Peter Viertel: Screen-writer and bon viveur

Peter Viertel, screen-writer and novelist: born Dresden, Germany 16 November 1920; married first Jigee Ray (died 1960; one daughter; marriage dissolved), secondly 1960 Deborah Kerr (died 2007); died Marbella, Spain 4 November 2007
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The novelist and screen-writer Peter Viertel, whose films include Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and Huston's The African Queen (1951), was equally known as a bon viveur and raconteur whose novels frequently drew on his show-business experiences and his friendships with the famous. His best-known book, White Hunter, Black Heart (1953), was a thinly disguised account of John Huston's behaviour while making The African Queen.

He was exposed to celebrity at an early age his mother, Salka Viertel, was the best friend of the actress Greta Garbo and co-writer of some of the star's finest films, including Queen Christina and Anna Karenina. Her Sunday afternoon salons in Santa Monica were attended by such notable figures as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Aldous Huxley and Charlie Chaplin. Viertel's own chums were to include John Huston, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway, and he wrote a lively memoir titled Dangerous Friends: Hemingway, Huston and others (1992). His wife of 47 years was the actress Deborah Kerr.

Peter Viertel was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1920. His Viennese father, Berthold Viertel, was a poet, novelist and playwright, and had acted and directed in the theatre prior to directing several German films. He moved to Hollywood in the mid-Twenties, where his wife, the former Salka Steuermann, acted with Garbo in the German-language version of Anna Christie (1930). Garbo persuaded MGM to hire Salka as a writer, but Berthold found film projects scarce and in the mid-Thirties took up an offer from Gaumont-British to make films in the UK. He made three films, and his experiences in the British film industry were documented by Christopher Isherwood in his roman-à-clef Prater Violet (1945).

Peter Viertel studied in the United States at Dartmouth College and the University of California, and was only 19 when his first novel, The Canyon, was published in 1940. During a brief spell at RKO, he worked in the producer Val Lewton's unit, and met Orson Welles, who was filming Citizen Kane. His later love of bull-fighting was to reunite him with Welles and promote a close friendship with the matador Luis Miguel Dominguí*. Viertel's first screen-writing credit was shared with Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker on Alfred Hitchcock's masterly thriller Saboteur (1942).

During the Second World War he served in the South Pacific for a year as a marine, then joined the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in Europe. It was during a skiing holiday in Idaho with his first wife, Virginia "Jigee" Ray, ex-wife of the writer Budd Schulberg and formerly a Busby Berkeley chorine, that he met Ernest Hemingway in 1947. The photographer Robert Capa had given Viertel the address of the cabin complex where Hemingway often stayed while hunting birds, and it was there that Viertel met his idol. ("His writing had made a lasting impression on me and had influenced me not only to want to be a writer, but to yearn for a life of adventure.")

A heavy drinker, Hemingway reacted to his wife's comment that Viertel's mother hosted a famous salon by commenting, "I prefer saloons to salons." Viertel was to discover that some of his mother's guests were equally derisive of Hemingway when Salka announced that the writer was "one of Peter's new friends," Thomas Mann's wife, Katja, commented, "Huh! Anyone who likes bull-fighting is a Fascist".

When John Huston asked Viertel to write the screenplay for We Were Strangers (1949), a film about Cuban revolutionaries, they journeyed to Havana, where Viertel introduced Huston and his wife at the time, the actress Evelyn Keyes, to Hemingway. Keyes wrote,

We immediately fell in love with Havana. What was there not to like the weather was soft and creamy, and they handed you frozen daiquiris right there at the airport. . . As if all that wasn't enough, Cuba had Ernest Hemingway too. Papa himself. And Peter Viertel knew him!

Viertel drew on some of his own wartime experiences for his next screenplay, Anatole Litvak's Decision Before Dawn (1951), the powerful tale of an idealistic young German (Oscar Werner) who agrees to undertake an intelligence mission for the Allies near the war's end. Before shooting started, in 1949, Viertel and his wife spent many months in France while he worked on a novel, seeing a lot of Hemingway and Capa, whom Viertel described as having "a special kind of elegance".

Viertel then accepted John Huston's offer to go to Africa and work on an adaptation of C.S. Forester's novel The African Queen. James Agee had written a first draft but had then suffered a heart attack. "His incomplete effort," said Viertel, "was heavily laden with brilliant descriptions, but there were practically no dialogue scenes." Though delighted at the prospect of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as leading players, Viertel was less happy at Huston's newly acquired passion for big-game hunting.

