A New Place of Refuge: On Salka Viertel’s “The Kindness of Strangers”

April 24, 2019   •   By Alex Harvey

The Kindness of Strangers

Salka Viertel

IN HER ENGAGING memoir of 20th-century literary life, The Kindness of Strangers, Salka Viertel, a leading Austrian actress, recounts her first American encounter. In 1928, she and her husband, writer-director Berthold Viertel, had been invited to dinner in Berlin by a visiting columnist, Dorothy Thompson, who happened to be the fiancée of Sinclair Lewis. Given that Lewis didn’t speak German and the Viertels’ English was limited, albeit literary (Salka had prepared for the occasion by reading Lewis’s Arrowsmith, while Berthold memorized Shakespeare’s sonnets), the conversation was challenging:

Sinclair Lewis, tall, gaunt and, in spite of his blotched face, enormously likeable, had no idea who we were. After each martini we smiled at each other.

“You will love America,” Dorothy was saying, “It’s such a wide, great country and the people are very hospitable, you will see.” Sinclair Lewis got up abruptly and left the room. […] [He] returned wearing a black wig and a thin black mustache plastered to his upper lip. He sat down and began to talk with a loud, nasal drawl. Dorothy laughed and explained that he was showing us a Southern gentleman and how they talked in Mississippi. He left again and came back with a short white beard, transformed into a Yankee from Maine or Massachusetts, I don’t remember which and would not have known the difference anyway. He changed twice more, appearing with red whiskers and then with a nice soft, droopy, blond mustache — while his food got cold.

The Viertels had decided to follow the path of a close friend, “towering, red-haired, […] and reserved” F. W. Murnau, one of the first German directors called to Hollywood. They were booked onto a Hamburg-New York crossing, sailing on February 22, 1928. Berthold had a three-year contract from 20th Century Fox to write Murnau’s screenplays and direct his own films. But for Salka the move meant turning her back on a successful German theatrical career, as well as being uprooted from her close-knit, middle-class Jewish family. Visiting home before leaving for the States, she said farewell to Niania, her cherished childhood nanny:

She took out a neatly folded shirt with faded, red and blue cross-stitch embroidery […] and gave it to me.

“I wanted to be buried in it,” she said, “but it’s better you have it, so you remember me in America.”

I put my arms around her trembling, emaciated body and held her close. Softly I said: I’ll be back, you will see! Next summer I’ll be back….”

But she shook her head and we both cried.

Arriving in New York, the Viertels were met by Fox’s publicity man, who had primed the press to interview Berthold. When a German girl with bleached hair appeared, boasting how she’d been seasick the entire voyage, the reporters immediately turned their backs on Berthold, clicking “their cameras while she posed on the arm of a sofa, dangling her legs. We were curious to know who she was and the Fox man told us a name we had never heard before nor afterward.” Despite a welcoming gift of six bottles of Scotch whiskey (it was the height of Prohibition), Salka found New York alien, frightening, and very unreal: “The afternoon sun bursting in slanting rays into the deep crevices between the skyscrapers made them look like a Feninger painting.”

And the Los Angeles of the 1920s was even stranger, if less intimidating: “[S]ome roofs were like mushrooms, many imitated Irish thatch and the shape of others was inspired by Hansel and Gretel’s Gingerbread house. Ice cream was sold in the gaping mouth of a huge frog or inside a rabbit.” Berthold felt compelled to scribble down the omnipresent storefront slogans and personal billboard injunctions: “Toilet seats shaped to conform to nature’s laws”; “Don’t fool yourself! Halitosis makes you unpopular.”

At the Roosevelt, they were greeted by red roses from Murnau and another case of whiskey from the studio. “They must think we are alcoholics,” Salka said to Herman Bing, Berthold’s secretary. He sighed. “In our profession one needs a drink rather often.” Son of German-Jewish immigrants, Bing had come to Hollywood as an actor. “I was a comedian,” he said with a resigned smile. “I was not bad … not bad at all … I could be very funny.”

