The little-known story of screenwriter Salka Viertel, whose salons in 1930s and 40s Hollywood created a refuge for a multitude of famous figures who had escaped the horrors of World War ll.
Hollywood was created by its “others”; that is, by women, Jews, and immigrants. Salka Viertel was all three and so much more. She was the screenwriter for five of Greta Garbo's movies and also her most intimate friend. At one point during the Irving Thalberg years, Viertel was the highest-paid writer on the MGM lot. Meanwhile, at her house in Santa Monica she opened her door on Sunday afternoons to scores of European émigrés who had fled from Hitler—such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Arnold Schoenberg—along with every kind of Hollywood star, from Charlie Chaplin to Shelley Winters. In Viertel's living room (the only one in town with comfortable armchairs, said one Hollywood insider), countless cinematic, theatrical, and musical partnerships were born.
Viertel combined a modern-before-her-time sensibility with the Old-World advantages of a classical European education and fluency in eight languages. She combined great worldliness with great warmth. She was a true bohemian with a complicated erotic life, and at the same time a universal mother figure. A vital presence in the golden age of Hollywood, Salka Viertel is long overdue for her own moment in the spotlight.
|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
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About the Author
Donna Rifkind‘s reviews appear frequently in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times Book Review. She has also been a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, American Scholar, and other publications. In 2006 she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Read an Excerpt
The look, the sound, and the speech of Hollywood’s Golden Age did not originate in Hollywood. Much of it came from Europe, through the work of successive waves of immigrants during the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century. The last several of those waves brought a group of traumatized artists who were lucky enough to escape Hitler’s death trains and extermination camps. All were antifascists; a few were Communists; most were Jews. These were Hitler’s gift to America— prodigious individuals who enriched the ﬁlm culture and the intellectual life of our nation, and whose inﬂuence continues to resonate. Plenty of writers have explored the ways these refugees, exiles, and émigrés managed to escape from Europe. Fewer have told about the Americans who had the courage to take them in. Of those heroic citizens, at the top of the list for her uncompromising conviction and generosity, was a too-often-forgotten screenwriter in Santa Monica named Salka Viertel. This is her story.
Salka Viertel was a recently naturalized American when Hitler’s war began, having arrived from Berlin on a visitor visa in Hollywood with her husband during one of the earlier waves of emigrating ﬁlmmakers, in 1928. She became a proud and grateful U.S. citizen in February of 1939, only months before the ofﬁcial outbreak of war in Europe on September 1 of that year. It was her very Europeanness that had alerted her early on to the growing conﬂagration across the Atlantic, well before Hitler took power in 1933. She had been raised in a well-heeled Jewish family in a garrison town in Galicia called Sambor, on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where she’d been born in 1889. And she came of age as an actress on the stages of many European cities, most notably Weimar-era Berlin. Long before the advent of National Socialism made anti-Semitism ofﬁcial state policy in Germany, Salka Viertel was quite familiar with its lethal intentions. Thus after 1933 she was extra sympathetic to the attempts of the panicked human beings who began to launch themselves desperately, in any way they could, toward the possibility of safety in America. An estimated ten thousand refugees from Germany and Austria settled in greater Los Angeles between 1933 and 1941, a signiﬁcant part of “the most complete migration of artists and intellectuals in European history” up to that time, according to California historian Kevin Starr. Members of Salka Viertel’s own family were among those refugees, as were hundreds of her friends and many more strangers. In Santa Monica, she made it her mission to provide a refuge for them in her own home and to absorb them into her social and professional network, all to help them survive in a wholly unfamiliar new world.
America’s own deeply rooted anti-Semitism, the eruptions of homegrown fascism that emerged in the 1930s with rallies sponsored by the Silver Shirts and the German American Bund, and widespread anti-immigrant sentiments stoked by such fearmongers as Father Coughlin were factors in the Roosevelt administration’s reluctance to alter strict immigration policies that had been further tightened during the Great Depression. While Roosevelt was not unsympathetic to the plight of Europe’s Jews, during the early years of his administration his chief concerns were domestic, focused on boosting employment and fostering an economic recovery. His administration chose to maintain the stringent quotas for refugees that had been established in 1924, reluctant to stir up an already robust homegrown xenophobia. Later, after 1941, he concentrated almost exclusively on winning the war. And so it became clear that rescue for the Jews, as Hitler set out methodically to kill them all, was not likely to originate with U.S. government agencies. It would be individual efforts such as Salka Viertel’s, synchronized with organizations like Hollywood’s European Film Fund and Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, that saved the lives of hundreds of refugees during the earlier stages of National Socialism’s twelve-year domination, and which then mobilized to help those refugees adapt to life in America.
