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Peter Viertel

With dangerous friends such as Hemingway and John Huston, Peter Viertel survived the sweet torture of being a screenplay writer in Hollywood. In the midst of some of the great geniuses of his time, Viertel wrote pure and unadulterated masterpieces including The African Queen.

By:  Lakshmi I. Aguirre
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Classic screenplay writer
Birth: 16th November 1920 (Dresden, Germany)
Death: 4th November 2007 (Marbella, Spain)
Stands out for: having dangerous friends and being married to Deborah Kerr
Magnum Opus: The African Queen, Bicycle on the Beach

They say he died of sorrow. That on discovering that his wife, Deborah Kerr, had passed away, he slowly let himself be drawn down by that deep sadness and little by little, his flame died out. He wasn’t like that. Or at least, this doesn’t match the character described in either his biography Dangerous Friends or novel Bicycle on the Beach. The Peter Viertel they describe was a brave, passionate and determinted man. Yes, he possessed a hint of melancholy but also an incredible inner strength. His father, Berthold Viertel, once told him, “there are people who live all their lives searching for death, while others desperately strive for life”. Peter Viertel belonged to the latter.

Since his birth in Dresden in 1920, Viertel fed on Art. His father, Berthold Viertel, was a poet and theatre director and his mother, Salka, a writer and screenplay writer. A great friend and confidant of Greta Garbo, his screenplays include Anna Karenina, whose main character was played by the great actress. They emigrated to the United States when Peter was still a boy, fleeing from the devastation of the First World War.

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The family established itself in Santa Monica. Evenings at the Viertel house on Marbery Road became a highlight on the californian social scene. While Salka prepared lunch, in the midst of the sounds of clinking champagne glasses and the doorbell ringing, Thomas Mann and Bertold Brecht discussed the future of the Europe they had abandoned. Marlene Dietricht sang from within in a cloud of smoke, Charles Chaplin thought of the changes to come and Aldous Huxley forecasted the loss of individual identity.

While dodging drinks, trays and dresses, the young Viertel, with his mind full of romantic dreams, drank from all what was brewing in that living room filled with the seeds of his future works. From these meetings, a refuge for exiled Europeans in America, Peter acquired the spirit and skills to begin his career as a writer.

Then there was another war. This time even more bloody. Peter Viertel had to enlist in the marines and fight for his adopted country. For writers, literature and war are hard to reconcile. Peter Viertel survived the attempt with minor scratches, but the process made him melancholic. “After leaving there, summers were never as long and hot as before, or the sea as clear, or the beaches as empty, and I never again felt as carefree at the passing of time”.

“Wherever I go, I go too, and spoil everything,” he repeated quoting Samuel Hoffenstein. Perhaps he was not always able to conjugate reality and desire as he would have liked. People with a passionate spirit let their hearts decide and sadly commit frequent mistakes. Viertel was completely conscious of the mistakes he made. He was always sincere with himself and with others, which perhaps led him to lose certain friendships and women. He loved women. Sometimes too much, or too many. His mother told him “happiness is almost always built on the misfortune of others”. This idea tormented him.

He always lived on the risky side of life. He travelled to Paris and he fought for what he loved, which was writing novels. Hemingway frequently advised him not to sell out to Hollywood, to not prostitute himself that way. While Peter Viertel was still able to make a living for his family from writing, he avoided getting involved with the film industry so as not be obliged to play up to the whims of directors and producers. When money was scarce he accepted the projects offered to him. Thanks to this, cinema lovers enjoy masterpieces such as Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock), The African Queen (John Huston) and White Hunter, Black Heart (Clint Eastwood). Peter Viertel is venerated from Paris to Switzerland, England to the Belgian Congo, and from California to Biarritz (Francia) - in the latter for introducing surf to the Cantabrian Coast.

After the Spanish Civil War, Peter Viertel travelled with Hemingway to Pamplona to enjoy the San Fermines. As a bullfighting enthusiast, he met Luís Miguel Dominguín, with whom he travelled to France and met several surrealists exiled there. With time he decided not to return either to England, California or Klosters (Switzerland). Too many memories and missing friends. He chose Marbella as his last stop to make the most of the time he and Deborah had left: “with its atmosphere of accelerated growth, Marbella sometimes seems a strange place to have anchored”.

A few months before passing away, Peter Viertel presented the Spanish edition of Bicycle on the Beach in Marbella. An attractive, tanned and white-haired man with an illuminating smile talked about the importance of first love, loss of innocence and the passing of time. His eyes twinkled when telling anecdotes about great directors with whom he had rubbed shoulders, always with the humility of a person who has worked hard. He dodged indiscreet questions with the elegance of a dandy.

He has never been considered a key figure of 1950s Hollywood. He is known more for the friends that surrounded him. Maestro of their art such as Hemingway, John Huston, Robert Capa, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. Berlanga, the Spanish film director, put it aptly in his presentation of Dangerous Friends in Madrid, “He was the maestro”. And how right he was.



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