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The Salon of Exiled Artists in California: Salka Viertel Took in Actors, Prominent Intellectuals and Anonymous People in Exile Fleeing from Nazism (English Edition)

The Salon of Exiled Artists in California: Salka Viertel Took in Actors, Prominent Intellectuals and Anonymous People in Exile Fleeing from Nazism (English Edition)

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The Salon of Exiled Artists in California: Salka Viertel Took in Actors, Prominent Intellectuals and Anonymous People in Exile Fleeing from Nazism (English Edition)

263 pages
May 23, 2020


Salka Viertel was a Jewish actress who emigrated to Hollywood and was popularly known as the screenwriter of the Swedish actress Greta Garbo. Besides, she had a salon in Santa Monica, which was attended by a large part of the European intelligentsia in exile.

The book deals with topics such as Salka Viertel's alleged bisexuality and the number of friends she had, to name but a few: Albert Einstein, Charles Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein, F. W. Murnau, Max Reinhardt, Arnold Schönberg, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Greta Garbo, Montgomery Clift... Also, like Gertrude Stein and other notorious women, she had her literary salon through which writers like Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal and many other writers passed. Other themes she covers are the Berlin of the 1920s; the transition from silent to spoken film, as seen from the Mecca of Hollywood. Then, the rise of Hitler and what it meant for the Jewish condition; the exile of those intellectuals who could not return to their respective countries because of the Second World War. Later, the Cold War and the witch-hunt against communism. The background to the life of Salka Viertel and her circle of friends encompasses the great events of the 20th century.

Salka was a very modern and interesting woman for her time who should be recognized as such.

"Even though Salka Viertel was such a pivotal figure in the exile community, very little has been written about her, so Núria Añó's book is a corrective, and she fills in many of the gaps of The Kindness of Strangers."—Dialog International

"A very interesting story and I think even in these very current times since in my eyes we have not made much progress on the issue of acceptance of 'interpersonal feelings' in general. A great and extremely interesting book about Hollywood in the thirties and forties about the influence of artists from European countries such as Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, England, Ukraine and others. An extensive and high-quality research project resulting in an in-depth account of many well-known and famous personalities and their interpersonal relationships."—Joannes W. M. Groenewege, Translator

May 23, 2020

About the author

Núria Añó (1973) is a Catalan/Spanish novelist and biographer. Her first novel "Els nens de l’Elisa" was third among the finalists for the 24th Ramon Llull Prize and was published in 2006. "L’escriptora morta" [The Dead Writer, 2020], in 2008; "Núvols baixos" [Lowering Clouds, 2020], in 2009, and "La mirada del fill", in 2012. Her most recent work "El salón de los artistas exiliados en California" [The Salon of Exiled Artists in California] (2020) is a biography of screenwriter Salka Viertel, a Jewish salonnière and well-known in Hollywood in the thirties as a specialist on Greta Garbo scripts.Some of her novels, short stories and articles are translated into Spanish, French, English, Italian, German, Polish, Chinese, Latvian, Portuguese, Dutch, Greek and Arabic.Añó’s writing focus on the characters’ psychology, most of them antiheroes. The characters in her books are the most important due to an introspection, a reflection, not sentimental, but feminine. Her novels cover a multitude of topics, treat actual and socially relevant problems such as injustices or poor communication between people. Frequently, the core of her stories remains unexplained. Añó asks the reader to discover the deeper meaning and to become involved in the events presented.Literary Prizes/ Awards:2020. Awarded at International Writing Program in China.2019. Awarded at International Writers’ and Translators’ House in Latvia.2018. Fourth prize of the 5th Shanghai Get-together Writing Contest.2018. Selected for a literary residence in Krakow UNESCO City of Literature, Poland.2017. Awarded at the International Writers’ and Translators’ Center of Rhodes in Greece.2017. Awarded at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Sweden.2016. Awarded at the Shanghai Writing Program, hosted by the Shanghai Writer’s Association.2016. Awarded by the Culture Association Nuoren Voiman Liitto to be a resident at Villa Sarkia in Finland.2004. Third among the finalists for the 24th Ramon Llull Prize for Catalan Literature.1997. Finalist for the 8th Mercè Rodoreda Prize for Short Stories.1996. Awarded the 18th Joan Fuster Prize for Fiction.

