Off the Shelf: Hollywood and Jewish refugees

by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Before I read the press release for “The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood” by Donna Rifkind (Other Press), I’d never heard of Salka Viertel. While I knew that many Jewish and non-Jewish refugees who were actors, writers and directors worked in Hollywood or New York, her name was completely unfamiliar. Yet, Viertel not only wrote successful treatments and screenplays, but turned her California home into a European-style salon – creating a safe and comfortable place for those who felt rootless in a country far different from their own.

Rifkind feels that women’s accomplishments during the Golden Age of Hollywood have either been lost or ignored. She notes that, while women worked in every studio department, histories of those times rarely mention them. She also found something similar occurs in the books about European refugees: they so focus on men that one might believe no women suffered the pain of exile. As for Viertel, Rifkind not only wants her accomplishments acknowledged but to restore her reputation. She writes that Viertel has been called a number of unpleasant names, including gossipmonger, fraud, moneygrubber and witch, to name just a few. Part of Rifkind’s task is to show the true Viertel: the one who worked hard to create a home for her family and tried to help other refugees in need of work or solace.

In order to understand Viertel, Rifkind places her life in context. Viertel was born to an affluent Jewish family on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After deciding to become an actress, she lived in a variety of cities in Europe, including Weimar-era Berlin. She married Berthold Viertel, a writer and director for stage and film, and gave birth to three children. The decision to move to the United States in 1928 – when Viertel was 39 and her husband 43 – was based on financial rather than political reasons. Unsure of whether or not they would be staying in the U.S., they left their three sons in Europe. However, the boys soon joined them and they made a permanent home in California.

Unfortunately, Viertel could not find work as an actress and began writing treatments and screenplays. Among her best-known films were “Anna Karenina” (1935), “The Painted Veil” (1934) and “Queen Christina” (1933). At one point she was so successful, she was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. She often worked with Greta Garbo and, for a long time, the two were so close that Garbo spent a great deal of time in Viertel’s home, especially when she wanted to escape the press. It was in that home that Viertel held her Sunday open houses to which came not only European refugees, but many successful Hollywood writers, directors and actors. As more refugees tried to escape from Europe, Viertel worked with different groups to raise money for them, in addition to helping them find work in Hollywood. She did this while being the major source of income in the household. Her husband, who was often away working on projects, usually didn’t make enough money to support himself so Viertel had to send him funds while he lived in another city or country.

The Viertel marriage had its ups and downs. Both spouses had affairs, including some that lasted years. They still remained close to each other for decades even with these affairs, although Berthold finally asked for a divorce in order to marry someone else. Viertel’s longest romance did not end in marriage: her lover wanted children and finally broke it off to marry someone younger. 

Viertel never planned to leave the U.S., but after World War II, she had difficulty finding work and moved to Switzerland in the 1960s. That’s because her name became connected to people of interest to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Viertel, who was not a communist, had not been concerned with the politics of her friends during the war because she had more important worries. Her fears were personal: she didn’t know the status of her family in Europe – those who lived in territories conquered by the Nazis. Were they alive or dead? But any connection to communism in the post-war years could destroy a career. 

In additional to writing about Viertel’s life, Rifkind talks about those who frequented her open houses. The most famous were the Mann brothers, Heinrich and Thomas. Although both were well known in Europe, Thomas was more successful in the U.S. Many of the other writers are less familiar. For example, writer Bruno Frank, who left Europe in 1937, worked on such films as “A Royal Scandal” (1945), “Northwest Passage” (1940) and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939), sometimes as a named writer and other times without credit. Viertel was also friends with Christopher Isherwood, the British writer of the short stories “Goodbye to Berlin” (which were later adapted into the play “I Am a Camera,” and then the Broadway musical and film “Cabaret”). He lived in her garage apartment and often entertained Garbo when Viertel was busy working.

“The Sun and Her Stars” contains a great deal of detail in its more than 400 pages. Not all the details were of equal interest, particularly some of the very personal facts about Viertel’s marriage. At times, the book’s focus was uneven: the story of sun (Viertel) was eclipsed by that of her stars (those who visited her salon). However, Rifkind does an excellent job not only bringing Viertel’s accomplishments to light and proving she was a remarkable woman, but portraying the lives of those refugees who felt lost in the New World and those who found success.