For many of Hitler’s exiles, Hollywood beckoned because the movies always need scripts, music, imaginative directors and glamorous faces. Once in California, these dispossessed giants of German culture gravitated to the parties hosted by the charismatic and flirtatious Salka Viertel. Initially an actress in 1920s Europe and later a writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Salka possessed both a genius for friendship and connections throughout the film industry. She was, for one thing, Greta Garbo’s closest confidante. Some people even believe they were lovers. While both Salka and her husband Berthold, himself a once highly regarded director, were devoted to each other, neither was sexually faithful.
Salka’s A-List guests, whether back in Berlin, Vienna and Prague or later at her Santa Monica home, weren’t just stars; they were superstars. Besides those already mentioned, she and Berthold were acquainted with Rilke, Kafka and Einstein, as well as the composer Kurt Weill, satirist Karl Kraus, novelist Alfred Doblin and critic Theodor Adorno. In California, their circle also included writers as varied as Aldous Huxley, Anita Loos and Christopher Isherwood, along with some of the most brilliant innovators in the history of cinema: Sergei Eisenstein, F.W. Murnau, Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, Irving Thalberg, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder.
Virtually all these eminences were united in being vigorously anti-fascist. Several were later investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for their alleged communist sympathies. Sadly, many once-revered emigre writers are now largely forgotten. In Germany, Heinrich Mann sold as many books as his brother Thomas. Today, he is remembered, if at all, only as the author of “Professor Unrat,” the novel adapted into the Emil Jannings-Marlene Dietrich film classic, “The Blue Angel.” The desolate American years of Heinrich and his wife, Nelly, form just one of the many fascinating but often distressing side stories told in “The Sun and Her Stars.” As plain-spoken Robert Frost declared: “No memory of having starred/ Atones for later disregard/ Or keeps the end from being hard.”
Throughout her book, which comes out Tuesday, Rifkind reiterates that Salka, besides actively assisting Jewish refugees to enter the United States, also provided them with actual refuge, as well as advice and what we might now call a “safe space.” More pointedly, Rifkind regularly takes issue with previous cultural historians who have denigrated Salka’s importance as a screenwriter, even on several Garbo projects, starting with “Queen Christina.” Little wonder that Salka fantasizes about a future Hollywood dominated by “the Warner Sisters, Louisa B. Mayer, United Artistes” and “Twentieth Century Vixen.”
As one expects from a widely admired literary journalist, Rifkind writes engagingly and often passionately, though her book’s introduction — Salka’s reconstructed reveries in old age — may strike some readers as a bit strained, as will a few overly poetic flourishes (“Their real Ithaca was receding into a toxic brown twilight behind iron doors”). Yet Rifkind can also capture a complex character with a single snapshot-like sentence: “Shy or effusive, each person who shook [Thomas] Mann’s hand received the benediction of his kindly solemnity.” As Salka noted in her 1969 memoir, “The Kindness of Strangers,” (recently reissued by NYRB Classics), Mann always retained “the reserved politeness of a diplomat on official duty.”
Throughout these pages, Rifkind returns again and again to her serious central themes — anti-Semitism abroad and at home, the rescue of refugees through the efforts of the European Film Fund, and Salka as a Hollywood mother-confessor and wheeler-dealer. Still, the book does have its lighter moments. The actress Shelley Winters once spotted Salka — then well into her 50s — making out in a convertible with the young Montgomery Clift following a party at Gene Kelly’s. On another occasion, the director Fred Zinnemann, who lived near Salka, was patrolling the neighborhood as an air-raid warden. Passing by the Viertel house, he heard a party going on, with light blazing from every window. Zinnemann told Salka to draw the blackout curtains and stop the noise. As Rifkind wryly observes, here were “two Hollywood notables arguing in German about U.S. government blackout rules, while a houseful of enemy aliens who had barely escaped their deaths in Europe let off steam. It must have been, from Salka’s point of view, a thoroughly successful evening.”
After the war ended, Salka — unable to land screenwriting gigs — eventually sold her house (to producer John Houseman) and moved to Klosters, Switzerland, to be near a beloved granddaughter and her raffish son Peter, whose second wife was the actress Deborah Kerr. Before her death at age 89 in 1978, an increasingly lonely Salka corresponded with her favorite writing partner, the debonair playwright S.N. Behrman, and worked on “The Kindness of Strangers.” After all, hers had been a remarkable life and she had been blessed with extraordinary friends, as Rifkind again shows us, with much additional detail, in “The Sun and Her Stars.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
THE SUN AND HER STARS
Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood
By Donna Rifkind
Other Press. 550 pp. $30