As a child growing up under Austro-Hungarian rule in Polish-speaking Galicia, Salka had taken to heart the prophecy of a local gypsy woman: she would only escape heartache and misfortune if she lived close to water. Once in California, she headed straight for the Pacific:

To our right was the little bay of Santa Monica Canyon, surrounded by hills covered in shrubs, trees and scattered houses. […] At each end of the long pier were fishmarkets, between them ice cream stalls and little shops renting fishing rods and selling bait, dusty abalone shells, starfish, coral beads and chewing gum, and a shack where a Filipino lady in a sequined costume was telling fortunes.

Salka begged Berthold to let them live in Santa Monica. When he suggested this at Fox, the studio people were appalled: “Santa Monica! Everybody who lived there became rheumatic, has chronic bronchitis and gout.” After a few more months of lobbying, Salka found her future nest at “Inspiration Point,” the place where Palisades Park ends and Ocean Avenue descends toward the canyon. Two pine trees grew on either side of an English-style home, and “next to them a magnolia spread its glossy leaves and enormous white blossoms. The fence was overgrown with honeysuckle entangled with pink Portugal roses.” The large, fenced-in house at 165 Mabery Road was not only to be Salka’s home for the next 30 years, but also became a vital center for an extraordinary circle of writers, actors, composers, and musicians. Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and Sergei Eisenstein, Arnold Schoenberg and Otto Klemperer, Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley were among the guests who frequented Salka’s salon in the 1930s and ’40s. As the worsening political situation in Europe drove successive waves of artists into exile in the United States, the Viertels’ home came to serve as the heart of what Ehrhard Bahr has termed “Weimar on the Pacific” — the title of his excellent book on German exile culture in Los Angeles. The gatherings at Salka’s “were life-rafts in the form of a few cherished hours speaking in a native tongue, commiserating with friends and compatriots.”

In his review of an exhibition on the history of salons at New York’s Jewish Museum, Jeremy Eichler notes how “ultimately, they were a moving attempt to protect a liberal vision of German culture at the very moment it was so gruesomely perverted on the world stage.” This attempt to recreate a culture that was threatened with total destruction in Europe lends a bittersweet tension to The Kindness of Strangers.

Salka’s memoir evokes a privileged, idyllic childhood in Wychylowka, Galicia, before the outbreak of World War I. Born Salomea Steuermann to prosperous Jewish parents (her mother came from a Russian land-owning family, while her father was a lawyer and local mayor), she grew up in a cultured home alongside her sister Rose and brother Edward; all three were intensely immersed in the works of Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare, and 19th-century German classical music. Edward would become an international concert pianist and leading exponent of the radical, atonal works of his friends Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Rose, although not a protégée of famed director Max Reinhardt like Salka, also pursued a successful acting career. The rich Central European Jewish cultural realm that formed Salka and her siblings enabled her to move with ease within literary and artistic circles. In Prague, she provided supper for Kafka (“the main dish was spinach”), whom she found tall, dark, and handsome, despite his tuberculosis. Her husband Berthold was a close friend and secretary of Karl Kraus in Vienna and tended to idolize him as “a genius, a prophet, the greatest satirical writer since Swift, a lone voice raised against the corrupt values of our time, against social injustice and the general vulgarization of taste by the hideous jargon of publicity.” Salka noted the apocalyptic satirist’s “constant obsession was his cause and himself.” She was confident enough to defend modern acting styles against Kraus’s excessive loathing: “[H]e considered Reinhardt the greatest offender against Wortregie” (an actor’s use of language). In Berlin, the “charming” Rainer Maria Rilke confessed to her how nervous he’d been when meeting Tolstoy, focusing his attention on the great man’s hands — large, with bluish veins. When she first met the young Bertolt Brecht in 1922, Salka was struck by his idiosyncratic image: thin, dark hair combed down over his forehead, always wearing his leather coat and cap, “which made him seem dressed for an automobile race.”


