Viertel, Salka (1889–1978)

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Viertel, Salka (1889–1978)

Central European actress and writer, now known chiefly for her screenplays for Greta Garbo, who hosted a brilliant salon in Hollywood and provided aid to European refugees in the years before and during World War II. Born Salomea Sara Steuerman or Steuermann in 1889 in Sambor, Galicia (part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire); died on October 20, 1978, in Klosters, Switzerland; daughter of a prominent Jewish attorney and town mayor and a mother who chose marriage over a career as a singer; married Berthold Viertel (a director), on April 30, 1918 (later separated, died 1953); children: John Viertel; Peter Viertel (b. 1920, a writer who married Deborah Kerr ); Thomas Viertel.

After the sudden death of her fiancé, went to Vienna at age 16 to study theater (1905); landed a position with the Deutsches Theater led by Max Reinhardt; with husband, founded acting ensemble Die Truppe in Berlin; driven by rising anti-Semitism, left Germany with her husband and children for Hollywood (1928); became a screenwriter, chiefly for Greta Garbo, writing the scripts for Queen Christina and Anna Karenina, among others; established a salon at her Mabery Road house where the most famous actors and intellectuals from Europe and America gathered; left the U.S. for Switzerland after the House Un-American Activities Committee implied she was a Communist (1953); wrote autobiography The Kindness of Strangers (1969).

On a cold Christmas Eve in 1953, two women in their 60s, a gentile and a Jew, sat sharing an improvised supper and enjoying the flickering candles on a tiny Christmas tree. Friends for many years, both had lived for a long time in the United States, their adopted country where they had built new lives. Now, with friends and families scattered, they sat in the candlelight sharing memories, then raised glasses of vodka in toast to each other. Salka Viertel sat with the legendary film star Greta Garbo , welcoming Christmas with a hearty Scandinavian "Skol!"

Viertel was born Salomea Sara Steuermann in 1889 and grew up in a house called Wychylowa in Sambor, Galicia, a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire situated between the city of Warsaw and the Ukraine. Her father, a prominent attorney, was the first Jew to be elected the town's mayor. Her mother had studied singing before deciding to marry rather than pursue a musical career. Salomea, called Salka, was the eldest of four children, followed by Ruzia , Edward, and Zygmunt. The Steuermanns lived on a grand scale: their large home, filled with servants, was surrounded by fields and orchards, and the children were educated by governesses. Salka's brother Edward was a gifted pianist, while she herself loved to perform onstage.

Sambor was a garrison town and a tolerant, multicultural place, where troops of many nationalities serving the empire were stationed. Salka's family was Jewish, but many of their friends and neighbors were gentile. Galicia had been a part of Poland until 1773, when that portion of the country came under the Austro-Hungarian rule of the Habsburgs, who had controlled their empire for hundreds of years, well before the rise of the modern nation-state. Within its bounds, loyalty was not to one's ethnic group but to the emperor. At the same time, it was considered natural to speak several languages and to be at ease with different cultures. Salka, who grew up speaking Polish at home and also learning Russian, Ukrainian, French, and German, would live her whole life with her homeland's tolerance, respecting others no matter what their ethnicity.

At age 16, she was engaged to Stanislav Eisenstein, a partner in her father's law firm, but he died unexpectedly during surgery. Heartbroken, Salka fled to Vienna, where she took consolation in diction and acting lessons. She became determined to pursue a career in the theater, even though acting was not considered an especially respectable career. She managed to rid her fluent German of the Polish accent she had picked up at home, and famous German director Max Reinhardt accepted her as a player at his Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Roles in other German cities, as well as in Austria and Switzerland, followed. She was joined in Berlin by Edward, who came there to study music with composer Arnold Schoenberg, and the siblings soon knew many people who were to have a lasting impact on modern music, including Alban Berg, Anton von Webern, and Hanns Eisler.

The Steuermann family was vacationing together in the beautiful High Tatra Mountains, in what is now Poland, in June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated with his wife Sophie Chotek in the Balkan city of Sarajevo. While Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany were determined to avenge the deaths, the governments of Great Britain and France vehemently opposed the use of military force against the Balkans. After weeks of tension, war was declared. The Steuermanns fled to Vienna, where they stayed for several months before returning to Sambor. There they found that their home had been looted by troops; only the walls and roof remained. The family settled in nevertheless, and Salka and her sister Ruzia volunteered at the local hospital, where they witnessed the enormous casualties of the world's first modern war.

