Though They Often Have Separate Tables Deborah Kerr and Peter Viertel May Last from Here to You Know Where
Around noon, Switzerland time, this coming September 13, author Peter Viertel expects to be at his typewriter in Klosters working on a novel about World War II. At that moment, 10,750 or so miles away in Melbourne, Australia (where it will be 8 in the evening), Viertel's wife, actress Deborah Kerr, should be well into the opening night of a revival of The Day after the Fair.
Although this sort of long-distance separation is typical of the Viertels, their marriage has worked surprisingly well for 18 years. In 1975 Viertel wrote a play for Deborah, but it folded after a one-month run in California. In retrospect Viertel thinks that was fortunate. "I've always felt," he says, "and so has Deborah, that it was better for each of us to go our own way professionally."
These days Kerr, 57, and Viertel, 58, are vacationing together at their cottage in Spain. But last winter she toured the U.S. and Canada with The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and won't disagree with the maxim about absence and fond heart, either. "I don't mean that we squawk and scream and yell when we're together," she says. "We don't do that at all. But we work better when we're working separately. The reason we get on so frightfully well is that neither of us is competitive with the other."
Kerr and Viertel met in 1958 when both were in Vienna working-on the same film, The Journey. Kerr was starring opposite Yul Brynner, an old friend from The King and I, and Viertel had been called in to write dialogue. "We had lunch, got to know each other, and it went from there," says Viertel. He was separated at the time from his first wife. Kerr was married to producer Anthony Barkley, an ex-World War II pilot and the father of her two young daughters. The Kerr-Viertel romance was somewhat messy. At one point he scoffed publicly that reports of an affair between him and Deborah were "nonsense and pure malarkey." A year later, after she divorced Barkley, they were married.
Kerr's professional break had come in 1953 when she played Burt Lancaster's mistress in From Here to Eternity. After that she landed a string of roles portraying interesting, seducible women. With films to her credit like Tea and Sympathy (1956), Separate Tables (1958), The Sundowners (1960)—a favorite—and The Night of the Iguana (1964), she has received six Academy Award nominations, but never won. (She's in good company; Richard Burton and Paul Newman have had that many near misses, too.) "Of course, I'd love to win it," she says. "But I seem to have made more mileage out of not winning."
Born in Scotland, daughter of a civil engineer who was gassed in World War I and died when she was only 14, Deborah was encouraged to act by an aunt. She worked on the London stage and in small movie roles before starring in the 1940 film of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara. Arriving in Hollywood after World War II, she apprenticed before Eternity as a sort of Anglicized Grace Kelly. "A myth grew up that I was totally ladylike," she says. "You can't have a sense of humor or swear if you're ladylike. The mind reels. I fail to see why you can't be ladylike and have a Scotch on the rocks." Her talk of boozing and cussing has never succeeded in despoiling her white-glove image, but she does know how to get nasty. In a 1970 TIME interview, TV producer (The Beverly Hillbillies) James Aubrey described a scene between Kerr and Burt Lancaster in The Gypsy Moths as "obscene." Kerr wrote a scathing letter that said, "To argue aesthetics with Mr. Aubrey would be...like arguing honor with a mule."
Kerr has not made a film since The Arrangement in 1969. While she has used the time off to work on the stage and get reacquainted with her daughters, Melanie, now 31, and Francesca, 27, the actress is candid about the hiatus. "I'd love to make another movie," she says. "But there have been perhaps one or two good roles that would suit a woman my age in recent years. Somebody else got them."
Her husband's road to show business was paved with connections, luck and an absence of manic ambition. Viertel was born in Germany, but his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was 6 years old. His mother, Salka, acted in German-language imitations of Garbo movies, and his father was a director. He remembers Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann visiting his parents' home. At 18, Peter published his first novel, The Canyon, about a youth growing up in California. Shortly thereafter he was put under contract by his mother's friend, producer David O. Selznick, and assigned to write a script for Alfred Hitchcock. "I went up to Hitchcock and said, 'Gee, I've never written a script, how do you do it?' " he recalls, "and he said, 'I'll show you, old boy, in 20 minutes.' " The screenplay became the still-entertaining wartime thriller Saboteur, starring Robert Cummings.
After hitches in the Marines and OSS during World War II, Viertel wrote a play with novelist Irwin Shaw, which flopped. While skiing in Sun Valley, he met Ernest Hemingway, who was staying at the same motel. "He was unpleasant when drunk," Viertel recalls, "but otherwise he was very generous, very considerate, a shy, timid man."
Hemingway liked Viertel enough to recommend that he do screen adaptations of The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea, though neither film ultimately pleased Viertel. "Old Man and the Sea could have been good, but it ran into budget problems," he says. "They made it in the tub—a tank with a rubber fish. As Hemingway said, 'No picture with a rubber fish ever made a goddam dime.' He was right."
During that time Viertel also worked closely with director John Huston on two Humphrey Bogart movies, The African Queen and Beat the Devil. In 1953 Peter wrote a novel titled White Hunter, Black Heart, whose unsympathetic main character was Huston personified. (Rumor had it the book was based on their work together on The African Queen screenplay.) In all, Viertel has written seven novels (the last was Bicycle on the Beach in 1973) and "a whole lot of screenplays—at least 15 or 16."
Home for the peripatetic couple is usually Klosters, once a fashionable resort, now overrun with tourists. "For a time it was known as Hollywood on the Rocks," says Peter, "because everyone came here—Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, William Wyler, all kinds of people. Now that's changed." Deborah leaves most of the cooking to her husband ("I'm relegated to scraping carrots and peeling potatoes," she says), preferring to garden or paint. She calls herself "the Grandma Moses of Switzerland."
When Deborah is on tour, they talk by phone every day (and they'll keep to that schedule despite the Switzerland-Australia tolls). "On the road, I can't work at all," says Viertel. "I think for every day you take off, it costs you two."
When Day after the Fair closes after 12 weeks in Australia, Kerr plans to look for movie roles. Viertel will continue to write, as inconspicuously as possible. "I've never worried about being married to someone more famous than me, because I've been around fame all my life. It carries with it a lot of things that are boring," he says. "On the other hand, I've got a pretty good setup. I can still get the best table in a restaurant, and nobody bothers me."
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