Greta Garbo was born in 1905 in one of the poorest sections of Stockholm. She lived in a cold-water flat with no indoor toilet. Salka Viertel was born in 1889 into a well-to-do Jewish family living on an estate of rolling meadows and orchards in Galicia, near what is now Lviv, Ukraine. Their stories, which began in radically different circumstances, came together in the same place: Hollywood. They became lifelong friends and the subject of considerable gossip.
In Garbo, his engaging new biography of the actress, Robert Gottlieb writes:
Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941 Garbo is in people’s mind. You realize it as you come upon countless references to her in novels and memoirs of the period—from For Whom the Bell Tolls to the letters of Marianne Moore.
Viertel, by contrast, was known to few outside the contentious and tight-knit community of intellectual and artistic émigrés who fled the Nazis for Los Angeles in the hope of finding work in the motion picture industry. In her attentive and persuasive biography of Viertel, The Sun and Her Stars, Donna Rifkind writes:
Salka Viertel has been more or less forgotten in America because too few people believed that what she accomplished was important. To survive and flourish in the hostile environment of the Hollywood studio system; to use her influence at the studios to petition for sponsors, affidavits, and jobs for refugees; to turn her home into the endpoint of a transatlantic routing network for those refugees, providing welcome, food, shelter, camaraderie, and introductions to potential employers; to speak out against intolerance, censorship, political inquisitions, and the curtailing of human rights…: in the end, none of this has been deemed thus far worthy of our attention.
Rifkind’s book is a thorough, passionate reminder of Viertel’s unusual but central role in wartime and postwar Hollywood. As a screenwriter for Garbo and perhaps her most trusted friend, Viertel was close to producers, actors, and studio executives; that is, she was close to power. As an émigré who invited fellow émigrés to her house every Sunday to feed them, give them counsel, discuss politics, and generally provide a stimulating sanctuary where they could fret and argue in German, she was close to the newly powerless. An actress herself, married to the poet and director Berthold Viertel, sister of the prominent pianist and Arnold Schoenberg interpreter Edward Steuermann, Viertel transformed herself when she came to Los Angeles. She became a unique sort of diplomat. Rifkind carefully documents the influence (and charm) of this remarkable woman.
The Sun and Her Stars reads as a companion to Viertel’s own extraordinary memoir, The Kindness of Strangers. Written over the last decades of her life and first published in 1969, it is a strikingly modest book, sincere and sardonic, full of humor, insight, and an indomitable sense of absurdity. The story of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century propels the book, as it propelled its author, toward the story of Hollywood in its golden age.
For insight into the comic disorder of Hollywood, The Kindness of Strangers is equaled only, perhaps, by Otto Friedrich’s classic history, City of Nets (1986). But Viertel has the advantage of having been there—“there” being everywhere culture was being made in those frenetic times. That famous tale of Irving Thalberg preposterously trying to hire Schoenberg to write the music for The Good Earth? Viertel was the translator and intermediary between the egotistical producer and the egotistical composer. It was she who had to tell Thalberg that Schoenberg would agree only if he, not the director, had complete control of all dialogue, so that he could make the film an operatic melodrama in the manner of Pierrot Lunaire; and it was she who had to recite several verses of Pierrot Lunaire, which she happened to know by heart, to demonstrate to Thalberg the spooky modernist cross between singing and speaking known as Sprechstimme.
Viertel’s memoir is rich with Hollywood anecdotes, but it is the scope of the book, and of her life, that makes it so powerful. She served as a nurse’s aide in World War I and later witnessed the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the deprivation and delirium of postwar Berlin, the rise and horror of Hitler, and the shameful McCarthy purges in the United States. The Kindness of Strangers is an account of this chaotic time told by a culturally engaged person who was also a woman and a devoted mother. Even though she cut many passages about her personal life—including lovers, menstruation, and puberty—at the insistence of male friends and editors, the landmark events she notices and describes are temperamentally, texturally different from those found in the many contemporary accounts written by men.
We follow young Salka, an aspiring actress, as she matter-of-factly avoids the sloppy advances of drunk directors. “Imperial Vienna,” she writes,
exuded an intense erotic atmosphere. It was impossible for a young woman to walk alone without being followed. Alternating between the sentimental and the rudely obscene approach, men pursued one with undaunted persistence.
