A window into the arts with Viertel

Exiles from Nazi Germany when Hollywood was born.

THE HOLLYWOOD sign is instantly recognizable to generations of movie-goers. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE HOLLYWOOD sign is instantly recognizable to generations of movie-goers.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In likening Salka Viertel to a sun around which some of the greatest artistic stars of the era revolved, Donna Rifkind is offering a metaphorical image of Hollywood in its heyday that is nothing less than the truth. Yet to all except a few people intimately acquainted with artistic, theatrical and cinematic history in the first half of the 20th century, Viertel is an unknown.
Viertel was a struggling actress in 1920s Germany. She and her filmmaker husband, Berthold, chased piecemeal work from city to city, making the usual fleeting friendships with others in their bohemian world. This way of life in post-Great War Germany happened to coincide with an extraordinary flowering across the artistic world. Those late-Weimar, pre-Hitler days were a period of intense creativity in all the arts – painting, theater, cinema, writing, music. Many of the passing friends the Viertels consorted with at that time were later to prove giants in their field.
When Berthold, having achieved some success with his film work, was offered a screenwriting job in Hollywood, he and Salka decided to put the past behind them and invest their energies in the new and flourishing world of cinema. They set sail in 1928.
The depression in Germany had already resulted in a trickle of émigré actors, writers and musicians to Hollywood, America’s cinema capital. The Viertels arrived to a welcome party which included director Ernst Lubitsch, actor Conrad Veidt and cabaret star Yvette Guilbert. By 1933 and the rise of Hitler, the trickle had turned into a flood. Between 1933 and 1941, some 10,000 refugees from Germany and Austria settled in the greater Los Angeles area. Many were Jewish, and some were friends of Salka from the 1920s – Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, Max Reinhardt, Bertolt Brecht.
Slowly, Salka channeled her energies into becoming something like a social ambassador between the newcomers flocking to Hollywood and the established professionals. By then she had established herself in a house in Santa Monica, which became known as a welcoming refuge for European artistic talent. Every Sunday she held a salon, in the tradition of an earlier era, to which they flocked. Innumerable cinematic, theatrical and musical liaisons were fostered in Salka’s drawing room.
In those early years she herself appeared in a few films, and then became a successful screenwriter with invaluable contacts across Hollywood. These she willingly exploited on behalf of the dispossessed under her wing.
It was fairly soon after they arrived in Hollywood that Salka met Greta Garbo at a party thrown by Lubitsch. It was to prove a major event in her life. The two women formed an instant bond, and their friendship was to last as long as Salka herself. And it was Salka who, against a degree of studio and director opposition, was finally responsible for the screenplay of what was perhaps Garbo’s greatest movie, Queen Christina.
The names of world-renowned creative artists leap off almost every page of Rifkind’s biography. In the 1930s Salka influenced the careers of such giants as Charles Boyer, Fred Zinnemann, Sergei Eisenstein, and even David O. Selznick, production head of RKO. Salka soon became aware of the contribution that women were making to the burgeoning film industry, and also the extent to which their work was underappreciated and under-rewarded.
Rifkind is at one with film historian Carl Beauchamp, who observed that the Hollywood pioneers were almost all women, Jews and immigrants. Salka Viertel – who was all three – took it upon herself to supply the “social glue” that bound the émigrés into a community.
Who else passed through Salka’s drawing room of a Sunday afternoon? Towering geniuses such as Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein; every kind of Hollywood star, from Charlie Chaplin to Shelley Winters; novelists like Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Anita Loos.
THAT RIFKIND, in researching this book, immersed herself completely in Salka’s life is obvious from the intimate, meticulous detail that imbues every page of The Sun and Her Stars, but the extent to which she did so is apparent from the 95 pages of notes which she appends to the text. In them she scrupulously catalogues the source of every comment of substance she makes about her subject. The notes in themselves reveal the quite extraordinary range of Salka’s friendships and contacts, and explain the enormous influence she was able to exert within the Hollywood community. The book is served in addition by a 15-page bibliography and an excellent index.
The story of the remarkable Salka Viertel, a woman who influenced the lives of countless artists for the good, and who was unjustly neglected for decades, has been rescued and brought to fascinating life. The Sun and Her Stars makes absorbing reading. It is highly recommended.
By Donna Rifkind
Other Press
560 pages; $30