304: Salka Viertel Biography

Archival Spaces 304

Donna Rifkind’s The Sun and Her Stars

Uploaded 16 September 2022

Sergei Eisenstein and Salka Viertel, Santa Monica Beach, 1931

I first read Salka Viertel’s autobiography, The Kindness of Strangers (1969/2019) in the late 1970s, as I was writing my first piece on German-Jewish refugees in Hollywood, “The Palm Trees Were Gently Swaying. German Refugees from Hitler in Hollywood” (1980). The wife of the poet-filmmaker, Bertold Viertel, Salka was an accomplished scriptwriter, having worked on Queen Christiana (1933) and all subsequent Greta Garbo pictures. The first of only a handful of émigré autobiographies available at that time, her very literate book presented an insider’s view of Hollywood’s German-speaking community. I was therefore quite intrigued when I met Donna Rifkind at a conference last December and heard she had published a biography of Salka Viertel and her circle, The Sun and Her Stars. Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood (2020).

Rifkind opens her book by making the extremely important point that, for the most part, women have been written out of the histories of both classic Hollywood and German anti-Hitler intellectuals, in so far as they weren’t wives, secretaries, or movie stars; she does mention that has changed in the past decade with books on Charlotte Dieterle and Liesl Frank who organized the European Film Fund (2010), and a German biography of Salka Viertel (2007). However, refugee women scriptwriters Vicki Baum, Irmgard von Cube, Lilo Dammert, Lili van Hatvany, and Gina Kaus remain terra incognita, as do other women who worked behind the camera.

Bertold Viertel with Matheson Lang and Lydia Sherwood

In detailing Salka Viertel’s life, Rifkind focuses on three areas: 1.) Her marriages, lovers, and children; 2) Her professional struggles in the American studio system; 3) Her Sunday salons in Mayberry Road (Santa Monica) that brought together the crème de la crème of Germany’s literary exile. These three areas are however not mutually exclusive, – how could they be when women were still expected to manage a household, even if they worked? – but rather intertwined, so that people appear in different contexts. For example, Christopher Isherwood first met Bertold Viertel when both worked on Little Friend in England in 1934, then became a tenant in the Viertel’s garage, confident of Salka, friend to the Viertel children, and finally, he helped edit her autobiography.  

Rifkind does not proceed chronologically, rather opens in 1963, when Salka Viertel had been living in Klosters, Switzerland, trying to survive economically, and get her autobiography published, her Hollywood career long behind her. Rifkind pointedly  notes reactions to the manuscript: “Already the few who have read her drafts – all men – have blanched at every hint of woman mess, of love affairs and menstruation and childbirth. They insisted that she take it all out.” (p. 13) Indeed, Viertel was not only independent in her career, politically out-spoken and left-leaning but also sexually liberated, carrying on an open marriage, when America’s Puritans still condemned such licentiousness.  

Anna Christie, German Version (1930) , with Garbo and Viertel
Greta Garbo and Salka Viertel at Mayberry Road

Salka and Bertold Viertel had come to Hollywood from Berlin in 1928 on F.W. Murnau’s coattails, Bertold receiving a contract to direct at Fox. At 39 and 43, respectively, both had already entered middle age and hoped their temporary stay in America would help them straighten out their finances. But after four films, Viertel was out, moving to Warners in 1930, then Paramount, before making one film in Berlin in the first months of 1933, and ending his directing career in London in 1936. Salka, meanwhile, needing to pay bills, acted in several German-language films in Hollywood, including the German version of Anna Christie (1930) with Greta Garbo; the two became close friends, and lead to Viertel working on scripts for all subsequent Garbo films. Although she was able to purchase the house on Mayberry Rd., staying economically afloat remained a challenge throughout her Hollywood years and became critical after she was grey-listed by the FBI, which harassed her and her family for years. After the Nazis took control in Berlin, any return “home” was, of course, unthinkable.

Mayberry Road Garden
Dita Parlo, B. Viertel, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Viertel, Heinrich George, S. Viertel, 1930

With three kids to feed, a husband to support, an endless array of house guests, and Salka’s Sunday salons, there were a lot of expenses. As Rifkind notes: “Salka continued to feed the whole town for nothing in the comfort of her own home. Every Sunday her parties continued, along with frequent smaller gatherings during the week.” (p. 249) Viertel’s Mayberry Rd. Sunday Salon became a meeting point for German refugee intellectuals that soon rivaled Rahel Varnhagen’s Jewish salon in 19th Century Berlin. Sourcing Viertel’s letters, diaries, and autobiography, Rifkind lovingly details the comings and goings of Charles and Oona Chaplin, Thomas and Katia Mann, Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Bruno and Liesel Frank, Alma and Franz Werfel, Garbo, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, Max Reinhardt, Irwin Shaw, Sergei Eisenstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Otto Klemperer, Franz Waxman, Fred Zinnemann, and many, many others. Mayberry Road was usually the first stop for arriving Jewish Berliners and would remain so until 1947 when a back taxes bill forced Salka to move into the garage and rent the house to screenwriter Edward Chodorov.

Ernst Lubitsch, Gottfried Reinhardt on Design for Living set, 1933.
Christopher Isherwood (?), Salka Viertel, Gottfried Reinhardt at Mayberry Rd

Writing about Salka’s personal life, Rifkind is adamant that the persistent rumors of a love affair between Garbo and Salka were false. Bertold and Salka had taken lovers repeatedly after their marriage in Berlin in 1918. Beginning in 1933, she carried on a decade-long relationship with the son of Max Reinhardt, Gottfried, twenty-two years her junior, and a budding producer at MGM. Previously she had had an affair with a neighbor, screenwriter Oliver Garrett. Other lovers remained unnamed.  But Salka also lived for her three sons, worrying about their schooling, their careers, and their marriages, their father mostly absent; Peter became a successful screenwriter, and Hans a linguistic scholar after serving as an assistant to Max Reinhardt.

Donna Rifkind’s book thus presents an in-depth, fascinating, and well-written portrait of classical Hollywood and the German-Jewish film community in exile, especially its female members, and is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the subject.

Greta Garbo in Queen Christiana (1933)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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