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||Vicki Baum (1888-1960) - Original name Hedwig Baum|
Austrian popular novelist, whose Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel, 1929) started her career as one of the most widely-read authors of her time. Baum's novel was made into an Oscar winning film in Hollywood in 1932 under the title Grand Hotel, starring Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore. Generally Baum's novels have been dismissed as as Unterhaltungs- or Trivialliteratur, but her work has also received serious critical attention.
"The porter took his cap and went off on tiptoe. He did this unconsciously because his wife had been taken to the hospital and was about to have a child. As he crossed the passage, where the now quiet reading and writing rooms had half their lights switched off, he exhaled deeply and ran his fingers through his hair. He was surprised to find them wet, but there was no time to wash his hands. After all, the routine of the hotel could not be upset jut because Hall Porter Senf's wife was having a baby." (Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, translated from the German by Basil Creighton, with revisions by Margot Bettauer Dembo, 2016))
Vicki Baum was born in Vienna into a Jewish family, the daughter of Hermann Baum and Mathilde Donat. She spent her childhood in the fin-de-siècle bourgeois surroundings, as "the single child of a good family." ('Vicki Baum' by Robert Harrison, in An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers: Volume One, A-K, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, 1991, p. 91) In her memoirs she has revealed that due family problems her childhood was not particularly happy. Baum's father was tyrannical and her mother had mental problems; she spent a lenghty period in a sanatorium. Moreover, there was also a sadistic nurse. At the age of eight Baum started to study the harp. Her first stories appeared in print when she was fourteen. Baum studied music six years at the conservatory and was educated as a harp player. Baum's first marriage in 1914 to the Viennese journalist and coffee-house habitué Max Prels (1878-1926) was short lived. Some of Baum's stories, which she had written for herself, Prels published under his own name. However, he also opened her doors to the Viennese culture scene and later helped her to get the novel Der Eingang zur Bühne (1920) published by Ullstein.
Baum's first literary work, Frühe Schatten, das Ende einer Kindheit,
was published by Erich Reiss Publishing Company in Berlin in 1914 and
reissued in 1919. After divorcing, Baum went to Germany, where she
played the harp for three years in an orchestra and worked as teacher
in the musical high school in Darmstadt. Her early novels, which
concerned life in the Weimar Republic, had only a moderate success. The
mood of Ulle, der Zwerg
(1924) was exceptionally somble, beginning from the book's motto: "Das
Innerste der Welt ist Einsamkeit" (The innermost core of the world is
lonelines). Baum's protagonist is a dwarf, a misfit, whose experiences
is followed through five different stages, from a young child, through
to the end of his life.
During World War I Baum worked for a short time as a nurse. In 1916
she married the Viennese-born conductor Richard Lert (1885-1980) of the
Darmstadt orchestra, who had been her best friend since childhood. Baum
gave up music as a profession and accompanied her husband from one town
to another. In 1926 she went to Berlin, where she worked as an editor
for the publishing company Ullstein-Velag. The House of Ullstein
greatly contributed to her commercial success. She once described herself as "a first-rate second-rate author." (Colombia's Forgotten Frontier: A Literary Geography of the Putumayo by Lesley Wylie, 2013, p. 75)
Baum's novels were
serialized in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, Ullstein's pioneering periodical. Originally
the magazine was liberal in its orientation, but under political
pressures, the House of Ullstein decided to play down all the
politically and socially critical elements in their publications.
Eventually the Berliner Illustrirte was turned into a propaganda vehicle for the Nazis. Baum's last book printed in Germany was Das Leben ohne Geheimnis (1932, Falling Star).
"I want to be alone... I think I have never been so tired in my life." (Greta Garbo as Grusinskaya in Grand Hotel, 1932)
Baum's literary breakthrough novel, People in a Hotel (1929)
made her one of Ullstein's leading authors. The story about a fading
prima ballerina, shady nobleman, and other types who in one weekend
pass through an elegant hotel, was told with an acute perception of
minor detail. To gather material for the novel, Baum had taken a job as
a parlourmaid in a hotel for six weeks. Baum gave the first edition the
subtitle "Ein Kolportageroman mit Hintergründen" (A Trashy novel with a
After the book came out, Baum dramatized the story for the Berlin stage. This play, under the direction of Gustav Gründgens, turned into a sensation and its English language adaptation by William Drake gained a huge success in New York in the early 1930s. Irving Thalberg, the famous MGM producer, got its synopsis in 1930. The role of Grusinskaya, an aging prima ballerina, seemed perfect for Greta Garbo. Joan Crawford was casted as the struggling stenographer, Flaemmchen, who sells herself to the industrial magnate Preysing (Wallace Beery). The last line of the picture was reserved for Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone): "Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." The gala opening of the film was held at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Grand Hotelwon a Best Picture Oscar and later Crawford told the film was her first big chance. In London moviegoers camped out on the pavement overnight outside the Palace Theatre so they could be the first to see the film, especially the bedroom scene between Preysing and Flaemmchen. "The most exciting thing that the scintillating Joan got to do in said bedroom scene was wind the clock," said one viewer. "Why? The answer is state censorsip." (Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-code Era (1930-1934) by Mark A Vieira, 2019, p. 111) Baum herself attended the German gala premiere with her husband in February 1933. Only a few critics reviewed the film and it did not play for long. Although there was a ban on Baum's books, some of them were published in German in exile publishing houses.
