January 24, 1888- Vicki Baum
When her book and play Grand Hotel became a Broadway hit, Baum traveled from Berlin to the USA to take part in the advertising campaign of her NYC publisher Doubleday. She was celebrated as a star, and after a publicity tour around the country for several weeks Baum finally arrived in Hollywood, where she was offered a long-term contract as a screenwriter. She returned briefly to Germany, but because of a little thing called Nazism, she decided to return permanently to the USA.
She was born Hedwig Baum, and she grew up in Vienna, in a home in which reading was considered a secret vice. She was forbidden to read for pleasure and her parents were mortified when she won first prize in a literary competition. She left school when she was 16 years old to study at the Vienna Academy Of Music And Performing Arts, where she played the harp. When she was just 18 years old, she fled her oppressive parents to marry Max Prels, a journalist who introduced her to the Viennese cultural scene, and under whose name her first short stories were published.
The marriage only lasted a few years. She moved to Darmstadt, Germany for a job playing the harp at the opera house. She met the conductor Richard Lert. The couple had two sons. After the birth of her older son, Baum sold her harp and turned to writing as a career.
In 1920 her first novel was published. She published a new book almost every year for the rest of her life. From 1920 until 1931 she also worked as an editor. The owner of her publishing house urged her to write a novel in which the protagonist would be “a capable young woman.” This led to her first success, Helene Willfüer (1928), which sold over 100,000 copies. Baum’s first international hit was Menschen Im Hotel (People In A Hotel, 1929), the first in a new genre of “hotel novels.” The story about a fading ballerina, a shady nobleman and other types who in one weekend pass through an elegant hotel was written with unusual attention to minor detail, gleaned from a short time when she had worked as a parlor maid in a Berlin hotel. The novel, which Baum wrote in just 10 weeks, was adapted for the stage in Berlin in 1929 by Baum herself and directed by the famed Max Reinhardt. In 1931 it was produced on Broadway as Grand Hotel, becoming the biggest hit in NYC in 30 years.
MGM bought the rights and producer Irving Thalberg engaged Edmund Goulding to direct the film version, starring Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. It won the 1933 Academy Award for Best Picture. Baum spent several months in NYC and Hollywood before returning to Berlin and her editing job. But, as she put it, distance and separation had taught her perspective, just like in a love affair. In 1932, after that little man with the funny mustache became Chancellor of Germany, she moved to LA where she worked for a decade as a scriptwriter, first for Paramount Pictures, then for MGM and finally as a freelancer. Her husband was appointed conductor of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra. In 1938, Baum became a citizen of the USA and forever after she wrote only in English.
Baum wrote several novels with female characters who were lesbians, something that was a rather risque subject for books in her era, but so authentic when you consider Berlin in the 1930s, think Cabaret. In fact, given that Baum was Jewish and that she was writing about people who would have been deemed to be degenerates as far as the Nazis were concerned, she was especially lucky when she was asked by Hollywood to write the screenplay of Grand Hotel.
Many of her novels, such as Hotel Shanghai (1939), concern the rise of fascism in Europe. Her books had been banned in Germany. Baum produced more than 30 novels and dozens of screenplays. She became one of the world’s bestselling authors. Critics praised her. Baum ironically refers to herself as a “first-class writer of the second rank.”
Baum frequently depicted powerful, self-reliant women. Interesting that she trained as a boxer in the late 1920s. She was coached by a Turkish prizefighter at the Studio For Boxing And Physical Culture in Berlin. Although the studio was open to both sexes, Baum writes in her terrific memoir, It Was All Quite Different (1964), that only a very few women, including Marlene Dietrich, trained there:
“I don’t know how the feminine element sneaked into those masculine realms, but in any case, only three or four of us were tough enough to go through with it.”
She labeled herself a “New Woman,” asserting her independence in the traditionally male domains of screenwriting and boxing and challenged traditional gender roles. Baum often wrote about her displeasure for the role of housewife and frustration at the men in her life; she lived a life confined by the expectations of her generation.
Baum was taken by leukemia in Hollywood in 1960.
“Pity is the deadliest feeling that can be offered to a woman”.