Viertel was born on November 16, 1920 in Dresden, Germany. He moved to the United States at the age of eight with his parents Berthold and Salka, and later became a naturalized U.S. citizen. His mother and father had life-long careers in film, theatre and literature.
Viertel attended Dartmouth College and the University of California before going into the military as a marine. He served as an enlisted man in the South Pacific and and later as a second lieutenant in the O.S.S. where his fluent German language skills were utilized in Europe during WW II.
Viertel wrote a number of novels (particularly well known is "White Hunter Black Heart" which he adapted to the screen for Clint Eastwood ); he also co-wrote Hitchcock's Saboteur, scripted The Old Man and the Sea, also the final version of The African Queen, Beat the Devil and other films (See a partial list here). Viertel originally worked in Hollywood as producer Val Lewton's assistant. Viertel's first published novel was The Canyon, written when he was 18 years of age.
Viertel published a memoir "Dangerous Friends: At Large with Huston and Hemingway in the Fifties." That book also features Orson Welles, Ava Gardner, the bullfighter Luis Migel Dominguin, and others.
Viertel has said in interviews that his screenwriting work was primarily for income so that he could continue to write novels.
Viertel was married twice, his first wife was Virginia Ray "Jigee" Schulberg, the former wife of Hollywood writer Budd Schulberg. His second wife was the actress Deborah Kerr (from July 23, 1960 until Kerr's death on October 16, 2007). Viertel died of lymphoma nineteen days after Kerr.
At the time of his death (November 4, 2007), it was reported that a novel based upon his OSS experiences from World War II was in completed form, as was also a second volume of memoirs.
A filmed documentary by director Michael Scheingraber was in production at the time of Viertel's death. Titled "Peter Viertel - Between the Lines" the film uses over 400 minutes of recorded interviews with Viertel from May 2007.
A few weeks ago (October 2007) Dennis Miller was talking about Viertel on Miller's United States-based radio show and described Viertel as the cool headed buddy who goes out on adventures with guys like Huston, Hemingway and the like, but ends up holding the guys coat when some (often drunken) scrape comes up (examples of this are in the pseudo-autobiographical White Hunter Black Heart film version Clint Eastwood made).
(Below: text from the 1953 Doubleday hardback edition
of White Hunter, Black Heart.)
"Peter Viertel, a screen writer who has become a successful novelist, was chosen by Director John Huston to doctor the final version of The African Queen.
Viertel, who was born in Dresden, Germany, and grew up in Santa Monica, California, is the son of a movie director who is also one of the best surviving Lyric poets of Austria. In World War II Viertel enlisted in the Marine Corps and wound up in the South Pacific. Later he was commissioned and was assigned to the French Secret Intelligence Section.
Since 1940 he has written three novels -The Canyon, Line of Departure, and now WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART. In collaboration with Irwin Shaw he wrote a play called The Survivors (which didn't survive very long ) and he has written short stories for leading magazines. At the same time he has done some outstanding screen work in Hollywood for people like Selznick, Hitchcock, Litvak, and-of course-John Huston.
He has lived among movie people virtually all his life. The art-for-art's-sake school of Continental and British movie making is just as familiar to him as the palm-bordered bedlam of Hollywood so Peter Viertel knows whereof he writes. Since finishing The African Queen in the Congo, he has been living in Europe where has been busy working for a number the major studios."
To view a page on Peter Viertel's mother Salka, go here.
"Viertel is also, some have alleged, the model for
the character played by Robert Redford in the
1973 film "The Way We Were", whilst the Barbra
Streisand character in the same film is said
to be based on his first wife, Jigee."
From the "mini-bio" at IMDB.
Note from the web designer: I knew Mr. Viertel only through correspondence through the mail, and telephone conversation. He was informal and friendly with me and was both generous about talking about his books, and even sent me (self-published) multiple reprint copies of his hard to find novel "The Canyon" when I wrote to tell him of how many people were contacting me through this web site trying to find it.