tragedy in 1940. The ship which she boarded in order to flee from England to the United States was sunk. Her husband drowned; she was rescued but was never happy at her parents‘ home. For a while, she lived in New York, where she felt comfortable, before returning to Europe.

Golo Mann initially worked for Radio London on behalf of the American Army and was later employed by a radio station in the American-occupied zone. He would come to visit the house in Pacific Palisades from time to time, when he taught at a college East of Los Angeles. Golo went on to become a prominent historian and author.

Elizabeth Mann Borgese, a future ecologist and expert on maritime, spent the exile years in Chicago with her Italian husband. After the war, they moved to Italy. Elisabeth returned to California after the death of her husband, later moving to Halifax, Canada. In 1970, she became the only female founding member of the Club of Rome.

Michael Mann took up residence in San Francisco, together with his Swiss wife and their two sons, Frido and Toni. He pursued a career as an orchestra musician and was also succesful as a soloist (viola) for whom prominent composers wrote original works. He stayed in the United States after the rest of the family had returned to Europe, turning his attention from music to German philology. Frido was Thomas Mann’s favorite grandchild. He was the model for the child Nepomuk, nicknamed Echo, in „Doktor Faustus“.

Katia Mann had been quite happy in Princeton (1938/39) and initially regretted the move to Los Angeles. Nevertheless, she would later state that „the San Remi“, as the house was called in the family jargon, had probably been the most beautiful of all the family’s homes. Photographs by Florence Homolka, a daughther of arts patron Agnes Meyer, who had provided financial support for the construction and had supported Thomas Mann in many ways, vividly document the Manns‘ domestic bliss.

After 1947, the Manns‘ relationship with the United States deteriorated for political reasons. The Cold War, the McCarthy era and a declining interest of the American readership were contributing factors. Europe beckoned once again, its book market recovering from the effects of the war.  Thomas and Katia Mann returned to Germany for the first time in 1949, and again in 1954 and 1955. The books which Thomas Mann published after the war were extremely successful in his home country, in the East as well as in the West.

From 1947 on, the Manns took annual trips to Switzerland; in 1952, they decided to stay in the Swiss confederacy. They lived in Erlenbach for a while, before moving into their last family home in Kilchberg, close to Zurich, where Tomas Mann died in 1955, and Katia Mann in 1980.


Manfred Flügge