History for sale in Santa Mon­ica

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Donna Rif kind Donna Rifkind is writ­ing a book about Salka Vier­tel.

Another day, another mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar list­ing for a house in Santa Mon­ica: “Just around the cor­ner from the beach and walk­ing dis­tance to Canyon Ele­men­tary, this 5 bed­room 2 and ½ bath 1929 Cal­i­for­nia Tu­dor … was built for en­ter­tain­ing,” goes the pitch on Tru­lia and Redfin. The ask­ing price is $4.5 mil­lion, not sur­pris­ing in this well-heeled neigh­bor­hood.

What’s miss­ing in the de­scrip­tion is the sig­nif­i­cance of this house: In its nearly 100year life, it has been an im­por­tant bea­con of high cul­ture and open-heart­ed­ness in Los An­ge­les and Hol­ly­wood history. Tear­downs are not un­usual in this mar­ket, but this place de­serves a plaque and some se­ri­ous re­spect.

In the 1930s and ’40s, the Mabery Road house in Santa Mon­ica Canyon be­longed to Hol­ly­wood screen­writer Salka Vier­tel, who made her house a home not only for her fam­ily but for hun­dreds of refugees, some very fa­mous and oth­ers un­known. Vier­tel wrote five of Greta Garbo’s pic­tures at MGM, in­clud­ing “Queen Christina” and “Anna Karen­ina,” and at one point dur­ing the Irv­ing Thal­berg years, she was the high­est-paid writer on the Metro lot.

A for­mer ac­tress in Max Rein­hardt’s Deutsches Theater in Ber­lin, Salka left Ger­many for Hol­ly­wood in 1928 when her Vi­en­nese hus­band, Berthold Vier­tel, a di­rec­tor, ac­cepted a con­tract at Fox. Soon af­ter, their three young sons fol­lowed with their nurse, and the fam­ily set­tled down to a com­fort­able life in the canyon. Salka spent $900 to lease the house for the sum­mer in 1929 and con­tin­ued to rent it un­til 1933, when she bought it for $7,500.

Un­like most Amer­i­cans of the time, Vier­tel har­bored no il­lu­sions about the Na­tional So­cial­ist epi­demic spread­ing through­out Europe. She quickly turned her house into a haven for hun­dreds of Jews and anti-Fas­cists who fled, foot­steps ahead of the Nazis, and found them­selves, home­less and trau­ma­tized, on the shores of the Pa­cific. An es­ti­mated 10,000 refugees from Ger­many and Aus­tria set­tled in greater Los An­ge­les be­tween 1933 and 1941, “the most com­plete mi­gra­tion of artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als in Euro­pean history,” ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Kevin Starr.

While anti-Fas­cist vol­un­teers were spir­it­ing peo­ple out of Europe, Vier­tel in Santa Mon­ica was tak­ing them in. As a co­founder of the Euro­pean Film Fund, in which stu­dio em­ploy­ees con­trib­uted a per­cent­age of their pay­checks to­ward refugee aid, she helped to res­cue, among many oth­ers, the Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ist writer Leon­hard Frank, the Dadaist poet Wal­ter Mehring, and Al­fred Döblin, au­thor of the ac­claimed Weimar novel “Ber­lin Alexan­der­platz.”

Through­out the war, Vier­tel bro­kered in­tro­duc­tions at the stu­dios for “Nazi scram­mers,” as Va­ri­ety dubbed them; she fed them, housed them, re­as­sured them in their na­tive lan­guages — she spoke eight — and ab­sorbed them into her huge cir­cle of Hol­ly­wood friends. Per­haps most im­por­tant, on Mabery Road she cre­ated a dream of home for those whose homes had been stolen or de­stroyed.

