Peter Viertel - Hollywood Screenwriter & Novelist

With Dangerous Friends, including Ernest Hemingway

Peter and his wife Deborah Kerr. They married in 1960

Peter Viertel’s 1992 memoir, Dangerous Friends, is one of those books that come along too infrequently, but when they do are vital to our understanding of the world of the arts and literature (Michael Meyer’s Words Through A Window Pane is another) and of the dynamic personalities who inhabited and contributed to that world, most especially, in Viertel’s case, John Huston, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway.

Although born in Germany in 1920 Peter Viertel was brought up and educated in southern California, and the hot house of the motion picture industry where his mother worked as a screenwriter and his father as a director. Was it any wonder then, aged eighteen, that Viertel too tried his hand as a screenwriter for a couple of years until he enlisted in the US Marine Corps, serving in both the Pacific and Europe during World War II, latterly attached to the OSS.

After the war Viertel settled back in California with his wife Jigee, where he worked on several successful screenplays, which included, in the 1950s,The African Queen and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and The Old Man and the Sea, and an adaptation of his own novel, White Hunter Black Heart, filmed in the 1980s with Clint Eastwood.

The couple often took themselves off skiing, which, in the late 1940s, included Ketchum, Idaho, where, after a fall and injuring his back, Viertel was walking back to his cabin…

“My injury made walking the last fifty yards in ski boots even more difficult, and as I arrived nearer our cabin I saw that a muddy Buick convertible was parked in front of our neighbor’s front door. A broad-shouldered man in a plaid hunting shirt and a sheepskin vest was unloading the trunk of the Buick. On his head he wore a knitted khaki cap, the kind that was issued to the U.S. Army personnel during the war. He turned, and I saw that he had been examining the open breech of a twelve-gauge shotgun. As he slipped the weapon back into its leather case, I recognized him to be Ernest Hemingway, the writer I had hero-worshipped in my early youth…”

Like many before and after Viertel, as a writer, had been greatly influenced by Hemingway, and had become friends with the photographer Robert Capa, who was still a friend of Hemingway’s, and as Viertel points out in his beautifully written memoir, he could, on that cold afternoon in Ketchum, have introduced himself to Hemingway explaining they had a mutual friend. That he chose not to was, if nothing else, testament to his integrity by not imposing himself on another writer who was, like Viertel, simply trying to relax.

Viertel writes vividly how, short while later, resting on the cabin’s bed, Viertel’s wife come rushing in after being out shopping to say that Ernest Hemingway had introduced himself to her in the store, whereupon she had explained to Hemingway how he, Viertel, had hurt his back in a fall skiing, and that he didn’t ski any more due to too many injuries over the years, and that he was in Ketchum for some duck shooting, and that he hoped Viertel’s back would soon by okay.

Then…

“A few minutes later there was a knock on our door, and there Hemingway stood. He mumbled that he had found a can of ‘lion fat’ in the kit he always travelled with and offered to rub some of it on my back…”

It was the start of a firm, if demanding, friendship, as it would be with Orson Welles, John Houston and Ava Gardner, plus many others, and their exhausting excursions around the world.

Orson Welles. Photo: Time

Viertels memoir, Dangerous Friends, first published in 1992, is a vital addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in 20th century literature and film making.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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