Salka Viertel was born Salomea Sara Steuermann in Sambor, Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in
Ukraine, to a prosperous Austrian Jewish family. She learned French from a governess, spoke Polish and Ukrainian at home, and studied Latin, Greek and German at school. From an early age, she wanted a life in the theater. She worked as an actress in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland before moving to Berlin to join Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater. Here that she met Ernst Lubitsch and F.W. Murnau, then actors in Reinhardt’s group. In 1908, she joined the Neue Wiener Bühne in Vienna as a leading actress. In 1916, she met Berthold Viertel, an Austrian director and writer, and married him in 1918. They had three children. The couple formed the Expressionist theater group Die Truppe, which was artistically successful but went bankrupt. So in 1928, the Viertels went to Hollywood, where Salka had minor roles in three German-language films and her husband wrote scripts. Salka met Greta Garbo at a party at Ernst Lubitsch’s home in 1929 and the two became close friends. Garbo encouraged Salka to shift her focus from acting to screenwriting. She was put under contract by MGM and wrote screenplays for Garbo’s films Queen Christina (1933), The Painted Veil (1934), Anna Karenina (1935), Conquest (1937), and Two-Faced Woman (1941), as well as others. Although Salka and her husband had gone to the USA intending to work only a few years, the outbreak of World War II kept them from leaving. Her home became a gathering place for movie stars, the Jewish German intelligentsia, and other émigrés such as Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Bruno Walter, Fred Zimmerman, Arnold Schoenberg, and Max Reinhardt. She helped establish the European Film Fund to rescue Jews and others in danger from the Nazis in Europe.
In 1942, Salka Viertel was put on an FBI "Watch List" as a Communist sympathizer and she lost her screenwriting job at MGM. Her marriage to Berthold ended in 1944. Salka’s salon dissolved under the anti-Communist hysteria in Hollywood and she moved to Switzerland. Her memoir The Kindness of Strangers, was published in 1969. Her son Peter Viertel also became a writer and screenwriter.