Her son’s scarlet fever; the ripe, red cherries no one could afford; the fatigue of pregnancy during those late café nights chatting with the critic and scourge Karl Kraus; enrolling the children in school after school—all the stuff that usually lurks backstage here plays its part right beside the greatest artists of that era.
The result is an often lightning-fast glimpse of daily life at historically crucial moments. Dinner with Kafka and Max Brod in the desperate Prague of 1918? The jokes were political, the main dish spinach. As newlyweds that same year, the Viertels’
existence in furnished rooms, furnished apartments and furnished houses was launched. For many years to come, we would have to cope with other people’s ugly furniture, pretentious, middle class and mostly covered with dust sheets by the cautious owners. It depended on our financial condition whether I would muster up the courage to remove the dust sheets.
Years later, when they first arrived in Los Angeles, Emil Jannings gave the distinguished couple a party, and Salka could not help noting that “the diversity of lamps and especially the extraordinary shapes of the lampshades struck me as a specialty of Hollywood interiors.”
Viertel’s domestic observations reveal a longing for the Europe that she left behind. Even before they went to America, Rifkind writes, the Viertels were “nomads of a rarefied intellectual sort, hauling their children and their belongings from city to city…. They were citified bohemians with many addresses but no home.” The nomadism of theater life was a constant reminder to Viertel, born Salomea Steuermann, of both the stability and the hospitality of Wychylowka, the estate where she grew up.
Wychylowka was just outside the garrison town of Sambor, and young officers would come to court her and her sister, Rose. Her father, Dr. Joseph Steuermann, was a prosperous lawyer and the first Jewish mayor of the town; his children always addressed him in the third person. Her mother was from a family of Russian Jewish landowners who for generations had welcomed guests who stayed for months. There were four children: Salka, Rose, Edward, and Dusko. “Wild, unruly, disobedient,” Dusko, the younger brother, rode “two ponies standing upright, with one foot on the back of each galloping animal” and became a famous soccer player. In the summer evenings,
Mama, Rose and I clustered around Edward when he sat at the piano and, dividing the parts among us, we performed chorales and oratorios, operas by Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Donizetti and the new sensation: Richard Strauss.
Rifkind notes that Salka’s mother ran “Wychylowka as her mother and grandmother had presided over their households, and much as Salka in Santa Monica would run her own.” In Wychylowka, the Christian beggars came on Thursdays, the Jewish ones on Fridays. Money and food were handed out to them, and to Roma whenever they turned up. “The idea of home as the center of intense moral, civic, and cultural engagement was Salka’s most enduring inheritance from her mother,” Rifkind writes. In that tradition, the Viertels’ house at 165 Mabery Road in Santa Monica became a waystation for guests in need.
The Viertels arrived in Los Angeles in 1928, before most of their fellow émigrés, at the invitation of F.W. Murnau and Fox Films. Berthold was to write for Murnau. Salka left behind her successful theater career and went with him. They had planned to stay only a few months. Like many of the transplants from Mitteleuropa, Berthold grew to loathe Los Angeles and left for long periods to work in New York and London before moving to England for good in 1949, two years after they divorced. Not so Salka, who stayed at Mabery Road until 1955, when she could no longer pay the mortgage on the house she loved. In 1960, she moved to Switzerland to be near her granddaughter, whom she adored, and her son Peter, the novelist and screenwriter, recently married to Deborah Kerr.
It was as a creator of a home away from home that Viertel found her calling. Every Sunday, émigrés like Thomas Mann, his brother Heinrich, Bertolt Brecht, and Schoenberg would gather there to mingle with movie stars, screenwriters, and directors. It was a safe, hospitable place to speak German, meet other new arrivals from Europe, see old friends, and eat Salka’s chocolate cake. (Mann, a fervent admirer of the cake, once crashed a wedding in pursuit of a slice.)
There were other newcomers to Hollywood at this time, not from Europe but from New York City. As silent movies were replaced by talkies, playwrights, novelists, and journalists flooded in from New York to make easy money writing dialogue. They, too, congregated at what soon became known as the “salon” at Mabery Road. They were introduced to directors like William Dieterle, and actors like Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich. Mabery Road became Salka’s headquarters, Rifkind writes, as she “improvised a volunteer job for herself as a social ambassador.” She was a “connector of people,” with “genuine warmth and panache.”
