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The little-known story of screenwriter Salka Viertel, whose salons in 1930s and 40s Hollywood created a refuge for a multitude of famous figures who had escaped the horrors of World War ll.
Hollywood was created by its “others”; that is, by women, Jews, and immigrants. Salka Viertel was all three and so much more. She was the screenwriter for five of Greta Garbo's movies and also her most intimate friend. At one point during the Irving Thalberg years, Viertel was the highest-paid writer on the MGM lot. Meanwhile, at her house in Santa Monica she opened her door on Sunday afternoons to scores of European émigrés who had fled from Hitler—such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Arnold Schoenberg—along with every kind of Hollywood star, from Charlie Chaplin to Shelley Winters. In Viertel's living room (the only one in town with comfortable armchairs, said one Hollywood insider), countless cinematic, theatrical, and musical partnerships were born.
Viertel combined a modern-before-her-time sensibility with the Old-World advantages of a classical European education and fluency in eight languages. She combined great worldliness with great warmth. She was a true bohemian with a complicated erotic life, and at the same time a universal mother figure. A vital presence in the golden age of Hollywood, Salka Viertel is long overdue for her own moment in the spotlight.
Book critic Rifkind debuts with an immersive biography of actor, screenwriter, and salon hostess Salka Viertel, a central figure in the community of European artists and intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany for Los Angeles in the 1930s and '40s. Rifkind opens the narrative in 1960s Switzerland, where Viertel lived and wrote her memoir, The Kindness of Strangers, after the House Un-American Activities Committee made it difficult for her to get work in Hollywood, then rewinds to 1928, when Viertel and her husband left Berlin for America. A year or two after her arrival, Viertel met Greta Garbo and became close friends, collaborators, and rumored lovers with the Swedish film star. At the same time that Viertel was writing Queen Christina (1933) and Anna Karenina (1935) for Garbo, she was hosting Sunday afternoon gatherings for European migr s at her Santa Monica home. Her guests included Bertolt Brecht, Charlie Chaplin, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Thomas Mann. Working with the European Film Fund, Viertel helped to obtain U.S. visas and Hollywood jobs for German and Austrian refugees from WWII. Rifkind also delves into Viertel's role as a leading advocate against fascist sympathizers in America. Chock-full of scandalous affairs and wartime atmosphere, this sparkling account brings overdue attention to a woman who helped make Hollywood's golden age possible.