Martinis and Memories in a California Garden

June 6, 2023 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

Kunstlers in Paradise book coverEarly in 2020, Julian Künstler receives an unexpected phone call from his 93-year-old grandmother, Salomea (“Mamie”) Künstler. Mamie invites Julian to stay with her in California for a few weeks while she recovers from a broken wrist. She and her elderly housekeeper-companion, Agatha, need a short-term family chauffeur.

For Julian, this is a perfectly timed, golden opportunity. Twenty-four years old, he has just lost his job, his roommate, and his girlfriend. He is eager for a respite from his New York City life and full-of-advice parents. And thus begins the magical, multigenerational novel, Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine, blending tales of German-Jewish émigrés in 1940s Hollywood with the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Locked Down in Los Angeles

After settling into Mamie’s charming Craftsman bungalow in the Venice Beach neighborhood of Los Angeles, Julian spends several pleasant weeks ferrying Mamie to doctors’ appointments and to the beach. Spirited, carrot-haired Mamie, a retired violinist, is a fun companion, and the amusingly sardonic Agatha is a fabulous cook. The excursions come to a sudden halt as Covid-19 morphs into a public-health threat, and Los Angeles goes into full lockdown.

Julian is now housebound with the aged pair, watching lots of scary TV news, lounging in Mamie’s glorious garden, and marking time by the daily cocktail hour. Every afternoon at four o’clock, Agatha enters the garden carrying a martini shaker, a jar of olives, and frosted glasses on a jingling silver tray.

Bored and restless, Julian is also terrified for his parents in New York City and sister in Chicago. He feels guilty in his safe garden refuge, indulging in oranges right off Mamie’s tree. When he telephones his parents and sister, he notes with alarm the continuous blare of ambulance sirens in the background.

From Vienna to Hollywood

Julian’s feelings of fear and guilt make him receptive to the stories Mamie tells of her childhood, although he knows there is no comparison between his situation and hers. Mamie was ten years old, living in Vienna with her parents, Otto and Ilse, and adored grandfather, when Germany annexed Austria in 1938. After a year of isolating at home to avoid Nazi violence against Jewish pedestrians, the family was able to secure visas through Hollywood’s European Film Fund which brought endangered artists to California. Otto was a composer and Ilse an actress; despite her limited English, Ilse was offered a position as a screenwriter.

The Künstlers (German for “artists”) joined Los Angeles’ colony of 10,000 German-speaking émigrés. They felt grateful to be alive, but fearful for their relatives in Europe and homesick for pre-war Vienna, their cherished city of music, art, and cafés.

Mamie regales Julian with memories of long-ago California parties overflowing with whipped-cream-topped coffee and apple strudel. She grew up around composer Arnold Schoenberg, novelist Thomas Mann, socialite Alma Mahler, and other prominent émigrés. For any famous names that Julian does not recognize, Mamie pauses her stories, announcing, “We will have an intermission while you google.”

The protests following George Floyd’s murder prompt Mamie to recall racial discrimination in early Venice Beach, designed by an eccentric millionaire to mimic the piazzas, waterways, and colonnades of Italy’s Venice. Beyond California history, Künstlers in Paradise offers a tender portrayal of three generations – the good-hearted, directionless Julian; his concerned parents, who want him to settle on a practical career; and Mamie, who decides that a deeper understanding of his family’s story will help Julian mature. Schine is a perceptive and witty writer – she’s been called the “Jewish Jane Austen” – and her characters and their conversations sparkle.