By Susan Elia MacNeal
Los Angeles might look to be all blue skies, palm trees, ocean spray, orange groves, and movie stars, but there was (and still is) an underbelly of American Nazis living and thriving in the sunshine. In the 1930s and 1940s, Southern California had its share of ordinary folks — who also just happened to be members of groups like German American Bund, America First, the Silver Shirts, the Copperheads, and the Ku Klux Klan — all dedicated to a fascist takeover of the United States. They were your neighbors, shopkeepers, teachers, and police officers — and all in plain sight.
My journey with the history of Nazism in America starts at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2017, when my husband, a Jim Henson Company puppeteer, was performing as Sweetums in “The Muppets Take the Hollywood Bowl.” At the time, neither of us had any idea that the Hollywood Bowl had been used for aviator and Nazi political darling Charles Lindbergh’s rally on June 20, 1941 — railing against intervening in Hitler’s takeover of Europe and the East. But it was, and at LAX, on the way back to New York City, my husband picked up a copy of Steven Ross’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated book “Hitler in Los Angeles,” which details the history of the rise of Nazism in Southern California — including the America First rally at the Hollywood Bowl — as a gift for me.
“Mother Daughter Traitor Spy” author Susan Elia MacNeal (Cover courtesy of Bantam / Photo credit: Noel MacNeal)
Sounds crazy, right? (Also: Were there no Dodger T-shirts? Was the See’s Candies kiosk closed?) But for me, a historical novelist writing about World War II, the book was the perfect gift: the catalyst for writing two books. The first, “The Hollywood Spy,” was part of my Maggie Hope series. But haunted by parallels to the rise of authoritarianism and White supremacy in the U.S. today, I was unable to let the idea of the Los Angeles Nazis go. Supported by my agent and publishing company, I embarked on writing my first stand-alone novel, about a real-life mother and daughter team, Grace and Silvia Comfort, who went undercover in L.A. in 1940, to infiltrate dangerous Nazi organizations. I loved the idea of two ordinary women committing to do such an extraordinary thing. How did a mother and daughter decide to embark on infiltrating Nazi cells? What was it like? What were the challenges, the payoffs? What was their day-to-day life like?
The front plate of Ross’s book has a wonderfully detailed map of both Nazi and anti-Nazi sites in Los Angeles, which I referred to constantly as I began writing. Despite spending significant time in L.A. over the years (on various Muppet-related trips), I’d never heard of these local places’ history of Naziism and White supremacy — and the spymasters and secret agents who fought against them. I took two research trips to Los Angeles, specifically to visit many of the places my characters lived and worked, many places I’d visited, but now with Ross’s book and its revelations in mind.
I was able to visit the soaring atrium of the office of Leon Lewis, a reserved lawyer and the hero of Ross’s “Hitler in Los Angeles.” Lewis worked in Naval Intelligence during the First World War, settled in L.A., and helped found the Anti-Defamation League. The Nazis (both German and American) called him “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles.” He founded a spy organization, as the LAPD and FBI were too focused on the Communist threat to be bothered with fascists. With his spies, including Sylvia and Grace Comfort, Lewis stopped Joseph Goebbels’s intense efforts to spread Nazi ideology in the United States, exposed fifth column saboteurs inside the Douglas aircraft plant among others, and thwarted the plotted lynchings of prominent outspoken anti-Nazis, such as Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Charlie Chaplin, Samuel Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer, among others.
I was able to visit Leon Lewis’s office at the Roosevelt building downtown (now home to luxury condos), as well as the enormous Trinity Auditorium (then part of the Embassy Hotel), home of Nazi rallies and a theatrical trial to “impeach” President Roosevelt. Dusty La Crescenta (formerly Hindenburg) Park was the site of Nazi picnics, drills, and rallies. I also paid a visit to the now-destroyed sites of Deutsches Haus, the Continental Theater, and the spot where Lewis and his journalist partner Joseph Roos ran the News Research Service, a propaganda arm of their fight against Nazism. It’s now anonymous modern offices, condos, and parking lots.
Because I was writing a novel, I also imagined where my characters would go and went there as well. I visited Canter’s Deli — both the former Boyle Heights location, for the history, and also the later incarnation, on Fairfax, for the matzo-ball soup (which was delicious, by the way). I went to Cole’s for their famous French dip sandwiches and had cocktails at the bar of the Biltmore Hotel. I tried to view Los Angeles from the observation deck of City Hall as my characters do, but alas, it was closed due to COVID. I also visited other landmarks of 1940s Los Angeles: the Georgian Hotel, Angels Flight, the Gaylord Apartments, and the remains of the Murphy Ranch.
New connections between the Third Reich and Southern California are revealed in the book “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.”
The Murphy Ranch, if you don’t know — I didn’t and none of the Angelenos I spoke to did either — was a complex being built in the Santa Monica Mountains’ Rustic Canyon in the late ’30s and early ’40s as a base for Nazi sympathizers and American anti-interventionist activities. It was self-sustaining, with its own water tank, farms, fuel tank, bomb shelter, and bunker, plus plans for 22 bedrooms and meeting rooms. Murphy Ranch, commissioned by Silver Shirts Winona and Norman Stephens, was also envisioned as ultimately a compound and headquarters for Hitler in Los Angeles. Yes, it sounds crazy, but yes, it’s true. Murphy Ranch was built as the place for Hitler to stay and receive American Nazi and Japanese dignitaries after winning the war.
The LAPD and FBI (finally convinced of the U.S. Nazi threat) took the Murphy Ranch over on Monday, December 8, 1941 — the day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. They arrested over 50 members and the site was left abandoned. It’s still easy enough to hike to the ranch in the Pacific Palisades (if you don’t mind steps). Not much is left: just the most basic of concrete structures, now covered in colorful spray-painted graffiti. It remains a sobering reminder of those Angelenos — those Americans — who chose fascism and Nazism over democracy.
Susan Elia MacNeal is the New York Times bestselling author of the Maggie Hope mysteries. MacNeal won the Barry Award and has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, Agatha, Left Coast Crime, Dilys, and ITW Thriller awards. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son. “Mother Daughter Traitor Spy” is her first standalone novel.