If bare tree limbs and gray skies have you longing for a change of scene, you can fly across the country to a place where every day is summer, every night features a spectacular sunset and the biggest decision boils down to which bluff to watch it from. You can go to Malibu.
I always think of Malibu and its neighbor, Pacific Palisades, as part of Los Angeles — and the latter technically is, while Malibu is a separate municipality. But as with most of L.A., legal boundaries have nothing to do with psychological constructs of the city. As you follow the curve of Santa Monica Bay north along the mountains, you leave the city grid behind and enter a strangely rustic paradise of palms and cacti, shimmering white mansions and wild blue surf.
Amid these exclusive hills is a Spanish-style stucco villa that stands out as much for its provenance as for its 1920s aura of Golden Age glamour. That would be Villa Aurora, the Pacific Palisades estate that served as a refuge for the German-Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife, Marta, during World War II and the years that followed. Feuchtwanger wrote many of his great historical novels in the house, inspired by the idyllic tranquility of the setting; he and Marta also made Villa Aurora the gathering spot for a community of European Jewish émigrés, artists and writers.
The hills above Malibu have the feel of a hidden world, with treasures tucked into canyons and gorges. I might never have stumbled upon Villa Aurora had it not been for a friend from Berlin, an avant-garde musician, who recently settled into the house for several months of composing. After Feuchtwanger’s death, the German government obtained the property and now runs it as an artists’ residence, hosting a half-dozen Germany-based musicians, writers and painters at a time.
As in the Feuchtwangers’ day, Villa Aurora remains an exclusive province of artists from Germany — but one can easily become a member, and many Jewish Angelenos have. You can also attend one of the Villa’s public events: concerts, lectures and salons highlighting the artistic ferment of Europe and California.
Another product of that ferment was Henri Lazarof, the Bulgarian-born Jewish composer who made his career as a UCLA professor of music — and whose spectacular modern art collection is one of the best reasons to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
My half-Bulgarian composer friend clued me in to the Lazarof connection after his Villa Aurora-sponsored concert at LACMA. The museum’s historically scant European holdings have been vastly upgraded by the Janice and Henri Lazarof Collection of paintings and sculptures — 130 important works by Picasso, Klee, Kandinksy, Giacometti, Feininger and Brancusi, among other titans of the early 20th century.
Born in Sofia, Lazarof himself spent several years as a composer-in-residence in West Berlin. But most of his genre-defying classical works were composed in the green Los Angeles hills, where he landed after studying music in Israel and at Brandeis University. His connection to both UCLA and LACMA was solidified by marriage to Janice Taper, a daughter of the noted Poland-born Jewish philanthropist Mark Taper, who donated generously to the university and funded LACMA’s original modern art gallery. (If you haven’t been to LACMA in a while, the gorgeously upgraded Wilshire Boulevard campus is well worth the trip.)
You can see plenty of art without ever leaving the quiet hills of Malibu — at the Getty Villa, the lesser-known sibling of the fabled, mountaintop Getty Center museum in Brentwood. The Villa was built to house the Gettys’ collection of classical Greek and Etruscan sculptures, artifacts and mosaics.
For most visitors, the setting itself is the real draw; like the Villa Aurora, it’s an oasis of Old World European charm. While the original Getty Center is a modern-art landmark, the Malibu Getty is a gracious white Italianate mansion with columns and porticoes set into a lush green hillside. The villa’s centerpiece is a lavish courtyard with formal gardens surrounding a limpid pool; museum patrons can picnic amid the fountains, flowering blooms and statues of cherubs and antelopes.
A perfect Malibu day ends on the beach — perhaps Zuma, the favorite of surfers, or El Matador, where seals lounge amid the rocky coves; all California beaches are open to the public. So after savoring the artistic largesse (and villas) of L.A.’s European émigrés, you can unwind with the million-dollar view in a million-dollar neighborhood — all for the price of parking.