Peter Viertel, 86; wrote about Huston, Hemingway

Times Staff Writer

Peter Viertel, the novelist, memoirist and screenwriter best known for his books chronicling episodes in the lives of Ernest Hemingway and John Huston, has died. He was 86.

Viertel died of lymphoma Sunday in the Spanish coastal resort of Marbella, according to Paula Kane, a family friend. His death came less than three weeks after his wife of 47 years, actress Deborah Kerr, died in Suffolk, England, also at 86.

A formidable figure and bon vivant in his own right, Viertel drew upon his relationships with Hemingway and Huston -- two larger-than-life friends -- in his most noted books, the novel “White Hunter, Black Heart” (1953) and the memoir “Dangerous Friends: At Large with Hemingway and Huston in the Fifties” (1992). He would later help adapt “White Hunter, Black Heart” for the 1990 film that Clint Eastwood starred in and directed.


Huston invited Viertel to accompany him to Africa in 1951 to help with dialogue in James Agee’s unfinished script for “The African Queen,” which gave Viertel a front-row seat to watch the distracted filmmaker hunt wild game while the crew endured wretched conditions, unbearable heat, aggressive insects and dysentery during delays in shooting.

Huston’s goal was to bag an elephant -- and the film, which turned out to be a classic, took second billing to that endeavor. The relationship between Huston and Viertel suffered over their different views about the script and Viertel’s decision not to hunt with the director.

“John had a bee up his bonnet that he was going to kill an elephant, and it became an obsession with him,” Viertel told The Times some years ago. “People like Hemingway and Huston did that kind of thing to prove themselves.”

And although Huston didn’t get his elephant, Viertel bagged enough rich material from the expedition to write “White Hunter, Black Heart,” which, although fictionalized, laid down in honest detail his true feelings about the dark side of Huston’s genius.

“I really wrote the book as a personal letter to him,” Viertel told The Times.

“I was very, very fond of him. Outside of Billy Wilder, I thought he had more potential than any other filmmaker, and I didn’t want him to [throw] it away.”

After finishing the book, Viertel showed it to Huston and offered to change or delete anything he thought offensive.


Huston asked for no changes, and as Richard Schickel noted in his biography of Clint Eastwood, “White Hunter, Black Heart” became a best seller in 1953 “thanks in part to an ending suggested by Huston himself in which his character is portrayed more monstrously than he was in real life.”

Eastwood asked Viertel to help with revisions on the film’s final script. The film was shot in Zimbabwe, and Eastwood played the Huston character named John Wilson; Jeff Fahey played the Viertel character named Pete Verrill.

In “Dangerous Friends,” Viertel continued to spin tales about Huston and Hemingway, as well as other figures of interest he met along the way, including Orson Welles, Ava Gardner and Viertel’s first wife, Jigee.

Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Philip French saw “Dangerous Friends” as “inclined to present [Viertel’s] peripatetic crowd of writers and socialites as a new ‘lost generation.’ ”

In the New York Times, critic Janet Maslin noted that the memoir “unfolds strangely, mixing trenchant observations with others that center solely on name-dropping, some of it inconsequential or even secondhand.”

The portrait of Huston emerging from the book was far more favorable than that of Hemingway, who was depicted as “a social bully with a swollen ego -- in other words, the Hemingway we have come to know all too well from the many biographies and memoirs that have appeared since his death,” wrote Bruce Cook in the Chicago Tribune.


Cook also noted that when Viertel wrote about Huston, he “emphasizes the director’s charm, which was authentic and spontaneous, and his fundamental sense of himself.”

Viertel, who met Hemingway in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1948, would also be responsible for bringing Huston and Hemingway together at a meeting in Havana while Viertel and Huston were in Cuba to work on a script. Viertel later wrote the screenplays for Hemingway’s novels “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Sun Also Rises.”

Critics considered Viertel’s novels “Love Lies Bleeding” (1964) and “American Skin” (1984) to be Hemingwayesque in tone.

Writing in the journal “America,” Richard C. Crowley compared “Love Lies Bleeding,” which detailed the rise and fall of a Spanish bullfighter, to Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon.” But although Crowley called Viertel “a fine writer” he also said that “he was not a master,” in clear reference to Hemingway.

Reviewer Maia W. Rodman, writing in the Saturday Review, found Viertel’s narrator Richard Belden “a bore” but voiced admiration for Viertel’s descriptions of life inside the bullring, where Viertel “becomes as good a writer as [his main character Ramon] is a bullfighter.”

Caroline Seebohm, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called “American Skin” “a rattling good yarn.” It is “one of those wonderful old-fashioned novels in which men are men and women are girls and everyone knows a cute Spanish saying to indicate depth of character.”


Born in Dresden, Germany, on Nov. 16, 1920, Viertel was the son of poet, novelist and director Bertold Viertel and Salka Viertel, who was a friend of Greta Garbo and one of her screenwriters.

The family moved to Southern California to work in films when Peter was a teenager. Their Santa Monica home was known for its Sunday afternoon salons featuring the likes of Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, as well as Hollywood figures such as Garbo, Huston and Charlie Chaplin.

Viertel served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific and later with the Office of Strategic Services in Europe during World War II. After the war, he attended Dartmouth College and UCLA.

He began writing as a teenager and published his first novel, “The Canyon,” when he was 20. He also began a friendship with a young man who also became a noted novelist, Irwin Shaw. Together they wrote the play “The Survivors” after both returned from World War II service.

In “Dangerous Friends,” Viertel noted that he sent Hemingway a copy of “The Canyon” and that the great author said “he had read it slowly, with great pleasure, standing up in his study, a chapter every morning, to make it last.”

In the early 1950s, Viertel moved to Europe and spent much time in Paris or skiing in Klosters, Switzerland.


His first wife, Virginia “Jigee” Ray Viertel, died in 1960.

He is survived by a brother, Thomas Viertel of Los Angeles; a daughter, Christine Viertel of Austin, Texas; Kerr’s two daughters, Franchesca Shrapnel and Melanie Bartley, who live in England; and three grandchildren.

He is scheduled to be buried today in Marbella.