"Adaptation of Vicki Baum's novel Menschen im Hotel is erratically acted by the male stars, but Garbo and especially Crawford, who was never more appealing, glow – as Hollywood stars once did." (Guide for the Film Fanatic by Danny Peary, 1986, p. 179)
Stud. chem. Helene Willfüer
(1928) portrayed in the character of Helene a New Woman type, a
scientist, businesswoman, and an unmarried mother, who was
rationalized, yet compassionate, but the other elements of the novel –
an abortion, premarital sex, interracial love – shocked many readers.
The book sold well and was adapted into a film Richard Oswald. In Hell in Frauensee (1930) Baum used the successful group novel formula of Grand Hotel.
This time she collected a group of colourful people in a bathing
establishment in Thüringen at the Alps. The protagonist, Urban Hell, is
a poor but talented chemist, who works as swimming instructor, and
becomes acquainted with an eccentric baroness, famous actress, and
industrialist who has two beautiful daughters, May and Karla. After
visiting Bali in 1935, Baum wrote Liebe und Tod auf Bali (1937), about a family caught in the middle of the Puputan Badung War and massacre of 1906. Hotel Shanghai (1939) brought together nine characters, destined to die in an air raid during the so-called "Bloody Sunday" on August 14, 1937. The Weeping Wood
(1943), which she called a "panoramic novel," was set in Peru, with
rubber as its protagonist, both as the hero and the villain.
Following the rise of anti-Semitism,
Baum emigrated around mid-1932 with her family to the
This second wave of emigration, with stars like Marlene Dietrich,
directors such as Wilhelm Dieterle and Edgar G. Ulmer, and cameramen like Karl Freund, marked the end of
the golden age of German filmmaking. Baum's short story 'Big Shot' (Collier's, September 19, 1936) was changed in Anthony Mann's film adaption The Great Flammarion (1945), starring Erich von Stroheim. Coincidentally, Baum had adapted for M-G-M the unproduced Stroheim film treatment Blind Love in 1935. In
Baum's story, a Swiss sharpshooter, named Brandt, marries his young
stage assistant Ria, who starts an affair with a handome Hungarian
singer during the circus tour. Mann tells the story in a flashback.
Flammarion, an aging vaudeville sharpshooter, is seduced by a sexy deceiver, named Connie, to shoot her husband.
After traveling around the country advertising her books
and giving speeches at exclusive women's clubs, Baum settled in Los
Angeles, where she was treated like a media star. Baum worked first
under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, despite the fact that she knew
very little of the techniques of screenwriting. Nevertheless, Baum had
to cover a certain number of pages a day, regardless of quality. Within
a few years, two of her stories were made into movies: I Give My Love (1934), producted by Universal Pictures and directed by Karl Freund,
and The Night Is Young (1935), produced
by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and directed by Dudley Murphy.
Baum often depicted powerful, self-reliant women caught up the social and economic turbulence
of the 20th-century Europe or the US. Starting in 1941 with The Ship and the Shore she wrote all
her fiction in English, and produced a novel every two or three years. Her U.S. publisher promoted every
book as "the new book by Vicki Baum, best-selling author of Grand Hotel". Due to this image-making, Baum
began to feel that she was expected to produce
only popular literatur. Her real literary idol was Thomas Mann.
To break the mold, she wrote The Mustard Seed (1953), critique of American way life. Her other later works include Hotel Berlin '43 (1944), set in the Nazi Germany, and Theme for Ballett (1958), which concerned the American career of a beautiful Viennese danseuse. Baum's books of memoir, It Was All Quite Different, came out posthumously in 1964. Baum died of leukemia in Hollywood on August 29, 1960.
For forther reading: 'Introduction' by Noah Isenberg, in Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, translated from the German by Basil Creighton, with revisions by Margot Bettauer Dembo (2016); Bodily Desire, Desired Bodies: Gender and Desire in Early Twentieth-Century German and Austrian Novels and Paintings by Esther K. Bauer (2014); 'Vicki Baum 1888-1960,' in Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland (2011); Karrieren der Vicki Baum: eine Biographie by Nicole Nottelmann (2007); Practicing Modernity: Female Creativity in the Weimar Republic, edited by Christiane Schönfeld (2006); 'Vicki Baum: "A First-Rate Second-Rate Writer"?' by Heather Valencia, in German Novelists of the Weimar Republic: Intersections of Literature and Politics, edited by Karl Leydecker (2006); Strategien Des Erfolgs: Narratologische Analysen Exemplarischer Romane Vicki Baums by Nicole Nottelmann (2002); 'Baum, Vicki,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Volume 1, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Best-Sellers by Design: Vicki Baum and the House of Ullstein by L. King (1988)