Have I Got a Book for You: Dangerous to Know
By Susan Doll
I am always searching for remnants of Old Hollywood, a time when Joan Crawford rubbed elbows with Carole Lombard at the Cocoanut Grove, George Burns and Gracie Allen dined at Ciro’s, and writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker soaked up atmosphere at the Garden of Allah Hotel.
Ms. Parker figures in a new mystery novel that deliciously captures the flavor of Old Hollywood. Dangerous to Know, written by Vince and Rosemarie Keenan under the pen name Renee Patrick, takes place in 1938 and weaves in appearances by an array of Hollywood notables from the Golden Age. The detective character in the story is the fictional Lillian Frost, a failed actress who works as a social secretary for a prominent millionaire. Lillian is good friends with legendary costume designer Edith Head, who helps her gal pal solve a mystery with international implications. Dangerous to Know represents Lillian and Edith’s second adventure; their first foray into crime-solving was chronicled in the Keenans’ first novel in this series, Design for Dying.
In Dangerous to Know, Marlene Dietrich asks Lillian to find Jens Lohse, a young German pianist and aspiring composer who had once accompanied her. It seems Lohse has disappeared from his rooming house, and his huge book of compositions and arrangements is missing. Dietrich is convinced Hitler and the Third Reich are involved, so Lillian reluctantly makes the rounds of Hollywood’s expatriate community. The German expats are in an uproar because a disgruntled German maid named Rosa became uncontrollably angry when her employer, a prominent judge, criticized Hitler. Rosa decided to inform the police that the good judge had a hand in smuggling expensive goods. Those benefitting from the judge’s enterprise included comedians George Burns and Jack Benny, who are also in hot water on smuggling charges.
Apparently, the smuggling incident involving Burns and Benny was a true story, a footnote in Golden Age history that the Keeners unearthed in their research. And, that is the joy of this novel. Classic-movie lovers will enjoy the references to real-life stars, writers, and directors who pepper the story. While the main mystery is fictional, the details mentioned about the stars’ careers during that time are real. Head had indeed been appointed lead costume designer for Paramount Pictures in 1938, while the search for Scarlett O’Hara becomes a running thread in the conversations among characters in the story. The aforementioned Dorothy Parker did belong to the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League as did her close friend Robert Benchley, who also lived at the Garden of Allah. It must have been fun to research the real-life details and tidbits included in the book; it is certainly fun to read about them.
Most interesting to me is the circle of German emigres that play a part in the story. In real-life Hollywood of the 1930s, there was a large contingent of Germans working in the industry. Most of them were escapees from Hitler’s tactics and persecutions. Hitler disliked Expressionism, which dominated the German film industry until 1932. Many members of the German film industry fled the country as the Fuhrer gained power. The influence of the Expressionists on Hollywood film is immeasurable — from film noir to horror, from Alfred Hitchcock to John Ford. According to historian Kevin Starr, the German emigres in Hollywood represented "the most complete migration of artists and intellectuals in European history."
Among the immigrants was Salka and Berthold Viertel, who had moved to Hollywood in 1928. Salka acted in three films produced in Hollywood for the German-language market. In the early sound era, studios made foreign-language versions of some of their films for foreign markets. The most famous example is probably the Spanish-language Dracula, shot at Universal at the same time as the Bela Lugosi version but with a different cast. Salka’s husband Berthold and William Dieterle codirected Die heilige Flamme (The Sacred Flame); later, Dieterle made Die Maske fallt (The Way of All Men). Salka also appeared in a version of Anna Christie starring Greta Garbo.
Salka became fast friends with the elusive Garbo at a party at director Ernst Lubitsch’s home in 1929. Apparently, Viertel had taught elocution, and she helped Garbo with her English. In return, the star encouraged Salka, who was now over forty, to try her hand at scriptwriting. Salka cowrote screenplays for several of Garbo’s films, including Queen Christina, The Painted Veil, Anna Karenina, Conquest, and Two-Faced Woman.
With the onset of war, and Hitler’s continued rise to power, the Viertels decided to stay in California, settling in Santa Monica. Salka turned her home into a European-style salon, where artists gathered to exchange ideas, show their latest work, or converse about the arts. Every Sunday afternoon, the Viertels welcomed German and Austro-Hungarian writers, directors, and other creative types, including Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Fred Zinnemann, William Dieterle, and F.W. Murnau. Others came as well, including Sergei Eisenstein on his visit to America, French directors Jacques Feydor and Jean Renoir, Harpo Marx, and Charles Laughton. Sometimes, even Chaplin stopped by. During the war, Salka turned her house into a haven for hundreds of Jews and anti-Fascists who fled Europe, often just footsteps ahead of the Nazis.
In Dangerous to Know, the fictional Jens Lohse was a regular at the Viertels. However, Dietrich and Billy Wilder did not frequent their salon. According to Wilder in the novel, “Salka’s friends are my people but not my crowd. They look to yesterday while I prefer to think about tomorrow. They wait to go home while I am waiting to get paid.” Lillian pays a visit to the Viertels, where she has a conversation with the colorful Salka, which jumpstarts her investigation.
I recommend Dangerous to Know to classic-movie lovers. It might inspire you to look up some of the real people and events to expand your knowledge of the era. But, most of all, the combination of a fictional mystery with real Hollywood stars and celebrities is just irresistible.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).