Wall Street Journal The Émigré Who Knew Everyone

By Terry Teachout Jan. 16, 2019 3:56 pm ET

If history is a black comedy—a possibility that I find increasingly likely—then one of the chief sources of its humor is the law of unintended consequences. I doubt, for instance, that it ever occurred to Adolf Hitler that his murderous reign would cause a large number of Jewish artists to flee to and settle in the U.S., in the process transforming American culture, high and popular alike, for the better.

One of the most remarkable of these émigrés was Salka Viertel, an Austro-Hungarian stage actor who moved to Los Angeles in 1928, opting to stay there permanently after Hitler came to power. “Neither beautiful nor young enough” (in her own crisp words) to be a movie star, Viertel instead set up shop as a screenwriter, making a sizable chunk of money by working on five of Greta Garbo ’s films, including “Anna Karenina,” she then used much of it to help other Jewish artists get out of Europe, come to America and restart their lives in the strange land that was studio-era Hollywood.

Garbo urged Viertel to tell her story in print, and in 1969 she published an autobiography called “The Kindness of Strangers” in which she wrote about her life in Europe and America up through 1954 (she died in 1978). Well received by critics, Viertel’s book subsequently slipped through the cracks of renown. Next week, though, it will be reprinted by New York Review Books, which specializes in just such off-center titles, accompanied by an afterword by Donna Rifkind, whose biography of Viertel will be published in 2020.

For reasons not obvious to me, this edition has been shorn of the book’s original subtitle, “A Theatrical Life / Vienna-Berlin-Hollywood,” which was at once usefully descriptive and a bit too restrictive. In fact, Viertel’s adventures in Hollywoodland occupy only the second half of “The Kindness of Strangers,” which is in any case far more than just a theatrical memoir. It is also, like Stefan Zweig ’s “The World of Yesterday,” a richly detailed, deeply affecting portrait of the lost world of Europe between the two great wars that tore it to pieces.

Even before she moved to the U.S. and launched the now-legendary salon to which the members of Hollywood’s German-speaking colony flocked every Sunday, Salka Viertel was the kind of person who had an uncanny knack for meeting everybody who was anybody. In the first half of her book, we catch pithily rendered glimpses of such giants of pre-Hitler European culture as Alban Berg, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, Max Reinhardt and Rainer Maria Rilke. She also has much to say, all of it memorable, about the less-than-glamorous life of the working stage actor (“It is very depressing to be alone after a success—almost as bad as after a failure”).

Nevertheless, it seems probable that most of her new readers will be more drawn to the second half, in which Viertel casts a cool but not unsympathetic eye on the foibles of her cinematic colleagues. She sketches with precision and wit the likes of Louis B. Mayer, Eddie Mannix (the MGM studio executive who was later portrayed in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!”), Irving Thalberg and Garbo herself, who would become Viertel’s professional protectress and one of her closest friends. As for the European émigrés whom she met in Hollywood, among them Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Sergei Eisenstein, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Rouben Mamoulian, Jean Renoir and Arnold Schoenberg, they are described no less vividly. (It’s characteristic of Viertel to note that whenever James Agee came to call, he liked to “sit down at the piano and play his favorite Schubert sonata, not ostentatiously and not very well.”)