Salka Viertel’s Forgotten Account of Old Hollywood

Salka Viertel with Greta Garbo.

Back in the day (the late thirties and early forties), many of the Central European cultural émigrés in flight from Hitler’s depredations back home who’d found themselves improbably beached on the West Coast of the United States used to entertain themselves with the melancholy joke about the two dachshunds who meet on the palisade in Santa Monica. “Here it’s true I’m a dachshund,” the one admits to the other, “but in the old country I was a Saint Bernard.”

The west side of Los Angeles was rife with erstwhile Saint Bernards in those days, and in her splendidly evocative (if somewhat lamely titled) 1968 memoir, The Kindness of Strangers (being reissued this month by New York Review Books), the onetime Max Reinhardt actress turned Greta Garbo scenarist Salka Viertel regales her readers with countless representative tales of fish decidedly out of water, to vary the metaphor slightly—Sergei Eisenstein, for instance (though he had come to Hollywood and signed a yearlong contract at Paramount for reasons somewhat different from those of his German and Austrian counterparts).

Salka, who through much of that time served as the Russian master’s closest local support and confidant, begins her account of that bollixed year with a typically priceless sentence: “As soon as Eisenstein arrived, Upton Sinclair, who had most impressive friends, gave a picnic lunch for him at the ranch of Mr. Gillette, the razorblade millionaire.” From there, she goes on to detail the story of how Sinclair’s wife mobilized a group of idle Pasadena millionaire wives to sponsor Eisenstein’s filming expedition to Mexico, with patrons and director soon falling out catastrophically. Before long, the whole project went down in flames, leaving a heartbroken Eisenstein to return to his Stalinist homeland. Salka likewise tells stories of Schoenberg and Irving Thalberg at ludicrous cross-purposes over a possible score for the latter’s production of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, and of Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas and author back in Germany of massive historical novels as well as the tale upon which the Emil Jannings–Marlene Dietrich classic The Blue Angel had been based) and Bertolt Brecht (arguably the greatest playwright of his era)—all of them utterly squandered by a studio system that had no idea what to do with them. 

Most accounts of such calamities characterize them as instances of the philistine provincialism of the coarse American rubes who headed the Hollywood studios. (Salka herself does so some of the time.) The reality, though, was somewhat more nuanced and complex, for many of the studio heads were immigrants themselves, Eastern European shtetl Jews from the immediately prior generation who’d been looked down upon (as hugely inconvenient embarrassments) by their haute-bourgeois assimilated Jewish cousins in Vienna and Berlin and Munich and therefore hurried along to Amsterdam and Bremen and Hamburg and onward to New York as quickly as possible. Once in Hollywood, these fiercely ambitious eastern Jews set about fashioning and veritably inventing the American dream. The late arrival of those once supercilious western Jews set the stage for a certain degree of class-cultural revenge.

Still, many in Hollywood, with Salka and her husband, Berthold, among the leading figures, did raise vast sums to bring leading European cultural figures, desperate in their flight from Hitler, to Hollywood, going on to help secure many of them at least temporary employ in the studios. And Salka, for her part, made of her home on Mabery Road the site of weekly Sunday afternoon salon-like gatherings (featuring her exceptional cooking), where the likes of the Manns (both sets), Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, the Schoenbergs, the Stravinskys, Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler, Otto Klemperer’s clan,  the Max Reinhardts, Bertolt Brecht, and countless other such Saint Bernards (including, I suspect, my own grandparents) would rub shoulders with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Johnny Weissmuller, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, and other Hollywood luminaries (as well as Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, the latter of whom had taken up residence in the garage apartment behind the main house). Many of Salka’s best yarns revolve around these gatherings on the rim of the Pacific—including one in particular about a seventieth birthday party for Heinrich Mann at which, before the meal could be served, his brother Thomas rose up and pulled a long, many-paged peroration in honor of his brother out of his suit pocket and proceeded somberly to declaim it (as the roast overcooked in the kitchen), whereupon Heinrich responded by rising up in thanks, pulling a similarly hefty peroration in honor of Thomas out of his own suit pocket, and soberly going on to read it in its entirety.

Salka’s account of those terrible years—“years of the devil,” in the words of her secretary—is hardly limited, however, to the fate of the grand and famous; she is just as attentive to the lives of the more modestly anonymous: onetime doctors and lawyers, for example, who were forced to take up employment as chauffeurs and housemaids (Salka notes how, what with the sudden transfer of local black people into the wartime ship- and plane-building industries, such fields had recently opened up), or, for that matter, such regular everyday Americans as the sweet lady over at the Santa Monica office of Western Union with whom she became friends in the course of trying to keep tabs on her world-wandering husband and the far-flung members of her own family, some still stranded behind enemy lines.