Viertel became a “de facto manager” for Murnau and Sergei Eisenstein, neither of whom, unsurprisingly, was flourishing in the Hollywood studio system. It is hard even to imagine it now, but Eisenstein had a six-month contract with Paramount; easier to imagine that, for those six months, Paramount ignored every scenario he offered. (Eisenstein declared that Hollywood’s “decadence and blight wrote a last chapter to history.”) Murnau, who had been making silent pictures in Hollywood since 1926, had just finished a film, written by Berthold, to which Fox insisted on adding “extra footage and a clumsy dialogue track.”
Salka helped both filmmakers in their attempts to escape the studios and make their films independently. Murnau went off to the South Seas to film Tabu (1931); Eisenstein, less successfully, to make a film in Mexico improbably financed by Upton Sinclair, his wealthy wife, and her wealthy Pasadena friends. While Eisenstein was filming, Viertel became his emissary, raising more money from his sponsors, viewing the rushes, and finally explaining “each of Eisenstein’s camera angles to the Pasadena women, in an attempt to justify what they saw as his needless extravagance.”
During her years in Santa Monica, whether she was at the height of her earning power or struggling to meet a mortgage payment, Viertel was the one who supported the household of children, relatives, and dogs. She regularly sent money to Berthold in England and her mother in Poland, lent money to friends, and took in refugees to live at her house. Her generosity was immense at a time of immense need.
Rifkind allows us to see Salka Viertel not simply as a bystander in the glamorous world of Hollywood stars, a female Zelig mentioned fleetingly in other people’s memoirs. “The ways in which people chose to treat those who were different among them would soon turn out to define the boundary between civilization and barbarism,” she writes. “The gestures of acceptance that Salka extended to Murnau and Eisenstein”—among others looking for a place in Hollywood—“in a time of institutional bigotry on both sides of the Atlantic…was anything but minor. It was quietly but transgressively courageous.”
And then there was Garbo.
She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, a mischievous child who “used to play leapfrog, and have a bag of marbles of my own—a tomboy.” Her father was a workman who died young, and Greta had to quit school and go to work in a barbershop lathering men’s faces for their shaves (and submitting to their gropes and pinches). At fourteen, she moved up in the world, finding a job as a shopgirl at a department store. She was quickly promoted to modeling hats and appearing in short advertising films. She found jobs as a movie extra, and from there made it to the prestigious theater program at the Royal Academy in Stockholm.
Mauritz Stiller, the leading director in the Swedish film industry, discovered her. “It was his tyranny in conjunction with her combination of determination and malleability that created ‘Greta Garbo,’” Robert Gottlieb writes. Indeed, it was Stiller who gave her the name Garbo. Her first film with him was The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924), based on a classic Swedish novel. The other actors could not understand why Stiller was so interested in “this little nobody…an awkward, mediocre novice.” Which was just what Stiller wanted: an actress to “break down,” as he said: “But when she is broken down, what a performance she gives—such calm, such concentration, such effortless knowledge. And besides all this, her face when she is acting becomes a face to make the gods happy.”
With everything that has been written about Garbo since, Stiller’s words remain one of the purest descriptions of her on-screen mystery. Gösta Berling was an enormous success, in large part because of her. The Viertels saw it in Berlin, where it was a “sensation,” Salka wrote. “There was a loud gasp from the audience when the extraordinary face of the young Greta Garbo appeared on the screen.” As the filming progressed, Stiller seems to have realized the power of that face, which he shot more and more in close-up. “Without question Stiller was the person with whom Garbo had the strongest bond, a bond that did not end with his death,” Gottlieb writes. One of her later directors called him the “green shadow”: for years she would walk around the set murmuring “he says this…he does so and so” to herself.
Garbo came to Hollywood in 1925, after Louis B. Mayer saw Gösta Berling. She told a reporter (who described her hair as being in “riotous frizzy mode”), “I would like to find a room with a nice private family.” She was innocent, provincial, but her career as a movie star, without her realizing it, had begun.
Viertel met Garbo at a black-tie party in 1928. Jacques Feyder, Viertel’s friend from her European theater days and Garbo’s director for The Kiss (released in 1929), led Viertel to a couch where Garbo sat, “the only woman who wore an austere black suit and not evening dress.” She and Viertel and Feyder retreated to the veranda with a bottle of champagne. “There is something unexpected in the loveliness of this face; it is always as if one were seeing it for the first time,” Viertel writes. She and Berthold agreed that Garbo was “intelligent, simple, completely without pose, with a great sense of humor.” The day after the party, the face appeared anew at the Viertels’ “open window of the entrance” in order to continue the conversation of the night before. Salka wrote: “In the bright daylight she was even more beautiful. She wore no make-up, not even powder, only the famous long eyelashes were thoroughly blackened with mascara.” It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Viertel played a small role in the German remake of Anna Christie, but there was little appetite in Hollywood for a middle-aged woman with a heavy accent. Garbo suggested that her friend write something for her. Viertel ended up cowriting five of Garbo’s films: Queen Christina (1933), The Painted Veil (1934), Anna Karenina (1935), Conquest (1937), and Two-Faced Woman (1941).
