In the second installment of its annual Lorraine Oshins Lecture Series, the Pacific Palisades Historical Society hosted Donna Rifkind at Pierson Playhouse to discuss her upcoming biography, “The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood.”
Rifkind, an LA native, is a longtime reviewer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and many other publications.
“I am honored to be able to be a part of the Lorraine Oshins Lecture Series,” Rifkind saidat the event. “It sounds like her activism is very much in keeping with the activism I’m going to be talking about tonight.
“My tale is … a story about refugees, about home and the loss of home, a story that’s both local and global that takes place right here in the Palisades, in Santa Monica, in Brentwood, in Bel-Air,” Rifkind continued.
Salka Viertel, a mother, screenwriter and activist, became an impassioned advocate for those seeking refuge in the U.S. during World War II. Viertel arrived in Hollywood in 1928 after her husband, Berthold, received a contract with Fox Film Corporation at the behest of legendary director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.
Viertel, her husband and their three sons moved to a house on Mabery Road in Santa Monica, which soon became a grand salon for artists and intelligentsia displaced by the war. Weekly mixers at the home would blend continental celebrities with film industry folk, drawing notable guests, including Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht and Heinrich Mann.
“It was a very lively scene,” Rifkind said.
Viertel later became close friends with Greta Garbo, co-writing five of her films for MGM and even starring beside her in a 1930 German language remake of “Anna Christie.”
As Hitler began his inclement rise to power, Viertel responded by arranging affidavits and studio jobs for Jews and anti-fascists seeking escape to America through the newly formed European Film Fund.
The Fund brokered contracts with major studios, helping the likes of Mann, Leonhard Frank, Alfred Polger, Friedrich Torberg and Walter Mehring acquire visas to escape the Nazis.
“She was first and foremost a great connector of people,” Rifkind said of Viertel. “She made it possible for all kinds of exiles fleeing from Europe to integrate themselves into Los Angeles, some into Hollywood, into the cultural life of the community and in many ways, they enhanced that community in ways that we’re still feeling today.”
Viertel was instrumental as a de facto ambassador between Hollywood and the intelligentsia, providing a go-between for studio folk and cinematic titans like Murnau and Eisenstein.
“Salka made it easier for them to negotiate with the studios,” Rifkind said. “She made it more clear what they wanted their artistic enterprises to be.”
Samuel Nathaniel Behrman, a friend of Viertel’s, wrote of this particular time in Hollywood history: “With the influx of the refugees in the ’30s, Hollywood became a kind of Athens. It was as crowded with artists as renaissance Florence. It has never happened before. It will never happen again.”
“And the truth is there would be no golden age of Hollywood without these figures,” Rifkind explained. “There would be no flowering of the top tier of 20th century composers. Our Los Angeles cultural life would be intensely diminished without the people who came because they were forced to flee.”
In her heyday, Viertel would work alongside the likes of Irving Thalberg and David Selznick before the scourge of McCarthyism would plunder Hollywood’s intellectual riches. While many of her cohorts were blacklisted, Rifkind explained, Salka herself was “grey-listed.”
“I think it was more or equally a matter of Hollywood’s ageism and sexism—they didn’t have a place for an older woman anymore as a screenwriter … she became quite dispensable,” Rifkind said. “So they found a convenient excuse under McCarthyism, as many did, to get rid of her. She got fewer and fewer jobs. She had her passport taken away. Her revenues dried up and eventually she had to become a beneficiary of the European Film Fund … and was forced in 1954 to sell her beloved house on Mabery Road.”
Viertel would retire to the Swiss ski resort town of Klosters, sometimes called “Hollywood on the rocks” for the celebrities that vacationed there. It was in Klosters that Viertel would write her autobiography, “The Kindness of Strangers.”
“She wrote the story of her life in a way that showed the connections between Europe and Hollywood—that this was a global phenomenon, not a local phenomenon,” Rifkind said. “And the memoir I think is the best Hollywood memoir ever written—it’s quite rich, it’s full of humor and warmth and shows a belief in the power of connection between people, which is what really she was all about.”
Recently, the town of Klosters named a footbridge in Viertel’s honor.
“I think it’s fitting for a woman who was a bridge between Europe and Hollywood, who created a home for those whose homes were destroyed, whose belief in compassion and kindness to strangers really remains with us to this day,” Rifkind said.
Published by Other Press, “The Sun and Her Stars” is slated for a January 2020 release and is available now for pre-order on Amazon.