Between the World Wars, dozens of Europe's finest intellectuals, musicians, writers, artists, and theater types fled their home countries and ended up eventually on the Westside of Los Angeles. Thomas Mann, Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Greta Garbo, Peter Lorre, Rudolph Schindler, and many others all came to try out sunshine and the studio system. The émigrés had a few favorite gathering spots: Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger's house in Pacific Palisades (the Villa Aurora), which is now an artists' residence run by a German group, and Salka Viertel's house in Santa Monica, which has just come up for sale for the first time since the 1970s.
Salka Viertel, originally from Austria-Hungary, was an actress; her husband, Berthold Viertel, was a writer and director. In 1923, they formed the Expressionist theater group Die Truppe, which, like so many Expressionist theater groups, ended up "artistically successful yet financially challenged," according to an excerpt from Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation published on the Jewish Women's Archive. And so in 1928, they moved with their three sons to Los Angeles, where Berthold had been hired to write for Salka's old theater buddy FW Murnau.
The Viertels lived first on Fairfax Avenue, then moved to this house in Santa Monica, where rent was $900 for the first three months, then $150 after, according to the book Exiles in Hollywood. In 1933, Salka bought the house for $7,500, "after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake temporarily depressed the housing market." (She had Berthold's permission, but apparently his genius kept him from being too involved in the family day to day.)
While he wrote and/or directed films including Four Devils and The Man from Yesterday, she had minor success as an actress. In 1929, Salka met Garbo at a party at Lubitsch's house and they immediately became great friends (they were also allegedly lovers); Garbo encouraged Salka to try out screenwriting and she ended up writing several films for Garbo, including Queen Christina.
Meanwhile, Salka held Sunday afternoon salons with guests including Mann and his brother Heinrich, Brecht, Schoenberg, Murnau, Albert Einstein on a visit to Caltech, and others. Jewish Women and Their Salons calls them "An outpost of Mitteleuropa, with its conversational tone and home-cooked meals." She let Christopher Isherwood live in the garage apartment with his lover, hosted Aldous Huxley frequently, and was a major force behind the European Film Fund, which helped get Jewish writers and artists out of Europe during the 1930s and '40s.
But pretty soon America became inhospitable to the émigrés too, with the rise of anti-Communism. In 1942, Salka was put an FBI Watch List; in 1951, she was added to the Communist Index. In 1943, she lost her job as a screenwriter at MGM (an increasingly reclusive Garbo turned down roles in her films), and in 1944 her marriage ended. Berthold returned to Europe. In 1953, Salka's application for a passport to visit him was denied. She did eventually leave Los Angeles, to live with her son, the writer Peter Viertel, and his wife Deborah Kerr in Switzerland. She died there in 1978.
Her famous refuge of a house, built in 1926 and now with "tastefully remodeled by Lewin Wertheimer," is up for sale for $4.595 million. Her memoir, The Kindness of Strangers, is out of print, but is, according to all sources, an essential history of LA's interwar émigré scene.
· Salka Viertel [Jewish Women's Archive]
· 165 Mabery Rd [Redfin]
· The House That Death in Venice Built in Pacific Palisades [Curbed LA]
· You Can Buy Bertolt Brecht's Old Santa Monica Rental [Curbed LA]