Vier­tel opened her doors on Sun­day af­ter­noons — the only day off for Hol­ly­wood em­ploy­ees of the time — and wel­comed the world. In her book-lined liv­ing room, newly ar­rived emi­gres were in­tro­duced to Thomas Mann and Jean Renoir. Arnold Schoen­berg played 12-tone scales on the pi­ano and ping­pong on the ter­race. Char­lie Chap­lin was there, and Harpo Marx and Charles Laughton. In her mem­oirs, Vier­tel wrote self-ef­fac­ingly that her house took on the rep­u­ta­tion of a literary sa­lon chiefly be­cause of its in­for­mal­ity, “and the hap­haz­ard in­ter­min­gling of the fa­mous with the ‘not fa­mous’ and the ‘not yet fa­mous.’ ”

“I walked in the back door one day,” re­mem­bered film editor Robert Par­rish, “and there was a guy with short hair cook­ing at the stove. In the liv­ing room, Arthur Ru­bin­stein was tin­kling on the pi­ano. Greta Garbo was ly­ing on the sofa, and Christo­pher Ish­er­wood was loung­ing in a chair. ‘Who’s the guy cook­ing in the kitchen?’ I asked no one in par­tic­u­lar. ‘Ber­tolt Brecht,’ came the re­ply.”

All were drawn to Vier­tel’s wit and ef­fu­sive­ness, her ex­cel­lent cof­fee and her fa­mous cho­co­late cake. In her kitchen a gou- lash was al­ways sim­mer­ing. In the four up­stairs bed­rooms and the apart­ment above the garage, there were al­ways house­guests. Ev­ery­one was fussed over. No one went hun­gry.

“With the in­flux of the refugees in the ’30s Hol­ly­wood be­came a kind of Athens,” wrote Vier­tel’s friend and stu­dio col­league S.N. Behrman. “It was as crowded with artists as Re­nais­sance Florence. It was a Golden Era.... It had never hap­pened be­fore. It will never hap­pen again.”

With the end of the war, Vier­tel’s hey­day as an in­gath­erer of ex­iles would also come to a close. When the anti-com­mu­nist House Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee tight­ened its grip on Hol­ly­wood, her name was added to the FBI watch list and her em­ploy­a­bil­ity at the stu­dios dwin­dled. In 1953 she was forced to rent the house and fi­nally to sell it to a sym­pa­thetic friend, di­rec­tor John House­man. Even­tu­ally Vier­tel moved to Switzer­land, where she died in 1978. The house changed own­ers twice more, end­ing up in the hands of Cen­ter Theatre Group head Gor­don David­son and his wife, Judi, in 1971.

The David­sons have done much to keep the spirit of Vier­tel’s house alive. Like her, they raised chil­dren and a se­ries of much-loved dogs in its spa­cious rooms. Like her, they housed and fed itin­er­ant ac­tors and play­wrights, hosted cul­tural gath­er­ings and nur­tured col­lab­o­ra­tions among their friends. Af­ter more than 40 years of care­ful stew­ard­ship, they have de­cided to sell, and all praise to them for their main­te­nance of the house’s legacy.

And now? How lucky we’d be if a foun­da­tion were to turn it into a cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion and artists’ res­i­dence like the Villa Aurora, another emi­gre fo­cal point, the for­mer home of Vier­tel’s friends Lion and Marta Feucht­wanger, now owned and op­er­ated by a Ger­man non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion. Or bet­ter still, if a history-minded Hol­ly­wood per­son­al­ity were to buy it as her fam­ily home and re­it­er­ate Vier­tel’s role of work­ing mother and do­mes­tic god­dess.

At the very least, I hope the new own­ers of the Mabery Road house will take some time to hear the ghostly voices of the ex­iles who clung to one another on this promon­tory above the Pa­cific dur­ing Hol­ly­wood’s Golden Age, and to honor the worldly and com­pas­sion­ate woman who took them in.

It was as crowded

with artists as Re­nais­sance Florence.

Los An­ge­les Times

THE HOUSE where, in the 1930s and ’40s, screen­writer Salka Vier­tel cre­ated a haven for Euro­pean refugees.

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