The extent and the value of Viertel’s contribution to Garbo’s films has long been downplayed or dismissed. Kenneth Tynan, in his exquisite 1954 profile in Sight and Sound about Garbo, doubts that she could have been “perfectly happy with the velvet-hung, musk-scented tin lizzies which Salka Viertel and S.N. Behrman (among others) turned out as vehicles for her.” Gottlieb, too, gives Viertel little credit as a writer. Acknowledging that she was “employed by M-G-M as a screenwriter,” he nevertheless maintains that “her real importance was as the only channel the studio had to its mercurial and exacting star.” Viertel provided Garbo with friendship, loyalty, and a homelike atmosphere where, he writes, she was exposed to
the cultural and intellectual life she had never even known existed when she was growing up. It’s not surprising that Salka remained the most important influence on her tastes and attitudes throughout the thirties and forties, encouraging her in her demands for roles of historic or literary significance, and involved in a number of her scripts.
After The Painted Veil was a flop—Garbo’s “beauty and subtlety aren’t the meat of successful melodrama,” Gottlieb notes—David O. Selznick wanted her to take on something more contemporary: Dark Victory (1939), which eventually starred Bette Davis. “For a moment it looked as if she might agree,” Gottlieb writes, “but then the lure of Art (and the urgings of Salka) swayed her back to her original idea: Anna Karenina.” Critical of that film’s heavy Russian grandiosity, he also objects to the pallid performance by Fredric March and deliciously quotes Richard Corliss: “To his love scenes March brought the sort of sappy conviction you might expect from Merv Griffin singing ‘Summertime.’” Gottlieb also dismisses, rightly, almost all of Garbo’s leading men. Who could possibly stand up to her remote sensuality?
Nor is Gottlieb convinced of the importance of the men and women in Garbo’s real life. Mercedes de Acosta, known to her friends as the Vampire, or Black and White (for the only two colors she wore), was an eccentric, worldly Spaniard who claimed to have seduced, among fifty or so women, Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, Tallulah Bankhead, Pola Negri, and, Gottlieb writes, “—are you ready?—Edith Wharton.” De Acosta’s relationship with Garbo became poisonous, unbalanced, and intermittent, with Garbo’s “increasing aversion to Mercedes’s clinging dependency and Mercedes’s eternal suffering at Greta’s indifference.”
As for Viertel, also rumored to have been Garbo’s lover, she is recognized by Gottlieb as a loyal, motherly friend, which she certainly was. Even in her memoir she is guarded when writing about Garbo. In his thoughtful foreword to The Kindness of Strangers, Lawrence Weschler writes:
I bracket out here the whole question of whether Salka and Garbo ever became actual lovers, a piece of gossip much speculated upon elsewhere. Indeed, Salka’s biographer Rifkind recently commented to me how often she got asked that question. “And who’s to say,” she continued. “There is evidence for and evidence against, we will likely never know, but what’s been fascinating to me is how obsessively fascinated everyone else is by the question, and what does that say about them? I will say this: Salka would have done anything for Greta, been there for her in any way she ever needed, and having lived through the Weimar years, she likely would not have harbored any puritanical misgivings at the prospect.
Gottlieb finds most of Garbo’s reputed lovers dubious possibilities for the divine one: the cabaret performer Marianne Oswald in Weimar-era Berlin, “according to century old gossip” (“She looked like something out of a nightmare,” Dietrich said about her. “She had orange hair, and she couldn’t sing—and Garbo slept with her!”); Sven-Hugo Borg, her translator when she came to America; the director Mamoulian (“They got along extremely well, and even had a brief ‘relationship,’ whatever that meant”); the conductor Leopold Stokowski, with whom she traveled in Europe; Cecil Beaton, the gay photographer obsessed with marrying her; Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front (“They were some kind of couple, dining together, walking his Kerry Blue terriers on the beach”). Gottlieb cannot quite credit that these mere mortals were romantically linked to his charge—for that is how it comes to seem, that Garbo is under his protection, the qualifiers acting as a kind of chivalry. Garbo apparently craved protection, and even now, just a shadow on a screen, she does seem to deserve it.
