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by Bamber Gascoigne

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 Background).

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 United States. 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)

Selected works:

  • Frühe Schatten, das Ende einer Kindheit, 1914
  • Der Eingang zur Bühne, 1920
    - Once in Vienna (tr. 1943)
    - Film: Futures vedettes, 1955, prod. Del Duca Films, Régie du Film, dir. Marc Allégret, starring Jean Marais, Brigitte Bardot, Isabelle Pia
  • Schloßtheater, 1921 (novelettes: Schlosstheater; Der kleine Page; Kavalier; Abend in Zelesz; Die Bank; Fräulein Chrysander; Das Postamt und der Schmetterling; Ritornell; Die blinden Spielleute; Der Knabe und die Tänzerin; Die Ciacconne; Das Souper; Der Klavierspieler; Aus den Memoiren des Hundes Bluff; Die Perlen)
  • Die Tänze der Ina Raffay. Ein Leben, 1921
  • Halloh, wer fängt Flip und Flap?, 1921
  • Die anderen Tage, 1922 (novelettes: Raffael Gutmann; Das Joch; Hunger; Das Wunder; Der letzte Tag)
  • Bubenreise: eine Erzählung für junge Menschen, 1923
  • Die Welt ohne Sünde. Der Roman einer Minute, 1923
  • Ulle, der Zwerg, 1924
  • Das Christsternlein, 1924 (Märchenspiel)
  • Der Weg, 1924 (novelette)
  • Tanzpause, 1926 (novelette)
  • Feme. Bußfahrt einer verirrten Jugend, 1926
    - Secret Sentence (tr. Eric Sutton, 1932)
    - Film: Feme, 1927, prod. Richard-Oswald-Produktion, dir. Richard Oswald, starring Eduard Rothauser, Mathilde Sussin, Hans Stüwe, Grete Mosheim
  •  Miniaturen, 1926 (Begegnung; Der Herr und der Lauffer; Vermischte Nachrichten)
  • Hell in Frauensee: ein heiterer Roman von Liebe und Hunger, 1927
    - Martin's Summer (tr. Basil Creighton, 1931)
    - Uimaopettaja Urban Hell (suom. Unto Koskela, 1931)
    - Films: Die Drei Frauen von Urban Hell, 1928, dir. Jaap Speyer, screenplay by Vicki Baum, starring Hilde Maroff, Mona Maris, Alfred Döderlein, Mia Pankau, Angelo Ferrari / Lac Aux Dames, 1934, starring Simone Simon, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Rosine Derean, Michel Simon, Odette Joyeux / Hell in Frauensee, TV film 1981, dir. Wolfgang Panzer, with Brigitte Neumeister and Edd Stavjanik
  • Stud. chem. Helene Willfüer, 1928
    - Helene (tr. Ida Zeitlin, 1932)
    - Naisylioppilas (suom. Joel Lehtonen, 1930)
    - Films: Stud. chem. Helene Willfüer, 1930, prod. Ideal-Film GmbH, dir. Fred Sauer, starring Olga Tschechowa, Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, Elza Temary, Igo Sym / Hélène, 1936, prod. Les Films Marquise, dir. Jean Benoît-Lévy, starring Madeleine Renaud, Jean-Louis Barrault, Constant Rémy / Studentin Helene Willfüer, 1956, dir. Rudolf Jugert, starring Ruth Niehaus, Hans Söhnker, Elma Karlowa, Erik Schumann
  • Menschen im Hotel: ein kolportageroman mit hintergründen, 1929
    - Grand Hotel (tr. 1931; translated by Basil Creighton, revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo, introduction by Noah Isenberg, 2016)
    - Loistohotelli (suom. Clara Borenius, 1931)