As I began to read the histories of the two intersecting arenas where Salka Viertel rang up her accomplishments during the 1930s and 1940s—the ﬁlm studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the gathering places of the antifascist emigration—I found myself asking again and again: where are all the women? I read dozens of thoughtful, entertaining, even groundbreaking works about Hollywood in which women who were not wives, secretaries, or movie stars scarcely make an appearance. Yet women worked in every department of the studios. They were screenwriters, editors, researchers, readers, publicists, costumers, hair and makeup artists. Often below the line and ungloriﬁed, women were nonetheless vital to the success of these vast, complex organizations, and some of them wielded genuine inﬂuence if not actual power. Where are their stories? In the documentation about the antifascist intellectuals who ﬂed from Hitler’s Germany, I found a similar absence. Jean-Michel Palmier’s monumental Weimar in Exile: The Anti-fascist Emigration in Europe and America gives the unintentional but unmistakable impression that fully half of the population he writes about—the women—had little or no involvement in this epic human exodus. You would not think, reading Palmier’s book and others, that women witnessed their homes and property and livelihoods stolen away from them, and scrambled to uproot themselves, and waited endlessly in airless bureaucratic ofﬁces for documents and visas, and suffered the penury and humiliation of exile, along with the men. You would not discover that it was Nelly Mann who more or less carried her seventy-year-old husband Heinrich Mann over the Pyrenees in the stiﬂing heat of an early October day in 1940 as they tried to evade capture and certain arrest. Or that it was Erika Mann, Heinrich’s niece and Thomas Mann’s eldest daughter, who risked her life by sneaking into Nazi-dominated Munich in the summer of 1933 to rescue her father’s manuscript of Joseph and His Brothers from the Mann family home, which was then under constant Gestapo surveillance. Or that it was Marta Feuchtwanger who planned and implemented the escape of her novelist husband Lion Feuchtwanger from the concentration camp at Les Milles in southern France at the end of the summer of 1940. Or that it was two women, Liesl Frank and Charlotte Dieterle, who carried out most of the paperwork-heavy, unglamorous, but effective rescue work of the European Film Fund (EFF) in Hollywood. All of these women were like-minded friends and colleagues of Salka Viertel, whose work inspired and was inspired by their commitment and their bravery.
It is more often in the imaginative literature about Hollywood and the 1930s exiles, rather than in the histories, that women play prominent roles and emerge as fully ﬂeshed characters: Anna Trautwein in Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Paris Gazette, for example; or Erich Maria Remarque’s heroines in Shadows in Paradise and The Night in Lisbon; and Salka herself, who appears in ﬁctional form in Joseph Kanon’s Stardust, Elizabeth Frank’s Cheat and Charmer, Gavin Lambert’s Inside Daisy Clover, Christopher Hampton’s Tales from Hollywood, Irwin Shaw’s short story “Instrument of Salvation,” and, ﬂeetingly, in the ﬁlm The Way We Were. Yet these glimpses can’t compensate for the absence of real women in the copious nonﬁction, where at best they are underrepresented and at worst virtually erased. Fortunately, but glacially, the landscape is changing. Martin Sauter’s Liesl Frank, Charlotte Dieterle, and the European Film Fund not only provides the ﬁrst comprehensive study of the EFF but also properly credits Frank and Dieterle as the chief administrators of the fund—credit that has previously been granted to its more high-proﬁle male directors, Paul Kohner and Ernst Lubitsch. In his book, Sauter aims speciﬁcally to remedy the exclusion of women in the histories of Hollywood and the antifascist emigration. He underscores British professor S. Jay Kleinberg’s creditable assertion that women are “systematically omitted from the accounts of the past. This has distorted the way we view the past; indeed it warps history by making it seem as though only men have participated in the events worthy of preservation.” Other scholars are also working to redress the oversight. Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood; Erin Hill’s Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production; Evelyn Juers’s House of Exile: The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann; and Emily D. Bilski and Emily Braun’s essay about Salka Viertel, “The Salon in Exile,” from Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation have all begun to ﬁll in the blanks. Signiﬁcant, too, is the robust state of exile-studies scholarship in Europe. Katharina Prager’s German-language biography of Salka Viertel, “Ich bin nicht gone Hollywood!,” is especially noteworthy, as is her examination of Viennese modernism, Berthold Viertel: Eine Biograﬁe der Wiener Moderne. But in America there is much more work to be done.
Salka Viertel has the double distinction, during her lifetime and after, of being both maligned and dismissed. When they have bothered to mention her at all, writers about the era have described her variously as a gossipmonger, a money-grubber, a vengeful lesbian, an incompetent fraud, and a horrible witch. (That last, from a letter Kurt Weill wrote to his wife Lotte Lenya, may be the most excusable, for distraught refugees were brittle, often depressed, and prone to lashing out at friends and benefactors.) Such vituperation may seem extreme toward a woman who titled her memoir The Kindness of Strangers and who is remembered, if at all, for inviting people to parties on Sunday afternoons. But Salka had a strong, conﬁdent personality and wielded a degree of inﬂuence, for a time, in a Hollywood embittered by chronic discord, frustration, jealousy, and misogyny both casual and institutional. Never prone to self-pity or cowering, she learned early that survival in Hollywood required a thick skin, and toughened herself up accordingly.
