There have been other books about the immigrant diaspora that providentially landed in Los Angeles and enriched American culture for decades, but Donna Rifkind’s idea to use Viertel (1889-1978) as the focus for a moving, mournful new biography, The Sun and Her Stars, was a particularly brilliant idea. Viertel was the best representation of both her country and her sex imaginable—a combination of mother hen, chef, career counselor, referee and, in her own right, artist ... One of the few flaws of Ms. Rifkind’s book is that she doesn’t quote from these letters; another is occasionally taking her eye off the ball by spending pages writing about extraneous locations—the German colonies in other places, for instance ... performs an act of spiritual as well as cultural resurrection ... a feat of daunting research and appropriately passionate writing. Translating quantities of letters and diary entries from the German would put off many biographers, but Ms. Rifkind sailed ahead. It’s the story of a valiant earth mother who transcended an emotionally nomadic existence and devoted her energy to providing for others while managing to write Queen Christina in what seems to have been her spare time. Like the multitudes who came to 165 Mabery Road, you’ll be glad you met her.
Viertel is, in short, a terrific subject for a biography, and the veteran book reviewer Donna Rifkind has done well to focus her first full-length effort on this fascinating if little-known personality. Rifkind sees the worldly yet unassuming Viertel as at once an extraordinary character and a telling representative of something larger than herself. She’s right to ... Rifkind clearly means to hold a mirror to our stranger-suspecting moment ... A labor of love and careful research, the book gets off to a shaky start. Rifkind’s prose can be clumsy ... Something startling and powerful happens, though, midway through the book. As the historical situation Rifkind describes grows increasingly dire, she snaps to: Her writing sharpens ... Rifkind draws skillfully from multiple sources.
As one expects from a widely admired literary journalist, Rifkind writes engagingly and often passionately, though her book’s introduction—Salka’s reconstructed reveries in old age—may strike some readers as a bit strained, as will a few overly poetic flourishes ... Yet Rifkind can also capture a complex character with a single snapshot-like sentence ... Throughout these pages, Rifkind returns again and again to her serious central themes—anti-Semitism abroad and at home, the rescue of refugees through the efforts of the European Film Fund, and Salka as a Hollywood mother-confessor and wheeler-dealer. Still, the book does have its lighter moments ... [Salka's] had been a remarkable life and she had been blessed with extraordinary friends, as Rifkind again shows us, with much additional detail, in The Sun and Her Stars.