    - Films: Grand Hotel, 1932, prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. by Edmund Golding, starring Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, John Barrymore and Greta Garbo. The story depicts a luxurious Berlin hotel, in which a Russian ballerina, played by Garbo, falls in love with baron – Barrymore – who means to rob her. Joan Crawford is a stenographer and Wallace Beery an industrialist. "Our observations must also record the extremely pathetic Miss Garbo, before whose photograph countless American college boys have been offering up prayers these last ten years. For all her beautiful head and appealingly awkward lankiness, Miss Garbo steadily loses her spell through the sound machines. Speaking our language badly, she must be cast always as a foreigner, mumbling but a few words at a time. As usual she has the air of an aspirin addict; she still wears the perpetual headache which once seemed so intriguing in the deaf-and-dumb pictures." (Matthew Josephson in the New Republic, April 27, 1932) / Weekend at the Waldorf, 1945, prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), adapted by Guy Bolton, screenplay by Sam and Bella Spewack, starring Ginger Rogers, Van Johnson, Walter Pidgeon, Lana Turner / Menschen im Hotel, 1959, prod. Central Cinema Company Film (CCC), Les Films Modernes, dir. by Gottfried Reinhardt, starring Michèle Morgan, O.W. Fischer, Heinz Rühmann, Gert Fröbe, Sonja Ziemann
  • Grand Hotel, 1930 (play, with John Golden)
  • Zwischenfall in Lohwinkel, 1930
    - ... and Life Goes On (tr. Margaret Goldsmith, 1931)
    - Results of an Accident (U.K. title, 1931)
    - Divine Drudge: A Play in 3 Acts (with John Golden, 1934)
  • Pariser Platz 13, 1931 (play)
    - TV film: Haus der Schönheit, 1963, prod. Südwestfunk (SWF), dir. Eugen York, cast: Maria Sebaldt, Alexander Kerst, Fita Benkhoff, Gisela Fackeldey
  • Das Leben ohne Geheimnis, 1932
    - Falling Star (tr. 1934)
  • Divine Drudge: A Play in Three Acts , 1934 (based on Zwischenfall in Lohwinckel)
  • Jape im Warenhaus, 1935
  • Das große Einmaleins, 1935
    - Men Never Know (tr. Basil Creighton, 1935)
    - Päivä sinua varten (suom. Oili Suominen, 1976)
    - Film: Rendezvous in Paris, 1982, prod. Bavaria-Filmkunst Verleih, dir. Gabi Kubach, starring Claude Jade, Harald Kuhlmann, Barry Stokes, Vérénice Rudolph, Gunther Malzacher
  • 'The Big Shot', 1936 (in Collier's, Sept. 19)
    - Film: The Great Flamarion, 1945, dir. Anthony Mann, screenplay by Heinz Herald, starring Erich von Stroheim, Mary Beth Hughes, Dan Duryea
  • Die Karriere der Doris Hart, 1936
    - Career (U.K. title, 1936)
    - Sing, Sister, Sing (tr. Basil Creighton, 1939)
    - Film: La Belle que voilà, 1950, dir. Jean-Paul Le Chanois, starring Michèle Morgan, Henri Vidal, Henri Arius, Jean Debucourt
  •  Der große Ausverkauf, 1937
    - Central Stores (tr. 1940)
    - Suuri loppuunmyynti (suomentanut Kersti Bergroth, 1939)
  • Liebe und Tod auf Bali, 1937
    - Tale of Bali (tr. Basil Creighton, 1937; with a new foreword by Nigel Barley, 2011)
    - A Tale from Bali (U.K. title, 1937)
  • Retour à l'aube, 1938 (Von sechs bis sechs; Rückkehr in Morgengrauen)
    - Film: Retour à l'aube / Returned at Dawn, 1938, screenplay Vicki Baum with Henri Decoin, Pierre Wolff, dir. Henri Decoin, starring Danielle Darrieux, Pierre Dux, Raymond Cordy
  • Martha, 1938 (opera by Friedrich von Flotow, adapted by Vicki Baum and Ann Ronell)
  • Hotel Shanghai, 1939
