Last Tuesday evening, book critic Donna Rifkind spoke to a modest audience in the sun-soaked coffee shop above Literati bookstore. Rifkind’s reviews have appeared frequently in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. However, earlier this week she presented her own first book, entitled, “The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood.” This biography follows the untold true story of Salka Viertel (the “sun”), the Austrian-born actress and screenwriter who opened her door in Santa Monica to countless European actors, composers, scientists and artists (the “stars”) after they were forced out of Hitler’s Germany.
Weaving in facts about the life of her “sun,” Rifkind spent the evening at Literati describing her writing process for the book. She grew up in Los Angeles in a self-described bookish house with somewhat mysterious eastern European grandparents. Naming the Beach Boys and Disneyland as examples, she explained how everything at the time of her adolescence was new; California was thought of as a “cultural wasteland” in comparison to the artistic and relatively diverse East Coast. After a decade of living on the “superior” East Coast, Rifkind returned to California, and it was then that she came across Salka Viertel’s name.
Viertel was famous for being one of the best-connected women in Hollywood’s Golden Age. One of her well-documented friendships was with Greta Garbo, who was one of the most famous actresses of the 1920s and ’30s. Salka was married to Berthold Viertel, a famous Viennese filmmaker. The list goes on and on. When researching this interesting yet forgotten woman, Rifkind realized that Viertel could be found almost exclusively in the footnotes of more famous actors’ books. She decided she would have to write Viertel’s biography herself.
In her discussion of the subject of her book, Rifkind made it clear that Viertel was an exceptional woman. She invited exiled strangers into an international community of struggling yet immensely talented artists. Viertel herself was also a screenwriter and an actor, classically trained in Europe and fluent in eight languages. At the time, women had a lot influence, but no actual formal power in the film industry; Viertel used this influence to act as a connector between the German emigrants and Hollywood.
Rifkind also explained some of the background necessary to understand just how impactful Viertel’s actions were at the time. While there was an abundance of new and innovative technology in Los Angeles and the film industry seemed to be progressing by leaps and bounds in technique, there was a relative shortage of real creativity. As the artists who had been greatly successful in Germany began to arrive in California, they needed help, both financially and linguistically. Viertel used her connections and experience in both the film industry and in Europe to become a sort of “cultural broker.” She opened up her home, connected struggling artists with filmmakers in need of content, acting as a translator and liaison. Rifkind said Viertel “softened the boundaries between high culture and commerce in Hollywood.” She went on further to say that a lot of the famous stories coming out of Hollywood from that time period “had their genesis in Salka’s living room.”
In her research, she came across German playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, who was one of the many exiled artists during the Third Reich. With the chaos and uncertainty in the world during the lives of the people in this book, Brecht is perhaps most famous for this quote: “In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” This is the clear and simple message of Rifkind’s piece.