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The Guardian (07/Nov/2007) - Obituary: Peter Viertel

(c) The Guardian (07/Nov/2007)

Obituary: Peter Viertel

Novelist, screenwriter and husband of Deborah Kerr

The novelist and screenwriter Peter Viertel, who has died aged 86, almost two weeks after the death of his wife Deborah Kerr, was probably more celebrated for the people he knew than for his own fame. His name-dropping 1992 memoir, Dangerous Friends: At Large with Huston and Hemingway in the Fifties, covered his friendships with the luminaries of the title and many others others, among them Orson Welles, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart and the bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin.

The nomadic high life of the gregarious Viertel led him to Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, and to Africa, where he "doctored" the script of The African Queen (1951) for director John Huston. The experiences on the set led to his 1953 novel, White Hunter Black Heart, itself made into a movie in 1990 by Clint Eastwood. Co-written by Viertel, it featured a screenwriter called Pete Verrill. Altogether, Viertel wrote six novels and contributed to the screenplays of 12 films.

He was born in Dresden, the son of the Austrian poet and film director Bertold Viertel, and Salka Viertel (nee Steuermann), the Polish-born actor and writer. Brought up in Santa Monica, California, from the age of six, he spent his early years surrounded by artistic emigres in and around Hollywood, including Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Renoir, Bertold Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood. His bisexual mother was also a great friend of Greta Garbo, for whom she co-wrote a number of screenplays.

Viertel, who studied at the University of California, published his first novel, The Canyon, set on the Californian coast, at the age of 19. According to the author, Hemingway "said that he had read it slowly, with great pleasure, standing up in his study, a chapter every morning, to make it last." However, the relationship with Hemingway became rather strained when the great novelist had an affair with Viertel's first wife, Virginia "Jigee" Ray.

Viertel's first screenplay was Saboteur (1942), a superb example of Alfred Hitchcock's picaresque pursuit movies, famously ending with the struggle on the top of the Statue of Liberty. He followed this up with Vincent Sherman's taut melodrama The Hard Way (1943), starring Ida Lupino, before doing wartime military service with the US marines in the South Pacific and the French secret intelligence section.

Returning to Hollywood, he worked for the first time for Huston by co-writing We Were Strangers (1949), an excellent drama set in revolutionary Cuba in 1933, starring John Garfield and Jennifer Jones. His screenplay for Anatole Litvak's Decision Before Dawn (1951), about the last days of nazism, featured one of the first sympathetic screen portraits of Germans since the war.

Two further collaborations with Huston followed, The African Queen and Beat the Devil (1954), the spontaneous feeling of which might have derived from the fact that Huston, Truman Capote and Viertel (uncredited) wrote the script 12 hours before each day's shooting. There were also two fairly faithful Hemingway adaptations, Henry King's The Sun Also Rises (1957), an all-star production headed by Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power, and The Old Man and the Sea (1958), featuring Spencer Tracy.

Among his other accomplishments, Viertel is credited with introducing surfing into Europe. In 1956, while working on The Sun Also Rises in the Basque region, he was so impressed by the waves at Biarritz that he sent for a surfboard from California and soon after started Europe's first surf club. He married Deborah Kerr in 1960 and settled in the Swiss Alpine resort of Klosters and a villa in Marbella, where he concentrated on writing novels. He is survived by a daughter from his first marriage.