The Conrad Veidt Society

There occurred now the second big thing in my life.  After three years of happy marriage, my daughter Viola Vera Maria was born.  An emotion, the tenderest I had ever yet experienced, surged over me.  This was complete, perfect happiness.  The coming of Viola made me whole again.  Do not ask me how I behaved when my daughter was born. Like a crazy man.  Certainly I did not comport myself like a normal father.  You might have thought nobody had ever had a baby before.  I wanted to do the craziest, the most extravagant, the most useless things. When Viola was a year old, we all went to Travemunde for a lovely lazy holiday.  Viola was enchantingly interesting;  she and my wife and I laughed and played, three children together.  Into this sunshinely happiness there came a telegram from the United Artists office in Berlin. "Would you like to come to Hollywood and play in a picture?"  I wired back for some details. This telegram flashed back to me: "I saw your picture 'Waxworks'.  You must play in my picture.  King Louis XI.  I cannot make the picture without you. - Yours sincerely, John Barrymore."

(The Veidt Family )

    I will not deny that I was impressed and touched.  I knew of John Barrymore as a distinguished stage actor already squiring a big Hollywood reputation.  But I was happy there in the holiday sunshine with my wife and Viola;  the whole of life was spread out before me;  there were no worries;  my future in Germany was assured anyhow.  I had a curiously superstitious feeling.  If I go away now and accept this offer, it may shatter this happiness.  Live in these moments, Conrad;  they may never return.  Another telegram came :  "You must sail in two weeks. - John Barrymore."  No-one in Hollywood could imagine that any Continental actor, however reputed, would miss such an opportunity.  And it was true.  After all, Hollywood was the world distributing centre.  One might be a success in Europe, but Hollywood meant world-wide fare.  I resented leaving my wife and Viola.  I was utterly and completely at peace. But still, I thought, it is good for me to seek fresh fields.  Why not ?  Leaving them was to die a little, but it would not be forever.  Only to make a picture.  It will make me more famous.  It will be good for the child.  So.... I left for Hollywood, very reluctantly.  We first went to Paris and Cherbourg, and I felt so lonely and homesick that I almost turned back.  I could speak no English.  I missed my wife and baby.

    When I first saw New York I thought, "Ah, now I am playing in 'Caligari' again.''  It was the same hectic, strange loveliness, an expressionist dream.  Lothar Mendes came to meet me and look after me in New York for the two days I was there.  I had known him at the Deutsches Theatre, a perfectly charming young man, an actor in those days, and a good actor.  Well, it was like home having him greet me in New York;  we had a couple of grand days together.  Then came an 86-hours rush to Hollywood.  The long boring journey from Chicago to Hollywood allowed me plenty of time to be tired, miserable, and to wonder again if I had done right in leaving my wife and child.  The train moved to the rhythm of a song we had heard in Travemunde and had hummed and sung all day long.  We came to Indiana.  Every man will remember how as a small boy he played the great game of Red Indians, dressing up with feathers and going out to collect scalps.  The big chief of your imagination is always called Red Eagle or White Hawk.  He is the bravest man in the world, the most skilled warrior.  Then in Indiana you find Red Eagle or White Hawk awaits the train.  He is a hawker trying to sell you something for a 'coupla dollars'.  Very disappointing.  As the train chug-chugged along the last stage of the journey, I felt that everything in life was like that.  Something is born in your mind; it takes shape, colour, form.  Then, you see that the illusion is shattered.  Nothing seems to come up to your expectations.  But nothing I had hear about Hollywood was enough.  My goodness, that place put itself on the map for me directly I hit it, as they say over there.  I first saw Los Angeles station, a small unpretentious little place, almost like any other country station.  There were little houses, a petrol filler;  everything was small and unimportant.  I got off the train, stiff and tired.  Instantly activity was all around.  Like a hurricane, people rushed around me.  Ten cameras focused me.  A dozen newspaper men came dashing up.  There was a line of cars, and people getting out of them;  noise and confusion.  I thought;  'Aha!  They are expecting somebody important.  Maybe, without knowing it, I have been traveling on the train with the Kaiser of America.  I looked around to see the important personage.  I need not have looked.  It was me, all this.  Somebody with a comforting German voice shouted, "Conny", and there, behind a big cigar, was the smile of welcome, the twinkling eyes, the face of Lubitsch.  That was good, to see Ernst again, looking exactly the same as in the old days at the Deutsches Theatre.  Paul Leni was there too, that great artist who had directed me in "Waxworks";  Considine, of United Artists:  a blur of new faces, all welcoming and kindly.  It was a semi-royal reception.  I was bewildered by it and honoured.  As we walked away from the station yet another fast car drove up.  Out jumped a man all in picture make-up, running, towards us.  I recognised him as Barrymore.  He had dashed up from the studio to greet me, and said, "Here you are. I am so happy you have come."  I seated myself in his car, and suddenly heard a mad roar. Two policemen, on enormous motorcycles, had started their engines.  They were to be our escort into Hollywood - and what an escort.  Their sirens howled hideously, like a giant's screams.  Off we went.  The journey into Hollywood is about an hours run in a fast car.  We did it in about twenty minutes in one swift blind, the police piloting us, driving everything off the road before them, ignoring stop signals, hands getting in front of all the traffic like an ambulance or a fire engine. So I made triumphant progress into Hollywood, strange, fantastic city, that was like a dream walking.

