Hitler’s Home in the Palisades: New Books Explore Murphy Ranch

Repainted ruin
Photos by Rich Schmitt / Staff Photographer

By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief

Like London buses or movies about Truman Capote, you wait for a long time and then two turn up at once.

It’s the same about books that revisit Murphy Ranch, the broken-down huddle of spray-painted ruins high up the Sullivan fire road—also known to generations of hikers, vandals and urban historians as the house that the Nazis built.

And that is a true story stranger than fiction, according to USC historian Steve Ross, author of “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America,” which, among other horrors, looks into the tangled hey-day of Murphy Ranch.

It was, by pure coincidence, published in the same week as Laura B. Rosenweig’s “Hollywood Spies,” which covers some of the same territory.

The interest builds on the globally recognized writings of Randy Young of the Pacific Palisades Historical Society and his mother, Betty Lou.

Much of the contemporary evidence about Murphy Ranch was collected by Californian Jews between 1934 and 1941, independent of East Coast Jewish organizations, Rosenweig said.

But it was then destroyed, out of concerns that it would fuel rabid talk of “Jewish conspiracies,” stoked by leading Catholics such as the notorious Father Charles Coughlan.

For today’s Palisades, with a significant but low-key Jewish community, it’s terrifying to think that the Nazi sympathizers who built the compound in the Santa Monica Mountains believed it had its own manifest destiny, albeit as deluded as the Nazis themselves, Ross said.

“Murphy Ranch in Pacific Palisades was going to be Adolf Hitler’s western Americas vacation home, his stay-over base when he was flying to meet his ally, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo,” Ross told the Palisadian-Post. “This is what his followers believed, anyway.

“In those days, it was a high remote place—like Hitler’s Berghof (Eagle’s Nest) in the Alps.

“When the Nazis were thinking grandly about Hitler’s inevitable take-over of the United States—once he had finished with Europe—the Murphy Ranch was going to be like San Clemente for Richard Nixon or Mar-a-Lago for Donald Trump.

“Only better sited on international transportation routes,” he said.

“There is still a lot we don’t know about the intentions of the Nazi sympathizers behind Murphy Ranch, but it was a deadly serious time for Jews in Los Angeles,” he said.

The plots to spark a Mansonesque race war by killing Hollywood Jews, and the work of a handful of patriots alongside the American Legion to identify Nazis and expose their stealthy darkness to an FBI obsessed with looking the other way (toward Soviet Russia), dominates his book about 1930s life in Los Angeles.

But the Rustic Canyon ranch played a pivotal role in fueling their barbaric fantasies.

Gated community

In 1933 the future fortress was a 55-acre scratch of land freshly registered in the name of Murphy.

It was a lot reportedly purchased from the town’s most famous screen cowboy, Will Rogers, who was deeply unhappy when he learned they intended to hoard the area water.

Jesse (or Jessie: reports are not even agreed on the gender) Murphy was the scion of a thumb tack manufacturer who ended up in Pasadena. He (or she) was, maybe, the parent of Chicago-born Winona Stephens (or Stevens). Or an entirely fictional business name.

What is known is that Winona, with her engineer husband Norman, was deeply involved in the Silver Legion, one of many pro-Nazi groups in the USA that marched and drilled like the world-conquering storm troopers they wanted to be.

The wealthy couple was “handled” by a shadowy figure, still only known to history as Herr Joseph Schmidt—maybe their direct conduit to Berlin, maybe just an opportunistic leech.

They saw a glorious and financially rewarding future under National Socialism and, in the late 1930s, poured the modern equivalent of $70 million into the rugged hillside site.

They constructed an elaborate infrastructure that included a 395,000-gallon concrete water tank, a 20,000-gallon diesel fuel tank and a power station.

The water tank

One oddity: They employed Paul Williams, the most prominent African-American architect of his era, to design their monumental front gate. (Maybe they did not realize he was black?)

It was more lively than the Methodist community down the hill.

There were parties and séances and fundraising marches by the Silver Shirts—the paramilitary wing of the Silver Legion identifiable by a scarlet “L” over their hearts.

There were constant revisions of building blueprints—held today at UCLA—including a warren of buildings laid out in the 12 signs of the zodiac.

It all went wrong when the Japanese jumped the gun, attacking Pearl Harbor before Hitler had moped up Europe and Russia, and FBI priorities changed from wrinkling “reds” (union organizers) out from under their beds to the more fashionably attired nativist Nazis.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, Los Angeles police officers rode up the fire road and seized the compound. They arrested 50 people, including Schmitt, who was lurking around the site with codebooks and radios.

Winona and Norman, who had been living in a garage on site, apparently retreated rapidly back to Pasadena. Suddenly, they were on the losing side of history.

Ross abandoned their trail at this point, and the ranch itself revolved through a handful of artistic owners, decaying every year until it was inherited by the city. Much was lost in the 1978 Mandeville Canyon Fire. The generators were removed and donated to Loyola Marymount.

Now it’s just a rumble of ruins.

The city repairs holes in the fence and occasionally tears down another chunk of unsafe masonry, sealing off entrances into the interior, but seems to lack the cash—or the focus—to decide what to do with the place.

For hikers, many of whom come from around the world to visit, Murphy Ranch remains a morbidly thrilling curiosity.

But for many Jews and historians, like Ross or Rosenweig, the remains of the ranch remain an unnerving foreshadowing of what might have been.

Or one day, dressed in another style of Nativist slogans, might be again.