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Salka the Salonnière


Discussed in this essay:

The Kindness of Strangers, by Salka Viertel. New York Review Books.
368 pages. $17.95.

The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood, by Donna Rifkind. Other Press. 352 pages. $28.99.

In May 1941, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, along with several dozen other members of the European intelligentsia in exile, gathered in a Santa Monica living room for a belated celebration of Heinrich’s seventieth birthday. As Nazism consumed their native Germany, the brothers had fled to Hollywood, where, during the war years, an astoundingly distinguished group of European artists and intellectuals found refuge and employment. In a speech he delivered that night—nominally a birthday toast to his brother—Thomas Mann denounced what had become of Germany’s great humanist tradition, suggesting that even Goethe and Nietzsche, were they still alive, would have joined the émigrés in America rather than suffer the depredations of the Third Reich. “When the homeland becomes foreign,” he concluded, “the foreign becomes the homeland.”

The host of the birthday gathering, Salka Viertel, was the living embodiment of that idea. A former stage actress who had the luck and the prescience to get out of Europe in the late 1920s, she reinvented herself in America as a screenwriter and created a replica of a Continental salon in her beachside home: “Arpège and cigar smoke, a tumult of piano chords, the confidential lilt of German, and, through the open terrace doors, the ionized breath of the sea,” in the description of Donna Rifkind, a book critic and the author of The Sun and Her Stars, the first English-language biography of Viertel. The house quickly became a headquarters for the luminaries of Hollywood’s “German colony.” “You might find yourself sharing brilliant conversation or a Sachertorte with [Bertolt] Brecht,” recalled the producer and actor John Houseman (born Jacques Haussmann in Romania). There, Greta Garbo discussed how to play Hamlet with producer Max Reinhardt; Charlie Chaplin discovered his musical ghostwriter; and Arnold Schoenberg made small talk with Arthur Rubinstein.

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is the author, most recently, of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright), which won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award for biography. Her essay “The Eeriness of the Everyday” appeared in the September 2018 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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