One of her protectors (though not, Gottlieb is at pains to point out, one of her lovers—probably not, anyway) was George Schlee, her constant companion from 1942, when she’d retired from acting, until 1962. A rich businessman, much older than Garbo, married to Valentina, the ultra-fashionable lesbian couturière, Schlee found an apartment for Garbo in New York City, in the same building he lived in with his wife. When Schlee died, Valentina had both the villa in Cap d’Ail, near Monte Carlo, where he and Garbo used to stay, and her own apartment exorcised of Garbo’s presence, including the refrigerator from which she occasionally grabbed a beer.
There is one reputed lover Gottlieb is willing to recognize as the real thing: the actor John Gilbert, with whom Garbo starred in Flesh and the Devil (1927). He quotes Gilbert’s daughter as saying, “By the time their first love scene was filmed they were madly, exuberantly in love.” Clarence Brown, the director, said: “It seemed like an intrusion to yell ‘cut!’ I used to just motion the crew over to another part of the set and let them finish what they were doing. It was embarrassing.” Garbo soon moved in to Gilbert’s Beverly Hills house, called the Castle, and Gilbert wanted to marry her. Then, in 1926, she did not show up for work on Anna Karenina and disappeared from public view for months. No photos of her, no sightings.
How and why, Gottlieb asks, “does so famous and conspicuous a woman vanish away, at the height of the world’s consuming fascination with the saga of her and Gilbert?” He then quotes a passage from an “invaluable (and beautiful)” book on Garbo by Mark A. Vieira:
Did Gilbert and Garbo get pregnant in August 1926? Did she have a child prematurely and give it up to be raised by Swedish friends? Did she have an abortion? Did Gilbert abuse her, causing a miscarriage and complications? Did he shoot her? Did she shoot him, causing him to be hospitalized “for observation”?… Was her fear of strangers indicative of a more serious psychological disorder? Did she have a nervous breakdown…?
Gottlieb does not offer the answers. How can I? he seems to be saying. And it is this lighthearted fidelity to the unknowability of Garbo that gives his book its considerable charm. His easygoing style is one of qualifications or amplifications, bits of trivia or stray comments, and it belies the tremendous amount of research that must have gone into it. He does not always back up his own suppositions or tell us where rumor or gossip came from. Instead, he jauntily relates whatever he has found out with friendly skepticism. The effect is of a casual dinner party with knowledgeable and articulate pals talking about a beloved mutual friend.
Gottlieb’s biography is thorough and entertaining, full of both thoughtful movie criticism and casual rumor that still somehow allows Garbo to exist in the full power and mystery of her beauty; in fact, he insists on it. Garbo is a generous book, too. Filled with photographs that take your breath away, it is also lavish in its acknowledgment of others who have written about her. There is a section at the end of the book titled “A Garbo Reader,” which begins with Tynan’s 1954 profile and moves on graciously to every comment ever made by anybody who was anybody in letter, diary, novel, or song, including a passage from a letter written by Alice B. Toklas to Carl van Vechten, after a visit from Garbo. “Explique-moi,” Toklas writes, “as Pablo used to say to Baby” (Baby being Gertrude Stein). For that quote alone, one would be grateful to Gottlieb.
He is smitten with Garbo—who is not?—and his devotion has an almost paternal quality: “In many ways she became her own child—demanding, willful, needing to be taken care of.” He wonders if this is because she had no real childhood. “She herself said that she had no talent for childhood and had no time to indulge in one.” She wanted to become an actress and “pursued her goal with unremitting determination—she was her own stage mother.”
But a stage mother is different from a mother. And Garbo never meant to become the mythical Garbo, Gottlieb says. Shy, insecure, uneducated, nineteen years old when she got to America, she was almost instantly “trapped in a spotlight extreme even by Hollywood standards.” In 1939 she consulted a psychiatrist who felt that she “suffered from a shyness vis-à-vis the world around her that bordered on the pathological.” Her friends saw this and tried to shield her. This was the mystery of the woman who famously wanted to be alone. But the mystery of what happens on screen when her face appears? The mystery of our obsession with her so many years after her death? That mystery persists. Explique-moi? Gottlieb knows that is never going to happen and celebrates the impossibility.