He was under the illusion that I was a kindred spirit, adventurous and devil-may-care. . . I now realise I was travelling under false colours, premature conservationist instead of a back-up gun, a screen-writer hoping to have a hand in the making of a good movie that his favourite director was planning to use as a pretext for a personal adventure.

In her 1987 memoir The Making of 'The African Queen', Katharine Hepburn writes of her shock on arriving at Stanleyville to find that Huston was not there to meet her and Bogart and Bacall.

We had flown halfway round the world to get to him and one hour before he had left on a private plane for our camp, which was just being completed down the Congo River, about eight hours by rail and then west into the jungle by car another 40 miles and no telephone. If Peter Viertel had not met us, no one would have. Dear Peter

Viertel. He saved my sanity he sort of took me over and filled my time with golf and trips here and there and talk about the script. Peter Viertel was an absolute angel to me to everyone. Helpful, kind, and a damned good writer.

In White Hunter, Black Heart, the Huston character provokes tragedy by his thoughtless shooting of a sacred elephant, and Viertel showed it to the director prior to publication, promising to alter it if requested. Huston suggested an adjustment that made his character even crueller.

Despite the predictions of some of his friends, the book did not end his friendship with Huston, who asked him to work on an adaptation of Claud Cockburn's thriller Beat the Devil (1953). Huston hoped the result would be another Maltese Falcon, but Viertel and co-writer Anthony Veiller realised the book's structure was too flimsy. Huston then brought in Truman Capote, who decided the best thing would be to make the movie a farce. Though it failed at the time, Viertel wrote in his memoirs, "With the passage of time, Beat the Devil has become a cult film, a tongue-in-cheek parody of Huston's earlier melodramas."

Hemingway then personally asked Viertel to write the film version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea. "I wasn't eager to get involved in a screenplay of a book whose magic was contained in the prose rather than its action," recalled Viertel, and the film, started by the director Fred Zinnemann but finished by John Sturges, was a failure, though the critic Gordon Gow praised its "brilliant screenplay, deceptively simple-seeming, but actually quite intricate". Viertel next adapted another Hemingway novel, The Sun Also Rises, starring Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner, whose beauty he later saluted. "Only Garbo had the same hypnotic appearance that made you stare at her face as if you had never seen her before."

Viertel was than asked by Anatole Litvak to make contributions to a screenplay by George Tabori, The Journey (1959), based on Guy de Maupassant's classic short story "Boule de Suif", which had inspired John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) and had been filmed by Val Lewton as Mademoiselle Fifi (1945). The setting was now to be the Austro-Hungarian frontier where a group of travellers are attempting to cross shortly after the end of the Second World War. Yul Brynner was playing a Russian colonel, and Deborah Kerr was his co-star as a lady willing to sacrifice her honour to save the rest of the party.

The cast was a distinguished one, but, Viertel recalled, "Deborah Kerr, with her beauty, her simple and direct manner, stood out above all the others." Though Kerr told him that she was married with two daughters, Viertel had fallen in love with her, and started to give her trinkets.

In one of them, a small silver box with an ornate heart on its lid, I left a note that was discovered by Deborah's husband when he arrived on a short visit, precipitating events neither Deborah nor I had planned. . . It had not been Deborah's intent to change her life, but she was overtaken by events and before the movie had been completed in the spring of 1958 we were a couple, happy and plagued by problems at the same time.

Peter Viertel and his wife Jigee agreed to a friendly divorce they had been estranged for several years and their marriage had suffered several traumas and Viertel married Kerr at Klosters in 1960.

In 1990 Viertel helped adapt White Hunter, Black Heart as a movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, who also starred, with Jeff Fahey playing Viertel. In 1999 the critic Pauline Kael described the book as "still the best Hollywood novel I've ever come across, and it isn't even set in Hollywood". Recently the film-maker Michael Scheingraber completed a documentary, Peter Viertel Between the Lines, and he paid tribute to the writer's "great wit and modesty".

Viertel's other novels included Love Lies Bleeding (1964), which chronicles the rise and fall of a Spanish bull-fighter, Bicycle on the Beach (1971) and Loser Deals (1995), and were often called "Hemingwayesque" by reviewers. Until a month before his death, Viertel was working on a novel and a new set of memoirs.

Tom Vallance