Worse than the insults, in my mind, is the neglect. While biographical information may be scarce about, say, Charlotte Dieterle, or such women as Miriam Davenport and Mildred Adams, who worked with Varian Fry at the Emergency Rescue Committee, this excuse does not apply to Salka Viertel, who in 1969 published one of the earliest and, it turns out, the most comprehensive personal record of Hollywood’s afﬁliation with Europe before and during the time of Hitler’s rise. The Kindness of Strangers has thus been eagerly plumbed again and again by scholars and researchers for its anecdotes about such luminaries as Greta Garbo, Arnold Schoenberg, and Albert Einstein, all the while studiously ignoring the woman who participated in and then chronicled those very anecdotes.
In addition to her memoir, Salka Viertel left behind a trove of letters and diaries, much of which has found a home at the extraordinary center for exile literature called the Deutsches Literaturarchiv (DLAM), in the town of Marbach in southern Germany. Salka’s letters to and from her husband Berthold Viertel are of world-class literary quality in several languages. The eloquence of the German letters was clariﬁed for me by two marvelously sensitive translators, Pamela Selwyn, who worked with me at the DLAM, and Friedel Schmoranzer in Los Angeles. When I ﬁrst arrived at the DLAM and introduced myself to the archivists, one of them said to me, “We’re so glad you are here for Salka. Almost everyone comes for Berthold.” The balance has shifted since my visit, with research on Salka Viertel accelerating among European scholars, but for me, as an American, the archivist’s sentiment still resonates.
Nor did Salka’s famous friends, including Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, feel much compunction to mention Salka in their memoirs or diaries beyond an occasional reference to the excellent coffee and cake she served them. Charlie Chaplin pays her a brief compliment in his autobiography, and producer Gottfried Reinhardt states correctly in his that “the history of Hollywood, which is not yet written, is incomplete without an appreciation of Salka Viertel’s distinct talent for human relationships.” Of the writers whom Salka counted among the closest in her wide interlocking social circles, only Christopher Isherwood provides a generous portrait of her in his diaries, noting her charisma, her energy, her emotionality, her humor, her gift for friendship, and glimpses of both her family life and her working life as a screenwriter—all with his usual novelistic ﬂair for detail.
Salka Viertel has been more or less forgotten in America because too few people believed that what she accomplished was important. To survive and ﬂourish in the hostile environment of the Hollywood studio system; to use her inﬂuence at the studios to petition for sponsors, afﬁdavits, and jobs for refugees; to turn her home into the endpoint of a transatlantic routing network for those refugees, providing welcome, food, shelter, camaraderie, and introductions to potential employers;
to speak out against intolerance, censorship, political inquisitions, and the curtailing of human rights in the name of national security—all seeds of fascism in the United States that threatened to sprout as poisonously as they had in Germany: in the end, none of this has been deemed thus far to be worthy of our attention. It was just one woman’s response to the events of her day—events that, clear as they may seem in hindsight, were as bewildering in their time as those in our time are to us.
I’m writing this book in mid-2017, while an even larger human migration is taking place around the world, forced by civil war, ethnic cleansing, poverty, and climate change. Once again, the fate of refugees has become a prolonged incendiary debate in our country. And once again, as in every generation, anti-Semitism has found a new energy. I’ve been writing about the rise of the National Socialists in 1930s Germany while neo-Nazis are rallying murderously in America’s cities, chanting “Jews will not replace us”; while synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in America are vandalized and desecrated; and while authoritarian pronouncements demonizing immigrants and inviting racism, layered insouciantly with lies and misinformation, are issuing almost daily from the commander in chief on Twitter, just as they did from the radio in Hitler’s time.
The questions Salka asked herself about one’s responsibility in the face of bigotry and exclusion are the same questions we’re asking today. The treatment of refugees was not at that time a political issue and it is not now, though it has become politicized in both eras. It is a moral issue, a human issue. It asks us, as Salka asked herself: What is our duty toward the displaced of the world? Who can remain neutral, who unfeeling?
What do those who have homes owe those whose homes have been destroyed? Who will open the door to the stranger? What kept the luckiest of the 1930s refugees going, as Elie Wiesel wrote about Adam in the book of Genesis, is that God gave them a secret: not about how to begin, but how to begin again. Yet it was impossible to begin again without the help of people like Salka Viertel, who welcomed them into a community after their own had been eradicated.
It was a personal ﬁnancial crisis that had brought Salka Viertel to California in 1928, and it was another that forced her to leave, in the early 1960s, to begin a self-imposed exile in the Swiss Alps. Both predicaments had come about through a larger political context, but they were not, in the end, a political story. They were, and are, a human story. A woman, ﬁnding good fortune in a foreign land, comforted and fed and housed the survivors of an overseas genocide. In her old age, when her fortune was gone, only a few family members and friends remained to feed and comfort her, and to remember her after her death. As witnesses to this story, we might ask again: what does it say about our values that we have chosen to dismiss so large and estimable a life as Salka Viertel’s?
Table of Contents
I The Wishing Season 11
II Carried Across 29
III A Great House Full of Rooms 63
IV The House of Metro 103
V Fatherland 151
VI Motherland 199
VII Lifeboat 247
VIII Ilium 299
IX Un-Americans 347
X Home 399