Nineteen years later, Salka welcomed Brecht and his wife, Helli, to her Santa Monica sanctuary. They had narrowly escaped the wreckage of Europe by fleeing from Denmark to Finland, then on to Moscow and Vladivostok, a step ahead of the Nazi invasion of Russia, and finally taking a Swedish ship via the Panama Canal to the docks of San Pedro. Unlike Salka, who, in the intervening years, had been able to reinvent herself as a Hollywood screenwriter, the Brechts were strangers to the film colony, “an odd European couple who did not speak English” (although Bertolt understood it perfectly). Brecht’s only visible output in Hollywood was the screenplay for Hangmen Also Die, an indifferent Fritz Lang film, from which he removed his name. Compare this to the plays he completed in exile: Mother Courage and Her Children, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Szechwan, and Life of Galileo. Unlike the Viertels, Brecht never sought to adapt to the United States, as his poem “Concerning the Label Emigrant” underscores:

… [W]e
Did not leave, of our own free will
Choosing another land. Nor did we enter
Into a land, to stay there, if possible for ever.
Merely we fled. We are driven out, banned.
Not a home, but an exile, shall the land be that took us in.

It was partly thanks to her friendship with Greta Garbo, then at the peak of her success, that Salka had been able to carve out an Anglophone career. She had met Garbo at a black-tie party hosted by Ernst Lubitsch and found her intelligent, completely without pose, and possessed of a great sense of humor:

She wore no make-up, not even powder, only the famous long eyelashes were blackened with mascara. Her fine skin had a childlike smoothness; the slender hands were sunburned, and contrary to her reputation I found her well dressed; the slacks and shirtwaist were beautifully cut and well-fitting. […] She seemed hypersensitive, although of a steely resilience. The observations she made about people were very just, sharp and objective.

Aware of Hollywood’s preferences, Salka deemed herself neither “beautiful nor young enough for a film career.” While playing a waterfront prostitute beside Garbo in a German remake of Anna Christie, she had been absorbed by a biography of Queen Christina of Sweden: “[H]er masculine education and complicated sexuality made her an almost contemporary character.” Garbo urged her to write a screenplay based on the Queen’s life and showed an early draft to Irving Thalberg at MGM, who was keen to lure the film star. When Thalberg tried to sideline Salka as an inexperienced European outsider, she stood her ground and remained on board as the creative force behind Garbo’s most complex role in the 1933 film. She went on to write four more vehicles for Garbo: The Painted Veil (1934), Anna Karenina (1935), Conquest (1937), and Two-Faced Woman (1941).

She later became friends with Thalberg, who asked her to set up a meeting with Schoenberg to see if he’d compose the score for the China-set The Good Earth (1937). Friend and mentor to Salka’s brother Edward in 1920s Vienna, Schoenberg was now a neighbor and frequent visitor at 165 Mabery. Salka knew he was struggling financially, neglecting his composition in order to give music lessons. Perhaps he might be tempted, she thought, for $25,000. The awkward scene between the studio’s wunderkind and the austere European maestro, which Salka depicts vividly in her memoir, crystalizes the mismatch between Hollywood and the exiled exponents of German modernism:

Thalberg […] was explaining why he wanted a great composer for the scoring of Good Earth. When he came to: “Last Sunday when I heard the lovely music you have written…” Schoenberg interrupted sharply: “I don’t write ‘lovely’ music.”

Thalberg looked baffled, then smiled and explained what he meant by “lovely music.” […] I translated what Thalberg said into German, but Schoenberg interrupted me. He understood everything, and […] conveyed what he thought of music in films: that it was simply terrible. The whole handling of sound was incredibly bad, meaningless, numbing all expression; the leveling monotony of the dialogue was unbearable. He had read Good Earth and he would not undertake the assignment unless he was given complete control over the sound including the spoken words.

“What do you mean by complete control?” asked Thalberg, incredulously.

“I mean that I would have to work with the actors,” answered Schoenberg. “They would have to speak in the same pitch and key as I compose it in.”


After a pause Thalberg said: “This is a remarkable man. And once he learns about film scoring and starts working in the studio he’ll realize that this is not like writing an opera.”

“You are mistaken, Irving,” I said.

The next morning Schoenberg’s wife rang Salka. The price of prostitution had doubled. For complete control of the film, including the dialogue, Schoenberg now wanted $50,000. Thalberg shrugged and asked the head of his sound department to rework “some very lovely” Chinese folk songs.

Like Brecht and Schoenberg, Berthold Viertel also found his Hollywood experience deeply frustrating, as Salka understood: “[F]rom the very beginning the originality of his mind and his talent were wasted.” He felt the constant need to explain himself to American friends, in a vain attempt to convey his “European” identity. Erudite and creative in his native German, he found it extremely painful “to confine himself to the primitive vocabulary” of his studio boss. As his efforts to communicate became increasingly futile, Berthold would escape to the men’s room to read Kant and Kierkegaard. Once his contract with Fox expired, he signed with Paramount and started to spend ever more time away from the family home.

