The Sun and Her Stars

Salka Viertel and Hitler's Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood

Publication Date: Jan 28, 2020

352 pp


List Price US $15.99
ISBN: 978-1-59051-722-2


List Price US $28.99
Trim Size (H x W): 6 x 9
ISBN: 978-1-59051-721-5

The little-known story of screenwriter Salka Viertel, whose salons in 1930s and 40s Hollywood created a refuge for a multitude of famous figures who had escaped the horrors of World War ll.

Hollywood was created by its “others”; that is, by women, Jews, and immigrants. Salka Viertel was all three and so much more. She was the screenwriter for five of Greta Garbo’s movies and also her most intimate friend. At one point during the Irving Thalberg years, Viertel was the highest-paid writer on the MGM lot. Meanwhile, at her house in Santa Monica she opened her door on Sunday afternoons to scores of European émigrés who had fled from Hitler–such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Arnold Schoenberg–along with every kind of Hollywood star, from Charlie Chaplin to Shelley Winters. In Viertel’s living room (the only one in town with comfortable armchairs, said one Hollywood insider), countless cinematic, theatrical, and musical partnerships were born.

Viertel combined a modern-before-her-time sensibility with the Old-World advantages of a classical European education and fluency in eight languages. She combined great worldliness with great warmth. She was a true bohemian with a complicated erotic life, and at the same time a universal mother figure. A vital presence in the golden age of Hollywood, Salka Viertel is long overdue for her own moment in the spotlight.

Excerpt from The Sun and Her Stars

Salka’s irritation with Garbo was real but momentary. Certainly it was understandable from someone who was on call, day and night, for the actress’s every professional and personal need. Because of the magnitude of Garbo’s celebrity, by this point most of the actress’s relationships were transactional, revolving around what others could do for her and what she might promise to do for others. Salka had painstakingly earned Garbo’s trust and came the closest among Garbo’s few intimates to overriding this dynamic, but even she was restricted by its code. According to Salka’s son Peter, Garbo was “not all that great a friend. Actually, she used my mother more than my mother used her, which sounds funny, because she was a star and my mother was an oarsman in the galley.”

Garbo’s enduring relationship with Salka was as complex as a long marriage. Against odds, the two women managed to weather its recurring periods of ebb and flow with their mutual loyalty more or less intact.

In any event, Salka would never have expressed even a hint of her frustrations with Garbo and The Painted Veil to anyone other than Berthold or Gottfried. The stakes were too high. Too many people, as she said, were relying on her paycheck. Berthold provided his own reminders. “DO NOT BREAK UP YOUR SITUATION OVER THERE,” he wrote in a telegram to Salka in June 1934. His warning extended beyond his personal interest in her studio paycheck to the urgency of the European catastrophe that was beginning to unfold. Even this early, Berthold recognized Salka’s role as a munificent figure toward the dispossessed, and he understood the symbolic and practical value of their Santa Monica house as a place of refuge. In February 1934 he had written approvingly to Salka that it was “the instinct of the Mother” that had motivated her to entrench herself in Hollywood and to buy the house.

“An immersive biography…Chock-full of scandalous affairs and wartime atmosphere, this sparkling account brings overdue attention to a woman who helped make Hollywood’s golden age possible.” —Publishers Weekly

“Impressive…Rifkind chronicles in meticulous detail Salka’s substantial career in a hostile Hollywood studio system that regularly ignored the contributions of women…An impassioned and revelatory biography.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A study of a complex, openhearted woman who had a key role in saving the displaced while shaping mid-20th-century Hollywood. Rifkind has penned a perceptive, exhaustively researched contribution to social and film history.” —Library Journal

“In The Sun and Her Stars, Donna Rifkind delves into the fascinating, complex life and work of one of Hollywood’s unsung screenwriting legends and emerges with a rich and illuminating biography, one that Salka Viertel herself would have undoubtedly adored.” —Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita: A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece

“This book elegantly captures a splendid life and career worth remembering, its moving central portrait set like a brave feminist jewel amidst treacherous crosscurrents of history, in Europe and Hollywood, which echo eerily today.” —Patrick McGilligan, coauthor of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist

“The best biographies tell the story not only of the individual but of the entire milieu in which they lived. Donna Rifkind does exactly this in her examination of Salka Viertel, a figure mostly unknown to the general public but whose life is a winding line from prewar Vienna to the coast of California at the dawn of Hollywood. This book is smart, questioning, insightful, and ultimately impossible to put down.” —Christian Kiefer, author of Phantoms: A Novel

“The unjustly forgotten Salka Viertel, premier memoirist of Hollywood’s Golden Age and so much more, gets a vital, comprehensive biography to call her own in Donna Rifkind’s lively and engaging The Sun and Her Stars.” —Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic