Before LinkedIn, before social networking, before the word “networking” was even coined, there was Salka Viertel.
The German emigre who arrived in California in 1928 not only fashioned her “room of one’s own” to become a successful screenwriter during Hollywood’s Golden Age, she famously made room in her life and home for an astonishing roster of fellow Mitteleuropean emigre artists. Mostly Jewish like Salka, they arrived in California as refugees from fascism.
She was the refuge.
On any Sunday afternoon at Salka’s home in Santa Monica, you might share
a home-baked apfel kuchen with Billy Wilder, Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann,
William Wyler, Marlene Dietrich, Bertolt Brecht, Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx,
Arnold Schoenberg and Christopher Isherwood, who for a time lived above
Greta Garbo, although she was Salka’s devoted friend (and putative lover) and
insisted on including Salka as a screenwriter on most of her films, naturally did not make
an appearance at these gatherings.
The social networking at Salka’s was the matrix for friendships, collaborations,
and ventures that would give rise to the Hollywood of the twentieth century.
Salka did more than open her heart and hearth to the refugees. She helped many of them emigrate to America, gathering documents, convincing others to do the same, and supporting the European Film Fund that financed their survival. At the same time, she worked hard, writing screenplays, to support her family, including her estranged husband and three sons, her much younger (by 22 years) live-in lover, and her aged mother.
“But being Lady Bountiful had its costs,” writes her biographer Donna Rifkind. “Stretched between [her young lover] Gottfried, her children, and the legions that depended on her, Salka couldn’t possibly please them all.”
The extraordinary life of Salka Viertel, aptly titled The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood, (Other Press, $30) is illuminated in this thoroughly researched and generous new biography by Rifkind, an award-winning reviewer whose work has been published frequently in The New York Times Book Review.
Her tone is admiring and affectionate, but also aggrieved. “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…what
does it say about our values that we have chosen to dismiss so large and estimable a
life as Salka Viertel’s?”
She has not only been dismissed. She has also been dissed. “When they have
bothered to mention her at all, writers about the era have described her variously as a gossipmonger, a moneygrubber, a vengeful lesbian, an incompetent fraud and a horrible witch. (That last from a letter Kurt Weill wrote to his wife Lotte Lenya…) Some of her famous friends, including Bertolt Brecht and Charlie Chaplin, did mention her positively in their memoirs, observes Rifkind; they noted “the excellent coffee and cake she served them.”
Rifkind attributes the neglect and malevolence to jealousy, but mainly
to the misogyny that was pervasive in Hollywood (and still is) compounded by
Salka’s strong, confident personality and the influence she wielded.
Salka, referred to in the book by her first name, was unique. But she was one of
many women working behind the scenes in Hollywood.
Irving Thalberg’s Metro (later MGM) studio was “teeming with women,” notes
Rifkind, “mostly unheralded.
“Women writers…were obedient and discreet. They had been raised to expect
much less than men did—less money, less credit, less respect.”
Meanwhile, women were highly valued for their sexuality, especially homosexuality: “Hollywood was happy to impersonate Berlin’s lesbian-chic culture as long as it brought a profit.”
Rifkind’s writing throughout is detailed and evocative, with unexpected
delights. About Salka’s arrival in America, she writes, “Though she did not know it
yet, she had been translated….” Rifkind is as adept at making vivid the`scents and
sounds of Salka’s beloved Santa Monica garden—the jasmine and eucalyptus and trills of mockingbirds—as she is at delineating the indignities of Salka’s old age. “Daily she was plagued by her poverty… fearing that she would not be able to pay her medical bills.”
She had moved to Switzerland to be near her son Peter and adored granddaughter, Christine, but was distraught at having to ask Peter (married to actress Deborah Kerr) for money. She hoped that a memoir might bring in some funds. It was rejected by several publishers, and she was advised to delete references to childbirth and menopause.
Salka was 79 in 1969, when The Kindness of Strangers was finally published. Rifkind
writes that its importance lies in how, “Through her experience as a woman,
an immigrant and a Jew, she charted Hollywood’s role on the twentieth-century world stage”…and “showed that women’s influence in the picture business was not limited to that of movie stars.”
Salka Viertel died in 1978 in Klosters. Donna Rifkind has brought her to life.
Judy Gerstel is a freelance journalist, formerly a critic and editor at the Detroit Free Press and Toronto Star.