Book review: The Sun and Her Stars by Donna Rifkind

The Sun and Her Stars by Donna Rifkind is a biography about the extraordinary but little known life of the Jewish, Austrian actress turned Hollywood screenwriter, Salka Viertel, who moved from Europe to southern California in the late 1920s. If you are fascinated by the Golden Age of Hollywood, you’ll find Rifkind’s detailed account of Viertel’s life and those around her fascinating to read.

It was fascinating to compare how several characters in this year’s celebrated film, Mank, were perceived by Salka. The black and white film about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz writing of the acclaimed movie, “Citizen Kane” takes place at the same time and is nominated for 10 Oscars. Some of the Hollywood heavyweights referenced in both the book and movie include Orson Welles (actor), Ben Hecht (screenwriter / novelist), David Selznick (studio executive), and Charlie Chaplin (actor).

Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s led to a braindrain of the creative class from Europe. These shellshocked ex-pats fleeing from the horrors of Nazi Germany, were not welcomed by most in America. Rampant, in-your-face antisemitism was pervasive and put many on edge; feeling fortunate to escpe but unsure of their future or ability to rebuild in an alien country and culture. Salka’s home in Santa Monica became a refuge for these people. Her close friend, Greta Garbo, was a frequent visitor as were the many refugees who would flock to her Sunday parties.

The biography also details the personal trials and triumphs of Salka who earned a commanding salary and the respect of studio executives, producers and directors at a time when few women were respected in the male-dominated industry. Rifkind also touches upon the blacklisting that impacted Salka and many other Europeans in the decade that followed WWII because of their political sympathies and foreign accents which made them tagets of McCarthy and those on the HUAAC.

The book was a fascinating read from a pop culture, political and historical perspective, and I’m glad I read about this rather extraordinary woman. Through her efforts she saved the lives of many fleeing from Europe to escape fascism and rubbed elbows with some of the biggest stars and deal-makers in Hollywood’s Golden Age. If you are fascinated by or liked the Oscar-nominated film, Mank, add this to your reading list.

If you’re interested in purchasing this book and open to supporting local bookstores, try one of the links I’ve shared. The links below will take you right to the book so you can order it online in just a couple of clicks.

Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner
Harvard Bookstore in Harvard Square
Porter Square Bookstore in Porter Square
Trident Bookseller’s & Cafe in Back Bay


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