The Sun and Her Stars: Sal­ka Vier­tel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Gold­en Age of Hollywood

By – February 17, 2020

Sal­ka Vier­tel (18891978) was a Euro­pean stage actress before com­ing to Hol­ly­wood with her hus­band in 1928, where she had a rel­a­tive­ly suc­cess­ful career as a screen­writer (‘rel­a­tive­ly’ refers to her hand­i­caps work­ing as a woman, a for­eign­er, and a scriptwriter large­ly iden­ti­fied with a sin­gle star, Gre­ta Gar­bo). Still, dur­ing her exten­sive career, her pay­checks sup­port­ed her own fam­i­ly, her family’s extend­ed rela­tions, and count­less refugees. She was famous for her Sun­day salons — sprawl­ing open-hous­es wel­com­ing new arrivals, old friends and even cur­rent lovers — salons that embod­ied her com­mit­ment to recre­at­ing the expe­ri­ence of home for those who had been forced to flee their own. Her care­ful intro­duc­tions of new­com­ers to the more estab­lished, her old-world cakes and cof­fee — she fed phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al hungers. While nei­ther Vier­tel nor her fam­i­ly were cer­e­mo­ni­al­ly Jew­ish, this idea of open­ing your home to strangers and the needy was her own way of being Jewish.

Don­na Rifkind recounts Viertel’s life sto­ry fol­low­ing a fair­ly tra­di­tion­al chrono­log­i­cal path, with use­ful end­notes and a sprin­kling of pho­tos. The one wrin­kle, which read­ers dis­cov­er fair­ly ear­ly, is that Vier­tel pub­lished her own­mem­oir in 1969 called, The Kind­ness of Strangers. While it went out of print fair­ly quick­ly, it was just repub­lished (with an after­word by Rifkind) ear­li­er this year, giv­ing read­ers direct access to Viertel’s wit and the urgency of her authen­tic voice. Read­ing the biog­ra­phy and the mem­oir side by side, there’s no con­test. Vier­tel was a gift­ed writer and, being ruth­less­ly self-aware, she did a great job telling her own story.

This leaves read­ers won­der­ing: with lim­it­ed time at hand, is there val­ue to read­ing Rifkind, rather than Vier­tel her­self? There are com­pelling argu­ments made in favor of just the biog­ra­phy or both. Vier­tel spent years work­ing on her mem­oir before it was pub­lished in 1969, most­ly in seclu­sion in Switzer­land, far from the upheavals of sec­ond wave fem­i­nism. Rifkind’s biog­ra­phy, writ­ten after decades of fem­i­nist schol­ar­ship and a cou­ple years of the #MeToo move­ment, gives per­spec­tive on the real­i­ties of the Hol­ly­wood pow­er struc­ture. While Vier­tel was thir­ty-nine and there­fore not cast­ing couch” mate­r­i­al by the time she arrived in Hol­ly­wood, she was a woman, and women still had to cur­ry male egos to get work in the stu­dios, even as they were the back­bone of the indus­try work­force. Vier­tel, in sur­vival mode, focused on teach­ing her­self to cope.

Rifkind also flesh­es out the fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries of Viertel’s inner cir­cle. Hav­ing read the biogra­phies and mem­oirs of Thal­berg, Cukor, Ish­er­wood, Gar­bo, and many oth­ers, she can see dimen­sions to their rela­tion­ships that Vier­tel could not. Hav­ing stud­ied the rise of fas­cism in Ger­many, Amer­i­can poli­cies on immi­gra­tion, and House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Committee’s sur­veil­lance and intim­i­da­tion tech­niques, Rifkind learned of real­i­ties that Vier­tel could only sus­pect. With hind­sight, Rifkind could see the impact of Viertel’s hos­pi­tal­i­ty, her finan­cial and moral sup­port, on the lives and careers of so many refugees to Hol­ly­wood in the 30s and 40s. She gives con­text to what Vier­tel experienced.

So yes, Rifkind’s account does over­lap Viertel’s, but read them both. It’s sim­ply an embar­rass­ment of riches.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions

In The Sun and Her Stars, first-time author Don­na Rifkin intro­duces new gen­er­a­tions to the lit­tle-known yet fas­ci­nat­ing life sto­ry of Sal­ka Vier­tel, an acclaimed screen­writer, activist, and host­ess to the most bold-faced names in the Gold­en Age of Hol­ly­wood. A close con­fi­dante and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor of Gre­ta Gar­bo, Sal­ka had fled Nazi Ger­many and quick­ly emerged as the keep­er of artis­tic and intel­lec­tu­al soci­ety in WWII-era Los Ange­les. Her leg­endary week­end salons had food, drink, and, very often, Char­lie Chap­lin. In less­er hands, this book could have been noth­ing more than a vehi­cle to name­drop, but native Ange­leno Rifkin unearths the larg­er, mov­ing sto­ry of how Sal­ka Vier­tel pro­vid­ed not just a famil­iar cul­tur­al base, but a true safe haven for fel­low Jew­ish immi­grants. This book suc­ceeds as both a com­pelling piece of long-for­got­ten his­to­ry and a rel­e­vant com­men­tary on the strength of immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties. Don­na Rifkin, a long­time book crit­ic, won­der­ful­ly adds to the biog­ra­phy genre with this sto­ry of a Jew­ish woman who open­ly fought facism, pro­vid­ed aid and com­pas­sion to her fel­low refugees, and appar­ent­ly threw a hell of a party.