After a time, Salka returned to acting in Vienna. There she met a young lieutenant in uniform, stage director Berthold Viertel, who was separated from his wife. The two were married on April 30, 1918, shortly after his divorce. It was the year of the influenza pandemic which killed millions, and the newly married Salka

nearly died of the disease. That November, the war finally came to an end. In 1919, she gave birth to the first of three sons, John Jacob, followed in quick succession by Peter and Thomas.

Life was precarious in postwar Europe. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had given rise to such countries as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Russia's revolution of 1917 had also brought the Russian Empire to an end, and a flood of refugees was pouring into the West from Lenin's Soviet Union. The financial reparations demanded of Austria and Germany by the victorious Allied nations brought enormous economic hardship to people already left impoverished by war. Inflation wiped out families' lifetime savings; a loaf of bread could cost millions of marks. Under the onslaught of inflation, immigration, and reparations, the stability of Germany and Austria-Hungary disappeared. Those struggling to end sovereign rule and establish democratic institutions had to do as best they could in almost impossible circumstances.

The harsh environment seemed nevertheless to unleash creative forces. In Berlin and Vienna especially, concert halls, theaters, and cafés flourished, and the Viertels enjoyed many new opportunities. While Berthold got work directing new plays in Vienna and Berlin and films in London, Salka performed in Germany's leading theaters, appearing in classic German plays as well as contemporary European dramas. Together, they founded an ensemble of actors called Die Truppe. Among their new friends were the artist Oscar Kokoschka, the playwright Bertolt Brecht, and the actor Oscar Homolka.

The cultural ferment in Berlin attracted worldwide attention, especially in America, where the burgeoning film industry began luring foreign actors, directors, and artists to Hollywood with promises of enormous sums of money. Within a few years, as Adolf Hitler's small group of thugs expanded in size and gained in respectability, it would be politics rather than money that caused German artists and intellectuals to flee the Nazi party's increasing influence in daily life for the more tolerant atmosphere of California.

By 1928, Berthold Viertel's growing reputation as a film director led to a contract offer in California. Undaunted by the prospect of learning a new language in a new land, he signed a three-year contract with Fox, and the family departed for America on February 22. The Viertels at first found California to be a strange land, but many Germans had preceded them, and Salka soon learned to drive. Exploring the area around Los Angeles, she fell in love with Santa Monica, which was then considered hopelessly rural, and rented a house at 165 Mabery Road. Berthold's ample salary allowed the couple to employ a staff to care for the children and maintain their house and grounds, and Salka made a policy of employing people in serious need of the money, including African-Americans who were subject to work discrimination and European refugees fleeing anti-Semitism. All who worked there were made to feel part of the family.

Viertel, approaching her mid-30s, adjusted to the fact that her theatrical career was virtually non-existent. She set about learning yet another language, English, and meeting the many interesting people who lived or visited in Hollywood. Salka was an excellent cook, and people gravitated to Mabery Road; her list of new acquaintances soon included Albert Einstein, the brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann, André Malraux, Sergei Eisenstein, Upton Sinclair, Aldous Huxley, Charlie Chaplin and the actress Greta Garbo.

In 1928, Garbo was at the peak of her success. Her home was not far away from the Viertels', and the two women became fast friends, often taking early morning walks together on the beach. Berthold recognized more than anyone how much his wife had given up in leaving Germany, and when Greta urged her to try screenwriting, he concurred. Salka had a bit part in Garbo's Anna Christie, and during filming she came across a biography of Queen Christina of Sweden . After hearing her describe the queen's remarkable life, Garbo asked Salka to write a screenplay about it. Despite Viertel's recent acquaintance with English, she soon finished the script for what would become Queen Christina (1933), which many consider Garbo's finest film. When Garbo signed a new contract with Metro, she introduced Viertel to the dynamic young director Irving Thalberg, who hired her as a screenwriter at $1,000 a week (an enormous sum at the time, but typical for Hollywood). Viertel had a new career. Over the next two decades, she worked on many films, although, with screenplays for such films as Anna Karenina (1935) and Conquest (1937), she remained best known as "Garbo's writer."

