April 30th, 2012

carole lombard 01
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The planned Hollywood palace for Hitler

In Carole Lombard's final film, "To Be Or Not To Be," she plays an actress converted into a member of the Warsaw underground after Germany invades Poland. But imagine a considerably altered universe, one where Lombard (the plane crash never happened) participates in a Hollywood underground after the Nazis conquer the U.S.

Not a universe any of us would want to live in, certainly, though it might be an intriguing premise for a "what-if" novel ("Stars take on the Nazis -- but this is no movie!"). However, one of the potential settings for this concept has its roots in reality, and to find it, you simply have to go up in the Pacific Palisades, near Rustic Canyon, above Will Rogers State Historic Park and its polo field:

Ironically, Rogers unknowingly set all this in motion in 1933, when he sold a tract of land in the hills. The owners, mining engineer Norman Stephens and his wife Winona, had come under the Rasputin-like spell of a German known only as Herr Schmidt, who claimed to possess supernatural powers.

Schmidt persuaded the couple that he had foreseen an eventual German victory over Europe, throwing America into chaos. He suggested they build a compound in the hills for a German sympathizers' retreat, one they could use as a place to rule once the U.S. was conquered.

The Stephenses took him at his word, and spent $4 million (with German interests likely adding money of their own) on an infrastructure for a small village, including a terraced hillside, sprinkler system for watering plants, water tank and power station. More was planned, including a four-story mansion. (Ironically, Mrs. Stephens asked noted architect Paul Williams -- who was black -- to create blueprints for the mansion after the initial group's plans were rejected.) Here's what the entrance looked like:

In the late 1930s and the start of the '40s, many Nazi sympathizers and fascists in southern California actually used the area as a weekend retreat. However, on Dec. 8, 1941, in the wake of Pearl Harbor the day before, federal agents stormed the compound, arrested Schmidt and confiscated many items, including a shortwave radio that supposedly could transmit to Germany.

After the war, the Stephenses -- who apparently were not charged -- sold the site to the Huntington Hartford Foundation, which turned it into an artists' colony (one of those who used the site was author Henry Miller of "Tropic Of Cancer" fame). It eventually was abandoned, with the power generators donated to Loyola Marymount University, and fell into further disrepair after a fire in 1978.

The graffiti-strewn ruins are still there, since the city of Los Angeles doesn't have funds to raze them. They present a weird sight.

Had the unthinkable actually happened and the Nazis defeated the Allies, would Adolf Hitler -- who committed suicide in his bunker 67 years ago today -- have used it? In real life, he spent little time in conquered territory (a few hours in Paris after France fell, and that was it). On the other hand, Hitler, chief propagandist Josef Goebbels and other Nazi officials were both fascinated by and fans of Hollywood movies...a topic we'll more fully explore one day.

This week's LiveJournal header is from Columbia's 1932 "No More Orchids," as Louise Closser Hale washes Carole's feet, enabling all to feast their eyes on those shapely Lombard legs. (Universal used a similar tactic four years later for "Love Before Breakfast.")
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