Perhaps the high point of the Viertels’ salon was the 70th birthday party Salka hosted for Heinrich Mann in 1941. It was attended by his brother Thomas and an extraordinary roster of writers and artists, including Alfred Döblin, Alma Mahler, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Alfred Neumann, and Bruno Frank. Thomas paid tribute to his brother’s prophetic political wisdom. Heinrich analyzed “Thomas Mann’s oeuvre in its relevance to the Third Reich.” The evening “gave one some hope and comfort at a time when the lights of freedom seemed extinguished in Europe, and everything we had loved and valued buried in ruins. At the open door to the pantry […] guests were listening, crowding each other and wiping their tears.” Salka admitted to Bruno Frank how much the brothers’ mutual homage had touched her. He pointed out that they wrote and read “such ceremonial evaluations of each other, every ten years.” It’s also ironic but fitting that Berthold was absent from this historic gathering; his telegram from New York was read out by Salka after the speeches. He no longer felt able to share the life his wife had made for their three sons amid this community of European artists. Their marriage would slowly unravel until they divorced in 1947.

As if to fill the gap left by her husband’s frequent absence, Salka continually tried to bring her remaining family members to her Californian safe haven. Her brother Edward and his young daughter were the first to live at 165 Mabery for a time. Her sister Rose and her husband escaped from Vienna after the Nazi Anschluss, finding asylum in Argentina. Finally, following a route almost as involved as Brecht’s — six weeks at sea after 10 days on a Trans-Siberian train — her widowed mother arrived at Union Station: “I cannot describe what I felt when I saw an emaciated, old woman emerge from the Pullman and recognized that this was my mother.” Salka’s youngest brother, Dusko, had elected to stay near their home in Galicia. He disappeared shortly before the Soviets drove out the Germans. Reported as missing, his body was never found. It was believed he had tried to escape by jumping from a train taking him to a concentration camp and was killed by the SS. Salka never told her mother; she intercepted a letter sent by a family friend, in which the woman confessed that she had been too scared to help Dusko when he begged to be hidden during the rounding up of local Jews.


Theodor and Gretel Adorno were also frequent visitors at Salka’s home during the war. They had come to Los Angeles in the footsteps of Max Horkheimer, who bought a house near Salka in the Pacific Palisades. Like fellow émigré Brecht, Adorno and Horkheimer directly challenged Hollywood’s values during their Californian exile. In Grand Hotel Abyss, an outstanding guide to the lives of the Frankfurt School, Stuart Jeffries highlights how Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s disdain for the American culture in which they lived deepened their attachment to the European one they had lost. Adorno had a recurrent dream in which he found himself sitting at his mother’s desk in his family home near Frankfurt after Hitler had come to power: “Autumn, overcast with tragic clouds, an unending melancholy, but a pervasive scent over everything. Everywhere vases with autumn flowers” (Dream Notes). In the dream, Adorno is writing an essay from 1932 but it starts to mutate into the book he was writing in his Pacific exile, The Philosophy of Modern Music. Adorno interpreted the dream as a longed-for retrieval of a European life, which was dying out. Jeffries notes, poignantly, that Adorno’s “homesickness was most intense because there seemed to be no direction home.”

What is so moving about Salka Viertel’s memoir is the way it preserves the painful ambiguity inherent in the experience of these German modernist exiles. Pulled both ways, Salka is grateful for the sanctuary California offered her family, yet, at the same time, is aware of the gap between her European background and American capitalist culture. Although she was relatively lucky, she too felt the daily, often brutal, pressures of market-driven American life.

