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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.