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The Salon of Exiled Artists in California - Núria Añó

The Salon of Exiled Artists in California

(Salka Viertel took in actors, prominent intellectuals and anonymous people in exile fleeing from Nazism)

by Núria Añó

Originally published in Spanish as El salón de los artistas exiliados en California

Copyright © 2020 Núria Añó


Translated by Joannes W. M. Groenewege


Frontcover artwork © Fie Tanderup


Cover Design © Núria Añó. Drawings by Gordon Johnson

Photo of the author © Michal Jašek

The project for this book was distinguished in March 2017 with an international residency grant at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby (BCWT), Sweden. Previously, this project was part of the work as an award-winning writer at the Shanghai Writing Program (SWP) in China in September and October 2016.

Los Gatos: Smashwords Edition, 2020.

ISBN: 9780463206126

All rights reserved. Reproduction of this work in whole or in part by any means or process, including photocopying and computer processing, is strictly prohibited without written permission from the copyright holder and is punishable by law. If you wish to share this book with others, please purchase additional copies. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Title page


The Salon of Exiled Artists in California


Salka Steuermann

Berthold Viertel

The Hollywood contract

A house on Mabery Road

The Salon

Greta Garbo

See you, Berthold

Mercedes de Acosta

From actress to screenwriter

Three is crowd

Queen Christina of Sweden

The rise of Nazism

Another exile

The help of the European Film Fund

The Women of MGM

Salka, the screenwriter of Greta Garbo

Dinner with the Mann Brothers

World War II

Greta Garbo's career comes to an end

Other scripts

The return of the Garbo?

Tenants of the garage room

A literary salon

What will become of us?

The FBI list of communists

The House Un-American Activities Committee

The end of the American Dream

Back to Europe


The great visit





About the author

Also by Núria Añó

The Dead Writer

Lowering Clouds

About the translator

I am so glad I spent that time at Mabery Road, because I would never have quite realized what a marvellous woman you are.


The Salon of Exiled Artists in California

Illustration 1: Photo of Salka Viertel. © Katharina Prager, (2018). Berthold Viertel: Eine Biografie der Wiener Moderne. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag.


Salka Viertel (Sambir, 1889 — Klosters, 1978) was a Jewish actress and screenwriter. She married the poet and film and theatre director Berthold Viertel, with whom she had three children. Like other wives of European artists and intellectuals, the husband was offered a Hollywood contract and the Viertel family emigrated to the United States when California was emerging as a cinematic mecca. There, by the Pacific Ocean, Salka set up a renowned salon attended by prominent artists and, with the rise of Hitler, welcomed many Europeans who fled from Nazi Germany into her home. At that time, Salka separated from her husband and was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a screenwriter for Swedish actress Greta Garbo, who in turn became her most intimate friend. However, with the onset of the Cold War, it was suspected that Salka was a communist, so the studios closed their doors on her, and she was no longer able to work. The indiscriminate witch-hunt against foreigners and the lack of liberties that American politics exercised on those it had offered a future decade earlier, precipitated the end of her American dream and her return to Europe, where she would live a second exile in Switzerland.

Salka Viertel, like other Jewish women of that time, whether writers and poets in the German language such as Vicki Baum, Gina Kaus, Hilde Spiel, Nelly Sachs or Else Lasker-Schüler, lived through the genocide in exile or concentration and extermination camps, like the young Ruth Klüger in Auschwitz. All of them felt the need to write a memoir, aware that their lives were linked to an era and therefore reflected that of their contemporaries.

In April 1969 Salka Viertel published her memoirs in English. They were titled The Kindness of Strangers because, as indicated, she had always relied on the goodness of strangers. Her words were a wink to the character of Blanche DuBois's A Streetcar Named Desire. A year later, the German edition disassociated itself from the original title and preferred to evoke 'the incorrigible heart'¹ of the author. However, it remained linked to the famous work of Tennessee Williams when the main character's lack of moral rectitude is questioned, and she answers, What's straight? A line can be straight or a street. But the heart of a human being?² Indeed, it was not until 1995 that the only Spanish-language edition published by Ediciones del Imán was available. The title again underwent variations and was translated as 'The Strangers of Mabery Road'³, enhancing the name of the street where Salka Viertel lived in Santa Monica and, in turn, a meeting place for European intellectuals in times of exile. The publication, prefaced by her middle son, novelist Peter Viertel, showed how little these memoirs had been publicized.

In them, Salka Viertel lucidly narrates the different events that marked the first half of the twentieth century. Her book is a chronicle of great historical and political value although, in its day, it went entirely unnoticed because a woman had written it. There is another decisive factor, however, and that is that she was not completely honest with her private life. She preferred to keep the confidences and experiences of many of her friends secret and even silenced the names of celebrities who passed by her house to save appearances.

However, over time, some friends who in turn wrote memoirs and referred to her at some point, books that I cite in the bibliographical section, as well as various documents found in archives and international libraries such as the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the Margaret Herrick Library and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek and Deutsches Exilarchiv 1933-1945 in Frankfurt am Main, the Library of Congress in Washington, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in New York, the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, the Jewish Museum in New York and the Akademie der Künste Archiv in Berlin, all show the life of a woman who was profoundly modern for her time and who must have her place in history.

My thanks to all those people who traced part of this story, providing me with documents for my research process, to those who answered questions or who gave me the necessary permissions for its publication. Thank you for the help received and, of course, for the kindness of Michaela Ullmann (University of Southern California); Kristine Krueger (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Margaret Herrick Library); Dr Marcel Lepper, Thomas Kemme and Dörthe Perlenfein (Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach); Michael Schwarz and Sabine Wolf (Akademie der Künste); Regina Elzner (Deutsche Nationalbibliothek); Rosemary Hanes (Library of Congress); William Baehr (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library); Thomas Kuhnke; Andrew Viertel; Katharina Prager; Don Bachardy; Phyllis Green (The Christopher Isherwood Foundation); Scott Reisfield; Alexandra Tyrolf; Mark A. Vieira; Robert A. Schanke; Nina Bahrendt (Villa Aurora); John (GarboForever); Elizabeth E. Fuller (The Rosenbach Library); Daniela Maurer (Israelitische Kulturgemeinde Wien), Małgorzata Budzyńska, Alan Schwartz and David Behrman. And, of course, thanks to Lena Pasternak and Patrik Muskos (Baltic Centre) for trusting my work and granting me a residential scholarship to Visby, Sweden, to complete this biography.

Salka Steuermann

Salka Viertel, née Salomea Sara Steuermann, was born into a Jewish family on 15 June 1889 in Wychylowka, a suburb of Sambir ⁴, when this province, Galizia, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which later belonged to Poland and is now Ukraine. At the end of the 19th century, Sambir was a small town of twenty-five thousand inhabitants where Ukrainians, Poles and Jews lived together. Her father, Josef Steuermann, has a law firm and is elected the first Jewish mayor of the city. Her mother, Augusta, wanted to be an opera singer but suddenly abandons this dream; her pale skin, light eyes and blond hair colour could easily be confused with the Aryan race. Salka is the oldest of four children. Her sister Rose was born in 1891; Edward, in 1892; the youngest, Zygmunt, nicknamed Dusko, in 1898.

She spends her childhood in a well-to-do, non-religious Jewish family, who love the arts and have a fondness for music that dates back to her great-grandparents. Because they live in the countryside, two kilometres from Sambir, the children do not attend school, and a couple of German and French governesses take care of their education. Salka is fluent in both of these languages, in addition to Polish and Ukrainian, which she speaks with her family and with Niania, an illiterate nanny who takes care of her like a second mother. Her childhood in Wychylowka is made pleasant by the idyllic natural environment where a forest surrounds the suburb, a river, an orchard with abundant fruit trees and, behind them, the green Carpathian Mountains, which take on earthy hues or are covered with snow depending on the season.

