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Four Walls and a Funeral

Who: Leni Riefenstahl and Ruth Steiner

When: December 30, 1938

Where: The pages of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favorite filmmaker, comes to San Francisco.

On December 29 German film director Leni Riefenstahl, 36, drives up from Santa Barbara bearing four reels of genius. "Olympiad," her documentary of the 1936 Berlin Games, is one of the most acclaimed films of the century and her calling card to Hollywood. But her Nazi associations (the strapping brunette is Reichsfuehrer Hitler's favorite cinematrix) make Riefenstahl persona non-grata in Los Angeles. She hopes San Francisco's World's Fair Committee will be more receptive, and optioning her masterwork for the upcoming Golden Gate Exposition.

The screening goes well. Riefenstahl writes in her 1992 memoirs. The committee loved her film and promise her a contract.

The same day in the Richmond Ruth Steiner, 28, dons a sweater to ward off the chill before leaving her home at 75 20th Avenue. She and her husband Walter, 30, arrived in San Francisco three months earlier as newlywed Jewish refugees from Germany. Ruth finds work as housemaid for Samuel and Rosa Israel on 28th Avenue. Her relatives remain trapped inside Nazi Germany. Terror against the Jews grows there and Ruth has become increasingly distraught over her family's fate.

Steiner arrives at the Golden Gate Bridge. She pays the 5-cent pedestrian toll and steps onto the foggy span. At 1:17 PM she becomes the new landmark's tenth suicide. Her farewell note to Walter begins: "My dear sweetheart: For me life is without sense any longer."

That night Riefenstahl celebrates. After Hollywood's frosty reception, the warmth in San Francisco makes her ebullient and she gets "a bit tipsy."

Steiner's death and Riefenstahl's visit make the next day's papers. The German director combs her hair and checks her compact mirror. She pronounces California "lovely" in husky, accented English and tells reporters she does not concern herself with politics, instead building "four walls about me - so - when I am at work. I work always."

Steiner's funeral will be a private affair. Riefenstahl motors off to spend New Years in Yosemite confidant in her success.

Yet "Olympiad" is never screened at the Fair - the offer is withdrawn, Riefenstahl says, because the committee feared a controversy about the film. Today Riefensthal maintains she knew nothing of the Third Reich's horrors. Her newest film "Underwater Impressions" premieres this August in time for her 100th birthday.

Andrew Nelson lives and writes in San Francisco.

<i>Copyright 2001 - 2002 Andrew T. Nelson. All rights reserved.</i><BR>