Salka Viertel

Salka Viertel (15 June 1889 – 20 October 1978) was an Austrian Jewish actress and Hollywood screenwriter. While under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1933 to 1937, Viertel co-wrote the scripts for many movies, particularly those starring her close friend Greta Garbo, including Queen Christina (1933) and Anna Karenina (1935). She also played opposite Garbo in MGM's German-language version of Anna Christie in 1930.[1]

Salka Viertel
Salka Viertel.jpg
Salomea Steuermann

(1889-06-15)15 June 1889
Died20 October 1978(1978-10-20) (aged 89)
Klosters, Switzerland
Years active1929–1959
(m. 1918; div. 1947)
Children3, including Peter Viertel

Early life and careerEdit

Viertel was born Salomea Sara Steuermann in Sambor, a city then in the province of Galicia,[2] which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but today is in western Ukraine. Her father, Joseph Steuermann, was a lawyer and the mayor of Sambor[2] before antisemitism forced him to renounce his office. Her mother, Auguste Steuermann, died in 1952 at Viertel's home in Santa Monica. Her siblings were the composer and pianist Eduard Steuermann; Rosa (Ruzia; 1891–1972), married from 1922 until her death to the actor Josef Gielen [de]; and the Polish national football player Zygmunt Steuermann.

After debuting as Salome Steuermann at the Pressburg Stadttheater (regional theater), Viertel had engagements in typical spas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1911 she played briefly under Max Reinhardt in Berlin, whereupon she followed an offer in 1913 to go to Vienna to work on the New Vienna stage. There she met her husband, author and director Berthold Viertel, and they married in 1918.[2] They raised three sons—Hans, Peter, and Thomas—before divorcing in 1947. In 1920, Salka Viertel went to Hamburg to the Great Theater, later to Düsseldorf. Her husband worked from 1920 in Berlin, where he founded the collective theatre "Die Troupe" and worked for UFA, the major German film production company.

The Viertels were part of “Hitler’s gift to America,” according to one biographer, since so many film artists throughout Europe and the German-speaking artistic community in particular fled his regime, including, notably, fellow Austrian writer Vicki Baum.[3] As was the case with US universities in the 1930s, Saunders notes that Hollywood studios could be so selective "that the list of emigres reads almost as a who's who of Weimar production"; he places Berthold Viertel as "only marginally less significant" than other emigres whom he considers "without peer."[4] In 1928, at FW Murnau's instigation, the family went to Hollywood, where Berthold Viertel received a contract with Fox Film Corporation as a director and writer.[2]

Despite her success on German and Austrian stages, Salka Viertel was only modestly successful as an actor in movies. Agreeing with Max Reinhardt, whom the Viertels ran into in New York on their way to Los Angeles,[2] Viertel herself said she was "neither pretty nor young enough" for a career in film. One of her most successful roles was Marthy in the German version of Anna Christie, which she took over at the request of Garbo[2] (it was originally intended for Marie Dressler). She became a mentor and friend to Greta Garbo and contributed to scripts for the famous actress for such films as Queen Christina, Anna Karenina, and Two-Faced Woman.[2] However, the plan to write a commercial script for Hollywood together with Bertolt Brecht, who also lived in exile in the United States, failed.

Social activismEdit

The Viertels, members of the intelligentsia in Europe, moved to the United States in 1928 for a planned four-year stay.[1] The Viertels initially lived on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, before renting a house on Mabery Road in Santa Monica, California.[2] In 1932, following Hitler's rise, they decided to stay in Santa Monica, where their sons grew up. Their home in Santa Monica Canyon was the site of salons and meetings of the Hollywood intelligentsia and the émigré community of European intellectuals, particularly at their Sunday night tea parties.[1] Her guests included not only Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin but also Arnold Schoenberg, Christopher Isherwood, Hanns Eisler, Bertolt Brecht, Max Reinhardt, and Thomas Mann.

Salka Viertel played an active role in fundraising for Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico! project.[2] Composer Franz Waxman met James Whale through her and wrote his first Hollywood soundtrack for Whale. She acted as a broker for Charles Boyer, among others, helping them to gain a foothold within the Hollywood film industry.[2]

In the 1930s and 1940s, she was involved in the fight against National Socialism. Viertel was also active aiding those still trapped in Europe.[5] She helped found the European Film Fund,[2] which brokered contracts with major Hollywood studios. Through its assistance, notable artists such as Leonhard Frank, Heinrich Mann, Alfred Polgar, Walter Mehring, and Friedrich Torberg received emergency visas that enabled them to escape the Nazis. With the onset of the Cold War and the McCarthy era, Viertel was among the Hollywood writers, suspected of being communists, who were blacklisted.

Later lifeEdit

After her divorce in 1947, Salka lived in Brentwood, Southern California. In 1953 she left the U.S. and settled in Klosters in Switzerland, where later her son Peter and his second wife, actress Deborah Kerr,[2] lived.

In 1969, her autobiography, The Kindness of Strangers, was published.

Salka Viertel died in Klosters, Switzerland, on 20 October 1978, aged 89.

Selected filmographyEdit




  • Añó, Núria. (2020) The Salon of Exiled Artists in California: Salka Viertel took in actors, prominent intellectuals and anonymous people in exile fleeing from Nazism, ISBN 9780463206126, ISBN 9798647624079, Los Gatos: Smashwords.
  • Prager, Katharina. (2007) "Ich bin nicht gone Hollywood!" Salka Viertel – Ein Leben in Theater und Film, ISBN 978-3-7003-1592-6, Wien: Braumüller Verlag.
  • Nottelmann, Nicole. (2011) Ich liebe dich. Fur immer: Greta Garbo und Salka Viertel. Berlin: Aufbau Verlag.
  • Rifkind, Donna. (2020) The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler's Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood. ISBN 978 1590517215. New York: Other Press.
  • Viertel, Salka. (1969) The Kindness of Strangers, Montreal: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada.


  1. ^ a b c Bahr, Erhardt (2008). Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. University of California Press. pp. 296–7. ISBN 978-0-520-25795-5. Retrieved 15 July 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Rickey, Carrie (5 February 2020). "Screenwriter for Garbo, savior for exiles fleeing Hitler". Forward. Retrieved 5 February 2020.
  3. ^ Rifkind, Donna (2020). The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler's Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood. New York: Other Press. ISBN 9781590517215.
  4. ^ Saunders, Thomas J. (1994). Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema and Weimar Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 197–98. ISBN 0-520-08354-7.
  5. ^ "German Exiles in Southern California – Berthold Viertel (1885–1953) & Salka Viertel (1889–1978)" Archived 2007-08-29 at the Wayback Machine, Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, University of Southern California

External linksEdit