At an early age, the book Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller becomes her faithful ally as, thanks to it, Salka discovers her great passion for the theatre. She loves the role of Mary I of Scotland, she knows it by heart, she even recites it at home in front of her brothers and the domestic staff. Also, before the older ones, although the latter hardly show any interest, perhaps because they already sense from her somewhat rebellious character that her future might be oriented towards the theatre. This would not please them; neither do they find it a safe profession for a woman. Sometimes, while Salka is performing, the women in her family make fun of her regarding her middle name, Sara, just like the renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt! They're laughing their heads off. As much as others, like her father, remain silent, trying to listen to that somewhat precocious, but sympathetic and passionate Mary Stuart. Salka's grey eyes often denote curiosity about anything; at times they become bright and even melancholic. Or her reddish hair, commonly dishevelled, is combed back for the occasion, just as it appears in an engraving in the same book. Playing the Queen of the Scots will indeed cost her a lot of effort in her acting career. Not only because it is a role coveted by experienced actresses who are at the top, but also because on that impromptu stage you have to deal with the fact that she is not considered beautiful, not even by making a funny gesture at the end of her performance. Instead, her sister, sitting there, doing nothing in particular, succeeds in making the female sector of her family suddenly stand out because of the immense beauty of Rose.

At the age of ten Salka has a curvature in her back and, to correct it, she attends the Orthopedic Institute in the beautiful city of Lviv. Classes are taught at this institute, although religious instruction is optional, and they accept mixed students, which is unusual for the time. Two refugees run the centre from the Russian sector in Poland. Soon, the subjects of Polish history and literature taught by Madame Dalecka encouraged the creativity of the young Salka, who began to write stories and poetry with a markedly sad and patriotic air, despite the fact that in other science subjects she showed some academic deficiencies.

Her passion for reading leads her to devour George Sand's books such as Indiana and Consuelo, whose topics shock her grandmother and older women in general. She also recites William Shakespeare, the Polish poet Juliusz Słowacki and in her teens, her desire to become an actress is heightened. However, her mother and aunts, who are quite cunning, divert Salka's attention to her trousseau, as they believe that, seeing it so beautiful, she will get excited about getting married and forget about the theatre.

Her parents, Josef and Augusta, often fight and she usually takes a stand in favour of the father because he seems more fragile, as she believes that her mother is the strong one in the family and therefore does not need her support. It is clear that Salka gets along better with her father, even though he does not show much affection for his children.

Salka meets Stas, a young man who works with her father. They both go out a few times with the family's consent but, unexpectedly, he gets sick and dies. As he was her fiancé, she suddenly feels despondent. One of the boy's aunts, seeing her so melancholy and sad at only fifteen, convinces her to take an acting test in Vienna. Once there, Salka attends a performance by the great Sarah Bernhardt, who is on tour in Europe representing The Lady of the Camellias, and suddenly this performance makes a deep impression on her.

When Salka takes the test in the Viennese city, she is immediately told that, on the one hand, her German has a too strong Slavic accent and defects in her pronunciation to get on stage, but, on the other hand, her talent for the theatre is unquestionable. So much so that her father agrees and ends up signing a contract for Salka to portray young classic heroines, even though in Europe many contracts condemn actors to actual slavery. However, Salka has dreamed so much about being an actress! But now, as soon as she has a short pause between performances, this young girl's face cannot help but show homesickness because she is far from home and family. And although she corresponds with them, sometimes carrying some halfhearted letter that she writes from backstage. When not, she goes back and forth, aware that she has inherited her mother's strength. When she returns to Sambir, she encounters the town officials, who used to salute her as the mayor's daughter, a Steuermann. As soon as they learn that she is an actress, they lose respect for her and treat her like a commoner. Furthermore, in her job, she is not spared from specific unpleasant experiences, as a theatre director tries to grope her, and some actors are disrespectful to her. Salka lives in a very different environment than she was used to, as she is a well-educated young woman who has received a proper education. Some people are not used to having women like that in the company, so it is easy for someone to take it out on her or anyone else who is of a nationality other than German or Austrian. Already at that time, xenophobic behaviours are captured in the theatres.

