Vicki Baum was one of the most popular émigré authors in America from the 1930s through the '50s, although she was never taken very seriously as a novelist, referring to herself for most of her career as "a first-class writer of the second rank." Born to a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna in 1888, she knew a fair degree of hardship as a child following her mother's mental illness and subsequent death from cancer. Amid this trauma and her father's harsh efforts to control her life, literature -- both reading and writing -- became her vehicle for escape and survival. She was good enough to get a story published (in a Vienna humor journal) while still a teenager, but, rather than pursue a writing career, Baum took up music, studying the harp at the Vienna Conservatory and later playing professionally in different orchestras. Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1912 and she remarried four years later. Establishing herself as a writer during the period in between, she publishing her first novel, Fruhe Schatten (Early Shadows) in 1914.
Discovering she was capable of earning more as an author than a musician, Baum gave up music and turned to writing full-time. Beginning in 1920, her books became enormously popular in the German-speaking world, and were published by Ullstein, one of the biggest houses in Vienna. Baum was never entirely comfortable, however, with the kind of potboiler-type books that the publisher wanted from her, preferring to pursue more serious fiction. It was only in 1926, faced with the growing financial need of her family, that she succumbed to the company's offer of a lucrative exclusive contract; from then on, her fate was sealed. Her works followed a pattern, appearing in serialized form in popular magazines accompanied by their publication as books. The public in Austria and Germany devoured Baum's writing, in which she managed to work some interesting elements. Stud.chem.Helene Willfuer (1928, aka Helene) was built around a modern, liberated, young female college student, complete with sexual involvements and a focus on its characters' careers. This helped make Baum a controversial author at the time, running afoul of the conservative sensibilities of many German and Austrian social critics. Her next book, Menschen im Hotel (1929, later known as Grand Hotel), was even more successful. Adapted into a Broadway play in 1930, its film rights were purchased by MGM. Baum visited Hollywood before production of the movie, although she didn't contribute to the screenplay. But she did find a much safer and more hospitable place for a Jewish woman writer in 1931 -- especially compared to that of Germany and Austria. By the following year, she and her family had emigrated to the U.S., where the success of the film Grand Hotel ensured her of a positive reception from publishers and film studios alike. Baum became the model potboiler writer, establishing a formula in which diverse characters -- largely or entirely unaware of each other -- come together to interact for a single day or short series of events amid a grand canvas. Novelist Arthur Hailey, among many others, would re-use that formula over and over again in the 1960s and '70s. Disaster movies would utilize it, as well, but, in terms of modern popular culture, it all began with Baum and Grand Hotel.
Baum wrote plays and scripts for various studios, including MGM and Paramount, and was -- along with Marlene Dietrich -- one of the most celebrated German expatriates of the 1930s and '40s, also playing an active role in selling war bonds during World War II. And she continued to publish fiction. Tale of Bali and The Weeping Wood were successful in book form, and Warner Bros. made a movie of Hotel Berlin '43 in 1944. The latter work was noteworthy for its time as a relatively knowing drama -- albeit written by someone out of the country for 11 years -- about life in the Nazi capital amid the collapsing German war effort, and was one of the few high-profile, big-studio movies of the middle war years to specifically mention the plight of Jews under the Nazi regime. But though her books remained popular, they were never taken as seriously by the critics as she had wished. Baum finally made what she felt was a contribution to serious literature, however, with her 1953 book The Mustard Seed, a complex critique of American life and mores; nevertheless, it was received no differently than her earlier work had been.
Baum died in Hollywood in 1960 at the age of 72. In 1997, Austrian director Peter Patzak made a film adaptation of her novel Hotel Shanghai, a fictionalized account of an event that led to the Sino-Japanese War in 1937.