Last week was very exciting for me: I attended the (virtual) Association of Jewish Libraries conference, which had been scheduled to take place in Evanston, IL before everything was upended. I’ve been a member of AJL for many years; it’s a great group of (mainly) librarians in the Judaica field. The conference was a very successful virtual event.
This past year I chaired AJL’s Jewish Fiction Award committee so I also moderated the program we had at the conference, “Fresh Lit: Recent and Forthcoming Adult Jewish Fiction.” Our two award-winning authors were at the program: Goldie Goldbloom author of On Division; and Julie Orringer, author of The Flight Portfolio. I interviewed them both at the beginning of the program.
I wrote about The Flight Portfolio in this post a few months ago and was eager to talk to Julie about the book. The novel is based on the true story about how Varian Fry rescued Jewish intellectuals, artists, and writers from Nazi Germany in 1941. The story is rich in character, plot, and writing; the characters beautifully developed. At the end of the interview, I asked Julie if she had read the biography The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood by Donna Rifkind. I asked because some of the people that Fry rescued are part of that story, most notable Heinrich Mann, older brother of Thomas. Julie already had it on her to-read list.
I’m always interested in stories about exile; how people manage in changed circumstances and The Sun and Her Stars has a full range of experiences. Some of the emigres were cranky and sneering, full of derision for American culture, especially Hollywood culture, even if jobs at the studios kept them solvent. Viertel herself wanted to continue her acting career in Hollywood and was disappointed when that didn’t happen.
Despite her own losses, Viertel was a survivor and didn’t spend time regretting what might have been. It wasn’t just her own survival that she was interested in, but others’ as well. She and Greta Garbo became close friends and Viertel worked on the screenplays for some of Garbo’s most successful films. Viertel’s house on Mabery Road in Santa Monica became a center of culture, a salon, feeding the stomachs and minds of the emigrés and many Hollywood actors and cultural icons: Charlie Chaplin, Christopher Isherwood, Thomas Mann, Sergei Eisenstein. The weekend parties at the Mabery Road house were legendary for the guests, the networking, and especially Salka’s warmth and hospitality.
In the 1930s and 1940s, she worked tirelessly against National Socialism and arranged emergency visas for artists and writers trapped in Europe. Her family life was complicated: she and her husband Berthold had three sons, but Berthold was often in Europe living his own life while Salka had her own romantic liaisons in Santa Monica. She was a sophisticated woman with a classical European education who spoke eight languages; despite that, she ran a rather bohemian household, with a rotating cast of lost souls
Unfortunately, Viertel was caught up in the McCarthy Era witch hunts, along with other Hollywood notables and blacklisted, a slap in the face to someone who nurtured so much talent and contributed in no small way to the Golden Age of Hollywood. In another irony, her own memoir of those times is titled The Kindness of Strangers. Indeed, the kindness was all Salka’s. I just put a reserve on the memoir; I’d like to hear her own version of the story.