At twenty, Salka debuts with Medea at the municipal theatre in Pressburg, on the banks of the Danube. Shortly afterwards, she gets a job at another theatre in Teplitz-Schönau, in the lands of Bohemia, where she plays small parts in plays such as Mary Stuart. However, it is another more experienced actress who places herself in the skin of the coveted role of the queen. Later, she leaves for Zurich where she plays a role in Wallenstein, another work by Schiller, but at its premiere, she receives terrible reviews. To date, the name under which she appears in theatre programs varies from Salomea Steuermann to Mea, until she decides on Salka Steuermann, partly to erase her sense of failure in Switzerland.

However, she finds it hard to find work and tries her luck in Berlin, where she lives with her brother Edward, whom she nicknamed Edek. They share a small apartment in Western Berlin, with a restaurant nearby that is attended by people related to the artistic world, so they receive visitors, and in a short time their house becomes a kind of Bohemian salon where everyone converses animatedly, shares immoral ideas and new friendships flourish. At that time, her brother studied piano and composition with Arnold Schönberg, at a time when the wealthy Albertine Zehme commissioned this composer to write the music for the Pierrot cycle, which Edward later performed with other musicians. On stage, all of them, including the director, are hidden by a screen. The only person visible is Mrs Zehme, who that day is wearing a white face, dressed in Pierrot and reciting melancholic poems that she pronounces slowly and syllabically, her performance taking on a painfully inharmonic and profoundly contemporary tone. This event, entitled Pierrot Lunaire, receives mostly whistles, booing and great indignation from the audience, even though the extraordinary talent of Schönberg is later recognized.

Berlin offers opportunities for artists. Salka, aware of this, is taking a performance test for Max Reinhardt's company. She feels slightly nervous moments before, but as soon as she steps on the stage, her walk becomes secure, even though she is not yet a woman who knows how to take advantage of her femininity. The scenes she picks out that day reveal a beautiful voice, rather grave. Her rather energetic hands control the importance of particular words over others, coupled with the joy of some exclamation and the subsequent slowness of her breathing. Later, while waiting for the verdict, her face becomes thoughtful along with the faces of other women, for she was not the only one who auditioned today, who rehearsed this or that part, who did her hair and makeup as she knew best, who became nervous. Or that as soon as she saw the list displayed, she would cry with sadness or joy, and finally would embrace the other opponents. And so, the chosen ones like her sign a contract with the company of the Deutsches Theater. Her life is ever-changing, as is her economy. Luck is now on her side, and behind the scenes, she meets future film directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Although she is still a beginner, from the mentions at the end of the program, she moves on to leading roles, although always within classical works such as Faust II, Hamlet, Penthesilea or the work Orestes in which Salka plays a Trojan slave.

Theatre director Max Reinhardt owns several theatres throughout Berlin. Sometimes Salka recognizes him from afar. He arrives and gives instructions in the auditorium, or on his way to the dressing room, and is extremely difficult to approach. Reinhardt's blue eyes have a fantastic effect, with just one glance he literally makes many actresses drop at his feet, some find him gorgeous, others simply faint the day they see their boss up close. Salka lives happy moments in Berlin. In the summer she visits Wychylowka with her brother Edward and, on her return to Berlin, her sister Rose, who with the excuse of studying literature, joins them, where the three of them get on well in that tiny two-room apartment. As soon as she arrives, Rose realizes that it's not the literature that motivates her most professionally, but getting on stage and playing those characters out of the books that she loves so much. The three coexist only a few months because of her return to Berlin Salka has difficulty obtaining leading roles. At that time Ellen Geyer, a former colleague of hers, offers her to enter the Viennese company Neue Wiener Bühne as they are looking for actresses. In turn, her sister Rose also leaves for Vienna to train in interpretation, so both are still close.

In Vienna, Salka plays roles as the lead actress in works such as The Father of August Strindberg

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