    - Shanghai '37 (tr. Basil Creighton, 1939; with an introduction by H.J. Lethbridge, 1986)
    - Nanking Road (U.K. title, 1939)
    - TV film: Shanghai 1937, 1996, prod. Durniok Produktion, teleplay Angel Vagenshtain, dir. Peter Patzak, cast: Agnieszka Wagner, Nicholas Clay, James McCaffrey
  • Dance, Girl, Dance, 1940 (story)
    - Film: Dance, Girl, Dance, prod. RKO Radio Pictures, screenplay Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger, dir. Dorothy Arzner, starring Maureen O'Hara, Louis Hayward, Lucille Ball
  • Die große Pause, 1941
    - Grand Opera (tr. 1942)
    - Väliverho nousee (suom. Sole Ueæküll, 1949)
  • The Christmas Carp, 1941
  • The Ship and the Shore, 1941
  • Girl Trouble, 1942 (story, with Ladislas Fodor, Guy Trosper)
    - Film prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, screenplay Robert Riley Crutcher, Ladislas Fodor, dir. Harold D. Schuster, starring Don Ameche, Joan Bennett
  • Marion Alive, 1942
    - Marion lebt (tr. 1942)
    - Marion elää (suom. Aira Aalto, 1948)
  • Hotel Berlin '43, 1944
    - Berlin Hotel (U.K. title, 1943)
    - Hier stand ein Hotel (tr. 1947)
    - Odota minua (suom. Olavi Salas, 1947)
    - Film: Hotel Berlin, 1945, dir. Peter Godfrey, starring Faye Emerson, Helmut Dantine, Helmut Dantine, Peter Lorre, Andrea King
  • The Weeping Wood, 1943
    - Kautschuk (tr. 1945)
    - Cahuchu, Storm der Tränen (tr. 1952)
  • Beyond This Journey, 1944 (serialized in Woman's Home Companion, 1945)
    - Schicksalsflug (tr. 1947)
    - Flight of Fate (tr. 1965)
    - Kohtalonlento (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1950)
  • Mortgage on Life, 1946
    - Verpfändetes Leben (tr. 1963)
    - Padot murtuvat (suom. Olavi Salas, 1948)
    - Film: A Woman's Secret, 1949, dir. by Nicholas Ray, screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz, starring Maureen O'Hara, Gloria Grahame, Melvyn Douglas
  • Headless Angel, 1948
    - Clarinda (tr. 1949)
    - Kopfloser Engel (tr. 2000)
    - Päätön enkeli (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1951)
  • Danger from Deer, 1951
    - Vor Rehen wird gewarnt (tr. 1953)
    - Varokaa kaurista (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1952)
    - Film: Liebe, 1956, prod. Central Cinema Company Film (CCC), dir. Horst Hächler, screenplay Jochen Huth, starring Maria Schell, Raf Vallone, Eva Kotthaus, Camilla Spira
  • Die Strandwache, 1953 (with Der Weg; Das Joch; Der Sittlich; Der Herr und der Laufer; Die Strandwche; Jape im Warenhaus; Hunger)
  • The Mustard Seed, 1953
    - Kristall im Lehm (tr. 1953)
  • Written on Water, 1956
    - Blood on the Sea (U.K. title, 1960)
    - Flut und Flamme (tr. 1956)
    - Tiburon (suom. Mario Talaskivi, 1958)
  • Einsamer Weg, 1958
  • Theme for Ballett, 1958
    - Ballerina (U.K. title, 1958)
    - Die goldenen Schuhe (tr. 1958)
    - Ballerina (suom. Martta Eskelinen, 1960)
  • Es war alles ganz anders. Erinnerungen, 1962
    - It Was All Quite Different (tr. 1964)
    - I Know What I'm Worth (U.K. title, 1964)
  • Verpfändetes Leben, 1963
  • Grand Hotel, 2016 (translated by Basil Creighton; revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo; introduction by Noah Isenberg)

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