Berthold and Salka Viertel both had other love interests, but their bond would remain strong. Tiring of Hollywood, the restless Berthold eventually accepted a job in New York, then went on to London and Paris. He and Salka wrote, called, and sent telegrams constantly. He was back in Berlin working on a film project on January 30, 1933, shortly after Hitler's ascent to power, when his salary was cut because he was Jewish. Jews were meanwhile increasingly being attacked on the city's streets, and Berthold left Berlin in April. Salka Viertel's career was by this time going strong. Queen Christina was in production, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and its star came to stay at Mabery Road during the shooting. While there, Garbo was continually harassed by the press, as usual.

Berthold's descriptions of anti-Semitic incidents had convinced Viertel that she had to get members of her family to America. Her brother Edward came first, followed by her sister, while Queen Christina became one of the last American films shown in the Third Reich before the Nazi government banned them because of the many Jews associated with Hollywood. In the summer of 1939, Viertel went to Europe to do research for a potential Garbo film on Marie Curie and to procure visas for her mother and her younger brother Zygmunt, who were still in Poland. Paperwork by then made it almost impossible for Jews wishing to emigrate to leave Europe, and procuring visas for the U.S. was especially difficult. Salka left for the States on September 1, 1939, the day the German army invaded Poland, unable to bring her family with her.

Back in America, Viertel remained generous in providing companionship, work and material resources to newly arrived refugees. Whether sending money to the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein or providing living quarters for an African-American friend whose wife was white, she demonstrated a generosity of spirit that later would cost her dearly.

Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that brought the U.S. into World War II, Viertel's sons joined the military. Before that year was out, her mother escaped Poland via the Soviet Union and Japan, and arrived finally in California. Zygmunt's fate would not be known until the end of the war, when it was learned that he had perished in the Holocaust.

Viertel was deeply upset by the U.S. government's internment of Californians of Japanese descent. Her home on Mabery Road meanwhile became a haven for German and Central European refugees, who told her of friends, husbands, wives, children, and parents fallen victim to the Nazis. "As the years went by, my life ceased to be solely my own," she wrote. "It became like the estuary of a big river into which other streams flowed." Over the years some of the greatest artists of the 20th century gathered in her living room, bringing to Hollywood a quality of cultural and intellectual life not known before or since.

By the end of World War II, the Viertels had been living separate lives for many years. Berthold's career as a director never truly flourished after he left Germany, and for a long time Salka was his sole support, even after she encouraged him to remarry. She endured difficulties in those years as well; her elderly mother died, she learned of Zygmunt's death, and her sons returned from the war and married. Garbo stopped making movies, and her screenwriting work dried up.

Additionally, her many kindnesses began to be held against her, as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) started subpoenaing people who had helped leftists or Communists during the war. While those in Hollywood less courageous than she found it prudent to distance themselves from former friends, Viertel remained proud of her assistance to those in need, no matter their political beliefs. But the movie industry began blacklisting individuals who were thought to be Communists, leftists, or "fellow travelers," and with less and less work available, she was forced to accept the support of friends.

Berthold died in 1953, by which time "redhunting" was in full bloom, with a congressman from California, Richard Nixon, and a senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, establishing national reputations by ferreting out so-called subversives. Viertel decided it was time to leave the United States for Europe. (Chaplin and Brecht were among those who had already left.) Shortly afterward, at age 64, she started yet another life, this time in Switzerland. Settling near a group of friends from Hollywood who had taken up residence in Klosters, she wrote her autobiography, The Kindness of Strangers, which was published in 1969. Salka Viertel died at the age of 89, on October 20, 1978, after a two-year struggle with cancer. She was buried in Klosters, in the small cemetery of the Protestant church, in sight of the Swiss mountain peaks.


Clurman, Harold. "Salka's Incorrigible Heart," in The Nation. May 5, 1969, p. 580.

Cook, Bruce. "Salka Viertel, Sundays in Mabery Road," in Affairs of the Mind: The Salon in Europe and America from the 18th to the 20th Century. Ed. by Peter Quennell. Washington, DC: New Republic Books, 1980.

Heilbut, Anthony. Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America, from the 1930s to the Present. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1983.

Houseman, John. Front and Center. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

I.M. "Salka Viertel," in The Times [London]. November 4, 1978, p. 16.

"Salka Viertel," in Variety. November 1, 1978.

Viertel, Peter. Dangerous Friends. NY: Doubleday, 1992.

Viertel, Salka. The Kindness of Strangers. NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Viertel, Salka (1889–1978)

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