Op-Ed: History for sale in Santa Monica

The former Santa Monica home of early 20th-century screenwriter Salka Viertel, who made it a haven for World War II émigrés fleeing fascism in Europe.

The former Santa Monica home of early 20th-century screenwriter Salka Viertel, who made it a haven for World War II émigrés fleeing fascism in Europe.

(Los Angeles Times)

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 100-year life, it has been an important beacon of high culture and open-heartedness in Los Angeles and Hollywood history. Tear-downs 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 co-founder 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 goulash 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.

Donna Rifkind is writing a book about Salka Viertel, to be published by Other Press.


Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook