When her coffin, covered with an American flag and
flowers flung by fans, was laid to rest in a cemetery outside Berlin in 1992, very near the house where she was born in 1901, Marlene Dietrich's fabled life had come full circle. She was a great star of the cinema and a legendary concert performer. But it is her personal life, her political and moral convictions and her indomitable courage that make her so fascinating.
Maria Magdelena Dietrich (she gave herself the name Marlene) was interested in the arts from an early age and studied the violin. As a plump, pretty young chorus girl she got little attention when she appeared in a few silent films. She met her husband, Rudolf Sieber, on the set of her second film and gave birth to a daughter (actress Maria Riva) in 1924. The couple remained wed until Rudolf's death in 1976 despite Marlene's well publicized romantic entanglements over the years.
In 1929, the legend began when the actress played Lola-Lola, a cruel cabaret entertainer in The Blue Angel. She sang "Falling in Love Again." It became her signature theme. The director was Josef von Sternberg who became established in America and insisted that Paramount Studios import his leading lady. She was signed to a contract with hopes she might challenge M-G-M's Greta Garbo. Although Dietrich never rivaled Garbo's acting talent, her glamour quotient surpassed that of the Swedish star. Together the director and his star masterminded her indelible image and made six films; Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman.
The vision of her, slimmed down with her chiseled cheekbones and smoldering, languidly lidded eyes, is locked into cinematic history. Marlene Dietrich, swathed in feathers, befurred and mysteriously veiled, dripping satin and chiffon was presented as the seductive goddess. In breathtaking costumes, she as artfully captured in a dramatic key light and deep shadows, perfectly posed as she purrs dialogue with the distinctive accent she never lost. Her films became ehicles that capitalized on her otherworldly allure. Her stylized image began to undermine her career because it became so much more important than her acting or the plot of her films. By 1937, she was labeled "box office poison." A subsequent film, Destry Rides Again, revived her career and she went on to make many successful movies such as A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution, Stage Fright and Judgment at Nuremberg.
The woman behind the creation is not at all as she appears, but a hardworking hausfrau who understood that her screen persona was a carefully controlled self-creation. She dedicated herself to her appearance, learning the art of make-up, the craft of lighting (a butterfly shaped shadow under her nostrils was vital, as was a white line drawn down her nose to narrow it). Dissertations have been written about the evolution of her amazingly artificial eyebrows! She willingly stood for hours and hours at costumes fittings, sometimes suggesting that a single sequin be repositioned over and over again. Even her personal wardrobe garnered the same attention and the House of Dior records that she required sixteen fittings for every garment. The fact that she wore man-tailored trousers on the screen and in her private life was considered scandalous at first. In fact, in the mid 1930s the Chief of Paris Police threatened to arrest her if she insisted on wearing pants.
However, it is not her extraordinary screen career, but World War II that makes Marlene Dietrich's story so compelling. Adolf Hitler was obsessed with her and wanted her to abandon Hollywood and return to Germany where her international stardom would glorify the Third Reich. A staunch anti-Nazi, she refused and became an American citizen in 1939. When her adopted country entered the war in 1941, Dietrich sold war bonds and volunteered at the USO Hollywood Canteen. Not satisfied with those efforts, she went overseas to entertain the troops, often performing dangerously near the front lines, singing "Lili Marlene." She endured the same grueling hardships as the military men whom she referred to from then on as "my boys." She even recorded anti-Nazi radio broadcasts for the OSS (Secret Service). Her tireless efforts and genuine bravery under fire were remarkable and inspiring. The U.S. Government awarded Marlene Dietrich the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her heartfelt war work. She also received the Legion d'Honneur from the French government.
In 1953 Dietrich's career took on a new dimension when she signed a contract to appear in Las Vegas for the then astronomical amount of $30,000 per week. She had often sung in her films, but her vocal range was minimal, to put it mildly. However, her potent glamour more than made up for any musical shortcomings and her charisma was phenomenal. Just as she had rigidly controlled her image on film, Dietrich created a real-life illusion of enduring beauty on stage. Her stunning appearance seemed to defy time as she grew old but unchanged, standing perfectly positioned in the spotlight wearing an apparently transparent, sparkling gown, draped in a cloud of swansdown or coq feathers. (Her gowns were actually constructed on a foam rubber molded bodysuit). Marlene Dietrich's return to Germany for a concert tour in 1960 was controversial. Some Germans called her a traitor. Others idolized her. She toured the world with her one-woman show until 1975 despite breaking her leg during a performance in Australia and falling off the stage in London.
The last decade of Dietrich's life was spent in seclusion behind closed doors of her Paris apartment. In 1984, Maximilian Schell produced a rather strange though brilliant documentary of her life, interviewing her through the closed door of her bedroom. Marlene Dietrich died peacefully at the age of 90. 3,500 people attended her funeral in Paris before her remains were taken back to her birthplace in Germany.
The legend endures. Marlene Dietrich's magical essence is ephemeral although many have tried to explain it. Noel Coward introduced her nightclub debut in London with these poetic words:
"Though we all might enjoy
Seeing Helen of Troy
As a gay cabaret entertainer,
I doubt that she could
Be one quarter as good
As our legendary, lovely Marlene."