In their scathing theoretical critique Dialectic of Enlightenment and other writings of exile, Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the American culture industry was an instrument of domination, although less explicit about its ideology than Goebbels. Like Nazi film studios, Hollywood helped to make a political and economic system — namely monopoly capitalism, with all its injustice and cruelty — seem not just appealing but also precisely what it is was not: natural, and therefore eternal. Jeffries quotes another exile from the Frankfurt School, Ernst Bloch, who called America “a cul-de-sac lit by neon lights.” In other words, America’s obsession with the pursuit of individual happiness had led to a dead end of inauthentic surfaces. One can dismiss these exiled German intellectuals as European snobs who arrived in California and hated everything that they saw and heard on aesthetic grounds. But their critiques aren’t based on a simplistic defense of European civilization against American crudity. How, in the age of the Third Reich, could it be? Their nostalgia was for the pre-fascist German cultural forms that, in Adorno’s words, contained “a degree of independence from the power of the market.”

While Salka’s salon at 165 Mabery Road was primarily a meeting place of European artists, it did also have a political side. In August 1943, she hosted a meeting of intellectuals who gathered to express sympathy with the National Committee for a Free Germany. The initial statement of support was endorsed by Brecht, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Feuchtwanger, Bruno Frank, and Herbert Marcuse. It represented a progressive, popular front of the German intelligentsia.

Salka’s own politics were broadly humanistic rather than overtly ideological. Something of Salka’s political innocence can be witnessed in her playful attempt to persuade Thalberg of the benefits of running a film studio under socialist planning: “What has a man of your talent and energy, Irving, to fear from socialism? With your organizational ability, your obsession for work, you would always be the head of production and make better and more artistic films, and you wouldn’t have to worry about financing.” But in the harsh, polarized atmosphere of the early Cold War, such naïveté would have repercussions.


The US Congressional Committee Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry started its hearings in Los Angeles. Even Jack Warner and Louis Mayer had to explain why they had made such films as Mission to Moscow and Song of Russia. Brecht was summoned to Washington and questioned over what he got up to when Gerhart Eisler, communist brother of Hanns, visited him in Santa Monica. Brecht replied: “We […] played some games of chess.” Immediately after the hearing, Brecht boarded a plane to Switzerland, and his wife and children followed as soon as their home was sold.

Suddenly Salka’s contact with “glamorous” Hollywood started to dissolve; the screenplay based on the life of George Sand she had written for Garbo and director George Cukor was sidelined; utterly disillusioned with the endless delays and compromises, Garbo herself renounced the screen; Chaplin left for Europe after his near-prosecution; good friends such as Thalberg and Lubitsch died prematurely. But it was only when Berthold fell seriously ill and Salka needed to renew her US passport to visit him in Switzerland that she realized she had been blacklisted herself. After years of sheltering stateless refugees she had also become a non-person. Her passport application was categorically refused because “it has been alleged that you were a Communist. […] It is also alleged your connection with Hollywood Arts, Sciences, and Professions Council, has followed the Communist Party line. It is further alleged that you have been closely associated with known Communists.”

Salka protested that she abhorred any “cruelty, […] confessions made under torture […] the Moscow trials, war, dictatorship, arrogant nationalism, secret police, racial discrimination and militarism.” It made no difference, since she continued, unrepentantly, to state that she had “friends, wonderful people, who are Communists and I don’t think this should deprive me of visiting my family.” But her experience of McCarthyite tyranny seems not to have sullied her faith in America’s generosity of spirit. Thanks again to “the kindness of strangers” she secured a four-month restricted passport. It came too late for her to see Berthold before his death. He was buried next to his great friend Karl Kraus and honored by the city of Vienna.


The Kindness of Strangers ends with Salka seeking a new place of refuge, far from the Pacific Ocean. With her script work having dried up, she could no longer pay the mortgage on 165 Mabery and was reluctantly forced to sell it. Salka chose an Alpine exile in Klosters, Switzerland. Her eldest son, Peter, also a screenwriter, had settled there with his second wife, the actress Deborah Kerr. Old Hollywood friends came to visit, and Garbo would often stay for weeks at a time, but, as Donna Rifkind emphasizes in her sensitive afterword, Salka “never stopped regretting the surrender” of her beloved Santa Monica home. The port of entry through which many of Hitler’s traumatized exiles had crossed to safety and one of the finest cultural salons of the 20th century passed into literary history. Luckily, that history has been recorded in fine, evocative prose by the very woman who made it.


British director and writer Alex Harvey has made over 20 documentaries and dramas, working in both film and television. His most recent film is the feature documentary Enter the Jungle (2014).