    I went, of course, as all new importations from abroad go, to the Ambassadors.  There you could stay in the hotel and be part of it, or, if you preferred it, you lived in a bungalow, with a courtyard and gardens, and a swimming pool and every Hollywood comfort, which means plenty, plus the hotel service.  There was a bungalow awaiting me, all ready to hang up my hat. It was prohibition time, of course, but there was a nice sight on the table.  A bottle of champagne.  There was an important opening that night, a double event, a big new film starting in a big new theatre.  They said, of course, I must go.  Barrymore had arranged it.  But my big trunks had not arrived, so I had no dress clothes, and of course, in Hollywood there is no laxity about dress.  Openings are formal.  They said, "We'll hire some."  We decided against a tail suit, because that has to fit superbly, and I seemed to be a few sizes higher and larger than most of the men around there.  Well, they found me a tuxedo, and I put it on, and I said "No, thank you, I will not go to the opening."  It was short in the arms and tight under the arms, it creased when I moved;  the trousers were like armour.  I looked terrible.  But they said: "It does not matter.  It does not look so bad as you imagine.  You must go.  John would be too disappointed if you didn't."  So I went to the opening. It was the typical Hollywood opening that you have read about.  Crowds of fans lined up outside the theatre to watch the stars go in.  Searchlights followed your movements from car to door.  To me it was astonishing, vital, and exciting.  We had openings in Berlin, but nothing like this.  I was nervous, of course, as it was my first public appearance and I wanted to make a good impression, but can you make a good impression as a dignified dramatic actor in trousers three inches too short?  One by one the stars made their gracious way down the aisle. Then they announced "Now here is Mr. John Barrymore and the great German actor, Mr. Conrad Veidt."  The crowd cheered, I took one look around me, another look at my dress suit, jumped from the car, and ran down the aisle like a hunted man. John, charmingly understanding, ran behind me.  As I ran I heard applause and whistles.  I thought they were booing me, laughing at me.  But I learned afterwards they were applauding.

    The film I made with Barrymore was "The Beloved Rogue", Alan Crosland directing. Barrymore, of course, was the star, but nobody could have been kinder, nicer or more generous to a stranger.  When the picture was shown I was away from Hollywood, and John sent me a telegram embodying many of the critical ravings about my performance, saying, "You have stolen the Beloved Vagabond from your beloved John."  I wish I could have known him better during my time in Hollywood, but possibly, because I could not yet speak English, I did not get acquainted with many of the American actors and actresses there.  Hard work on the picture, and the business of getting into the rhythm of a new life, helped me forget the bitterness of being parted from my wife and Viola.  Before I had finished the film I had three offers.  I accepted

Universal's.....     After six weeks in Hollywood I went back to Germany to spend Christmas with Mrs. Veidt and Viola.  Then I brought them back with me, for better or worse, to Hollywood.  It was a stormy crossing, but Viola swayed with the boat and seemed to enjoy the rough weather.  We stayed one week in my hotel, then Mrs. Veidt and I wanted a house.  We took a Hollywood house in Camden Drive;  I can remember the name today.  My neighbour was Norman Kerry, a very good actor-star of the silent days.  It is pretty easy to be happy if the money comes in regularly every week.  You feel better than you have ever felt in your life.  The sun shines almost all the time, gardens overflow with a profusion of exquisite flowers.  Down the garden is your swimming pool, your house is cool and remote, and life flows on with the smooth, healthy rhythm of a good-running machine.  You spend well-balanced days of exercise and relaxation.  Perfect, of course, but how about work?  Ah, that was the trouble.  I turned down the first script offered to me, and the second.  I lay on my back one day under an umbrella, in the garden, reading the third, and wondered why I had turned down the first.  Every film actor will understand this.  It is dangerous for an actor in new circumstances, as I was, to play in unsuitable stories.  The point was you had to make a picture. I went to Carl Laemmle, always nearly like a father to me. He said "Yes, Conny, we must make a picture."  After all that is what I had come to Hollywood for, to make a picture.  And so far, all I had done was enjoy myself.  

The Story of Conrad Veidt



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