“The unconcerned sunbathers on the beach, their hairless bodies glistening and brown,” she writes at one point,

the gigantic trucks rumbling on the highway, the supermarkets with their mountains of food, the studios with the oh-so-relaxed employees, the chatting extras pouring out from the stages at lunch time, the pompous executives marching to their “exclusive dining room” or the barbershop, stopping to chat with the endearing “young talent”—all these familiar scenes were a nerve-wracking contrast to the war horror.

And indeed, throughout its extraordinary middle half, Salka’s memoir shifts back and forth between the grim comedy of life in the studios and the anguish of the war (the terrible reports of the slaughters on the various fronts as her sons, all the while, are coming of age and itching to hurl themselves into the fray; the increasingly desperate rumors of rampaging ethnic carnage as one by one she nevertheless manages to extract her sister and older brother and presently even her mother, the latter by way of an epic sequence of bureaucratic interventions, out of the maelstrom, her mother then coming to live with her, even as the fate of her younger brother, the soccer player, grows increasingly uncertain).

In the studios, however, Salka seemed to glide from success to success, her friendship with Garbo becoming ever more intimate and inseparable. Salka cobbled together and often coauthored the scripts for films in which the star got cast, variously, as the doctor’s adulterous wife in an adaptation of Maugham’s The Painted Veil, and then as Maria Walewska (Napoleon’s adulterous Polish lover), Marie Curie (the adulterous Polish Nobel Prize–winning chemist), and Anna Karenina (the legendary Russian … well, you get the idea). She is wonderful at telling stories of the hurdles these projects had to surmount: the meddling of midlevel studio mucky-mucks and the countervailing antics in the various writers’ rooms. One of her favorite writing partners was Sam Behrman, such that

when Sam asked me to dictate to the secretary the shots of Anna’s suicide, I truly regretted that this was the last scene of the film.  Walking up and down I described the night train approaching relentlessly—the lights from the carriage windows on Anna’s face—her running down the embankment and throwing herself between the cars, then—a prostrated figure on the rails—the train disappearing in darkness—and last, a woman’s handbag on the embankment.

“And that’s what’s left of a human being,” I concluded, almost in tears, and turned to Sam who burst into roars of laughter.  For years thereafter these words remained our special code.  We signed letters and telegrams, “What’s left of a human being …”

Which, come to think of it, would have made a much, much better title for this whole book: Salka Viertel’s What’s Left of a Human Being.

Because for all her success, the life was exhausting, and as the war came to an end, her own began to fall apart: her marriage with Berthold was continuing to deteriorate, love affairs were ending badly, and the perversities of studio life were becoming less and less endurable. One day Brecht drove up to the house on Mabery Road with an urgent series of questions—“Why do we have to struggle so financially? Why shouldn’t we be able to do as well as any Hollywood hack?”—to which she replied:

Because what the producers want is an original but familiar, unusual but popular, moralistic but sexy, true but improbable, tender but violent, slick but highbrow masterpiece.  When they have that, then they can “work on it” and make it “commercial” to justify their high salaries.

In 1947, Salka, now at Warner Brothers, was completing the screenplay for one of her relatively few non-Garbo, non-adulterous films—this one, Deep Valley, an Ida Lupino/Dane Clark vehicle. One day the studio workers went out on strike, and Salka, like most of the writers, honored the picket line. Salka contributed to the strike fund as well, although her writing partner on that film refused to be intimidated by communists and ostentatiously crossed the line.

“It was customary at Warner Brothers,” Salka writes, “that when a film was to be previewed, the producers, director, writers and technicians (but not the actors) who had worked on it dined with Mr. Warner.” And so, some months later, just before the preview, she reported to a gathering in the executive dining room, experiencing, as she put it, an atmosphere she suspected was not unlike “the Gemutlichkeit when Stalin’s staff was dining with their boss.” There Mr. Warner pontificated on the the communist menace and how terribly the Soviets had treated the Jews during the war, finally turning to ask Salka’s opinion. No sooner had she begun speaking, however, than her unctuous cowriter “interrupted smilingly, ‘Salka is a communist, Mr. Warner.’ ”

It was supposed to be a joke—but it prompted Blanke [the film’s producer] to jump to my defense: “She is not!” he said. “One need not be a communist to say that Soviet anti-semitism is not to be compared to the horrors that the Nazis committed.”

Be that as it may, and notwithstanding the subsequent success of the film’s premiere (after which Mr. Warner expressed particular satisfaction with the screenplay), that was to be the last time Salka was to work in a major studio, “though it took me several years to realize why.”

Lawrence Weschler, late of The New Yorker and director emeritus of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, is the author of more than twenty books on myriad subjects. He is currently completing work on a memoir of the years, during the early eighties, when he was serving as a beanpole Sancho to Oliver Sacks’s capacious Quixote, due out this year.

Excerpted from Lawrence Weschler’s introduction to The Kindness of Strangers, by Salka Viertel, reissued by New York Review Books.

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