A less than glamorous job, most successful screenwriters are solitary individuals who work quietly and diligently at their craft.
But screenwriter Peter Viertel (1920 – 2007) lived the jet-set life that is the glittering exception. Born in Dresden to an artistic and assimilated Jewish family, mother Salka was a screenwriter who was Greta Garbo’s best friend. His father, Berthold Viertel, was also a prominent writer and intellectual. The family moved to Hollywood in 1928. Peter’s childhood was the stuff of dreams: weekends were spent in the company of Garbo, Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
Young Peter was Hollywood royalty.
A WW II veteran, Viertel went on to become a prominent screenwriter. However, like so many intellectuals of the time, he saw himself primarily as a novelist who supported himself by taking Hollywood’s money.
His excellent memoir Dangerous Friends, chronicles Viertel’s friendships with Ernest Hemingway and director John Huston, each in their own way, dangerous men who drank too much, married too often, slept with too many women, were indifferent parents, often callous in their friendships, and ultimately lived self-destructive lives.
Viertel is pitiless in his portrayal of his two dangerous friends. Hemingway comes across as a nasty, macho bully tainted with the standard WASP anti-Semitism of his time. And Huston’s legendary cruelty is everywhere evident, especially in his treatment of the great author Ray Bradbury who adapted “Moby Dick” for Huston. Bradbury was a sober, serious man who just wanted to write whereas the careless Huston expected his collaborators to drink all night and then go riding in the morning. Huston and Bradbury hated each other after just a few days.
Both Hemingway and Huston, Viertel makes clear, were, in spite of their numerous flaws, capable of great loyalty and generosity.
Bouncing from Hollywood to Switzerland to Paris, Viertel marries author and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s ex-wife Virginia Ray “Jigge.” He gets her pregnant, then has an affair with the stunning French super model of the 50’s, Bettina Graziani. Peter divorces Jigee only to get dumped by Bettina. Viertel has numerous affairs and then a one-night stand with Nancy “Slim” Keith, Howard Hawks’ former wife who cooly refers to the famous director as, “A pillar of nothingness.”
Finally, Viertel marries and settles down in Switzerland—yes, folks, taxes affect behavior—with actress Deborah Kerr.
All this and Viertel still manages to write several fine novels and work on numerous films. Honestly, I got exhausted just reading about his hectic schedule. I have no idea how he manged to fit in so much work between all jet lag, booze and babes.
“Dangerous Friends” is filled with razor-sharp anecdotes. Here, at random, are just three side-splitters:
On location to shoot “The African Queen.”
Did Huston anticipate trouble with the strong-minded Miss Hepburn? the reporter asked. John [Huston] frowned. “Not really,” he replied. “As long as I don’t get the clap from one of my leading ladies I’m satisfied.”
Viertel proposes adapting Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” to mogul Darryl F. Zanuck.
Darryl shook his head. “How the hell can you make a story about a guy who can’t get it up?”
Zanuck was right. The film was an artistic and commercial disaster.
Billy Wilder and Charles Lederer were supposed to write a film about Charles Lindbergh.
When asked by friends why he and Billy, both Jewish, had agreed to make a movie about a man who was known to be an anti-Semite, Charlie had replied: “Oh, but you don’t know… in our version he crashes.”
The film that was produced, “The Spirit of St. Louis” (1957) starring Jimmy Stewart is one of Wilder’s lesser films.