Remembering a neglected woman of early Hollywood.
Journalist Rifkind begins her impressive biography of screenwriter Salka Viertel (1889-1978) with a question: How can so “large and estimable” a woman “been more or less forgotten in America”? The author hopes Salka (as she is referred to throughout) will provide a role model for a new generation of readers, especially women, currently experiencing the same kinds of geopolitical issues of human migration and anti-Semitism that Salka also suffered. Her early years in Austro-Hungary were privileged. She acted on stages throughout Europe, and her circle of friends included Franz Kafka and Max Brod. In 1928, with National Socialism on the rise, Salka and her filmmaker husband, Berthold, along with thousands of other refugees, fled to greater Los Angeles. They both worked with F.W. Murnau on film projects and befriended other immigrants like Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ernst Lubitsch. Rifkind chronicles in meticulous detail Salka’s substantial career in a hostile Hollywood studio system that regularly ignored the contributions of women. She wrote screenplays for a number of films, most notably Queen Christina (1933), working closely with producer Irving Thalberg and the film’s star, Greta Garbo, who took Salka under her wing. Their relationship would become the “longest and most important…either of them would ever have in Hollywood.” Rifkind calls Salka a “connector of people.” Her legendary Sunday afternoon gatherings at her Santa Monica home on Mabery Street became an intellectual “place of shelter” for immigrants, including Sergei Eisenstein, Aldous Huxley, and Thomas Mann and Christopher Isherwood, two of Salka’s best friends. She helped refugees find jobs and places to stay, and she provided financial support. Her activities with political organizations supporting refugees drew the attention of the FBI, which tapped her phones and read her mail. In 1953, Salka moved to Switzerland, where she wrote her memoir, The Kindness of Strangers.
An impassioned and revelatory biography occasionally hampered by excessive detail.