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Peter Viertel, 86; Novelist and Noted Screenplay Writer

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Peter Viertel, 86, a writer who adapted literary works for the movies and might be best known for the 1953 novel "White Hunter, Black Heart," a thinly disguised satirical account of working with director John Huston on "The African Queen," died Nov. 4 at a clinic in Marbella, Spain. He had lymphoma.

Mr. Viertel was married for 47 years to actress Deborah Kerr, who died Oct. 16, but his exposure to celebrity predated her. He was raised in Hollywood in the 1930s after his parents, members of the German intelligentsia, fled Hitler. His mother wrote several Greta Garbo movies, and his father became a film director.

At 19, Mr. Viertel established himself as a novelist with "The Canyon," a story of adolescence in California that reviewers found promising. He began writing for movies, notably the original screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's "Saboteur" (1942), a wartime propaganda thriller in which a villain falls from the Statue of Liberty.

After military service during World War II, Mr. Viertel tried to reassert himself as a novelist. He was alternately mentored and hectored by a longtime hero, Ernest Hemingway, who drew Mr. Viertel into the legendary writer's circle of intimates. They included the Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin, writer-director Huston and troubled movie star Ava Gardner.

To support himself, Mr. Viertel was a scriptwriter and worked several times with Huston ("We Were Strangers," "The African Queen," "Beat the Devil"). He also wrote screenplays of two Hemingway novels: "The Sun Also Rises" (1957), which starred Gardner and Tyrone Power, and "The Old Man and the Sea" (1958), which starred Spencer Tracy.

He was disappointed with the second Hemingway adaptation, later saying of its Hollywood-size production scale: "A different actor, shooting in Cuba, in a movie made for $50,000, might have made a wonderful picture."

He also thought Clint Eastwood's 1990 film version of "White Hunter, Black Heart," about a loutish filmmaker making a safari film in Congo, lacked the "sarcastic bite" he was sure Huston would have invested -- even though the story came at Huston's expense.

With a 1992 memoir, "Dangerous Friends," Mr. Viertel took a broader swipe at the destructive behavior Huston and Hemingway chiseled into popular lore in the 1950s.

In the book, he provided a vivid account of Hemingway's attempts to seduce Mr. Viertel's first wife, Jigee. Hemingway tells Jigee that, for their shared love of Mr. Viertel, they could name their love child Petra.

Mr. Viertel spared little of his own indiscretions, including the abandonment of the pregnant Jigee for the French fashion model Bettina. He received a comeuppance when Bettina quit Mr. Viertel for Prince Aly Khan.

Huston tried to console Mr. Viertel by noting, "Aly Khan is really one swell guy," and Mr. Viertel relished the chance to repeat the line after Khan was seen escorting Huston's wife.

Mr. Viertel wrote several more novels, including "Love Lies Bleeding" (1964), about a Spanish toreador, and "American Skin" (1984), about a man trying to recuperate from infidelity.

Peter Viertel was born Nov. 16, 1920, in Dresden, Germany. Growing up, Mr. Viertel said, he could identify far more with Southern California culture than with his immigrant parents and their friends such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht.

"The physical aspect of European intellectuals was so totally different from what an American kid wants to be," he told the International Herald Tribune in 1992. "I knew Bert Brecht was close to being a genius, but he was a funny-looking man to me."

A gifted athlete, Mr. Viertel joined the Marine Corps during World War II but said he was disappointed to find himself a "Remington Raider," chained to a typewriter in San Diego.

He transferred to the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, and served in Europe, where his German language skills helped in intelligence work.

In 1951, he wrote the screenplay for what was considered a superior wartime drama, "Decision Before Dawn," directed by Anatole Litvak, but struggled for decades to write a novelization of his OSS work. His friend Adam Shaw, son of the novelist Irwin Shaw, said yesterday that a completed draft exists and that acquaintances of Mr. Viertel are working to see it published.

Mr. Viertel's first wife, Virginia "Jigee" Schulberg, the ex-wife of author Budd Schulberg, died in 1960. That year, he married Kerr and divided his time between Marbella, the Spanish coastal resort, and Klosters, Switzerland.

Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Christine Viertel of Austin; two stepdaughters, Melanie Bartley and Francesca Shrapnel, both of England; a brother; and three grandchildren.

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