Additional Book Information
Series: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: January 22, 2019
The Kindness of Strangers
by Salka Viertel, introduction by Lawrence Weschler, afterword by Donna Rifkind
January 2019 selection of the NYRB Classics Book Club
Salka Viertel’s autobiography tells of a brilliant, creative, and well-connected woman’s pilgrimage through the darkest years of the twentieth century, a journey that would take her from a remote province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Hollywood. The Kindness of Strangers is, to quote the New Yorker writer S. N. Behrman, “a very rich book. It provides a panorama of the dissolving civilizations of the twentieth century. In all of them the author lived at the apex of their culture and artistic aristocracies. Her childhood...is an entrancing idyll. In Berlin, in Prague, in Vienna, there appears Karl Kraus, Kafka, Rilke, Robert Musil, Schoenberg, Einstein, Alban Berg. There is the suffering and disruption of the First World War and the suffering and agony after it, which is described with such intimacy and vividness that you endure these terrible years with the author. Then comes the migration to Hollywood, where Salka’s house on Mabery Road becomes a kind of Pantheon for the gathered artists, musicians, and writers. It seems to me that no one has ever described Hollywood and the life of writers there with such verve.”viertel
Thank goodness Greta Garbo encouraged her confidante Salka Viertel to write. With cameos by Kafka, Sarah Bernhardt, Eisenstein, Isherwood, and many others, Viertel’s memoir is humane, lightly ironic, and dizzyingly entertaining. It’s a portrait of two lost worlds—the pre-Hitler German-speaking stage and the pre-CGI Hollywood—as well as the story of an actress and screenwriter who all her life was bold in love and passionate for the arts.
Salka ends her book with a phrase about her ‘incorrigible heart.’ It is this quality which sustains and ennobles all the artistic, intellectual, social and political events which her book narrates. It gives us a sense of what it is to be a true person. Without that core of warm humanity all the rest would be vanity.
—Harold Clurman, The Nation
From early childhood in the Polish Ukrainian sector of Austria-Hungary through her experiences in the German theater and Hollywood, Mrs. Viertel shares a full life, candidly and rewardingly.
Salka is forgotten today. Biographies have been written about her ‘genius’ husband Berthold, but Salka appears only as footnote in works about Greta Garbo. She deserves better, and her extraordinary story should to be read today by anyone interested in the German exile experience.