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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SIX Marlene Dietrich

Instead of pushing on for Potsdam, the Route Marshal thought we should head south to Schöneberg, near Tempelhof airfield, to visit the house where Marlene Dietrich was born in 1901. Appropriate, given yesterday's subject-matter, because Marlene was part of the resistance in the diaspora. She refused Nazi requests to return to Germany from Hollywood and in 1937 donated $450,000 to a fund that she had set up to save Jews from persecution. She sold war bonds, was close to the action with Patton and she entertained the GIs. In fact, so willing was she to entertain the troops that she ended up with venereal disease.

"I am at heart a gentleman"

She was famously promiscuous - and bisexual: in Morocco (1930), the tuxedo-clad Dietrich "gave cinema one of its first on-screen lesbian kisses, securing her status as an LGBTQ+ icon". Her lovers ranged across Errol Flynn, Errol Flynn's wife, Kirk Douglas, Dolores del Rio, John Wayne, John F Kennedy and also his father - as well as John Wayne, Greta Garbo's lover Mercedes de Acosta and George Bernard Shaw. As GBS wrote, perhaps with Marlene in mind: "The sex relation is not a personal relation. It can be irresistibly desired and rapturously consummated between persons who could not endure one another for a day in any other relation". Her psychological make up was undoubtedly complex. Her father died when she was 6 years old; her mother had a liaison with his best friend – which became a marriage when Marlene was 13. There is no direct evidence of sexual abuse – but her behaviours would suggest some childhood trauma: her remarkable promiscuity; her androgyny; her chronic fear of germs (she was known in Hollywood circles as 'the Ajax Queen'); her lack of human feelings. Her daughter says she “went out of her way to suppress any feelings of common humanity and kindness …. She never laughed. Glacial stares were more her speciality.”

She was, to a large extent, a construct: she spoke of herself in the third person - her daughter's biography records that “Dietrich often spoke of herself in the third person, saying things like, 'Oh, Dietrich would never wear that hat,' or 'That is how Dietrich would do it.' She worked hard all her life to cultivate that aura of perfection and glamour, playing a perpetual part any time she was in the public eye."

Her daughter regarded her as a 'monster'. But an incredibly successful monster. She became Hollywood's highest paid actress and so famous that a major asteroid, the 47 kilometre wide '1010 Marlene', was named after her. One of her lovers was Anne Warner, wife of the owner of Warner Studios – but neither this nor her availability were at the root of her success. It is not unfair to say that she stood willingly and knowingly on the shoulders of giants - two of them: Burt Bacharach and Joseph von Sternberg – whose film The Blue Angel gave her stardom in Germany and her ticket to stardom in Hollywood (continuing under von Sternberg's direction through six Hollywood blockbusters, including Morocco and also the highest grossing picture of 1932 - Shanghai Express). In Seductive Departures of Marlene Dietrich: Exile and Stardom in The Blue Angel, Elisabeth Bronfen writes: “Much has been written about the manner in which Marlene Dietrich, Hollywood's glamour star par excellence of the 30s and 40s, appeared from the start to be nothing other than a creation of Josef von Sternberg, or, as Richard Dyer notes "a pure vehicle for the latter's fantasies and formalist concerns." Yet, one must not forget that Sternberg was himself responsible for the idea that the icon of female seduction he had artificially constructed was fundamentally uncanny - a refiguration of his masculine self in a feminine body. Casting himself in the role of Svengali Joe, he enjoyed proclaiming, "In my films Marlene is not herself. Remember that, Marlene is not Marlene. I am Marlene, she knows that better than anyone”.

(Marlene in von Sternberg's scarf. His daughter said she treated his overcoat as though it "had magic powers ...she ...fondled it before hanging it up")

And then when her film career was not doing so well after the war, she became a cabaret singer and linked up with Burt Bacharach. His arrangements made the best of her limited vocal range and when he stopped working with her, she was desolate: “He had become so indispensable to me that, without him, I no longer took much joy in singing. When he left me, I felt like giving everything up. I had lost my director, my support, my teacher, my maestro”.

Bacharach remembered: “I started in Vegas with her, trying to make a living. You could say the music wasn’t my kind of music. It actually sucked! But I liked her … I have to say, she was very supportive of me … I remember coming out of one concert and there was a huge throng waiting for her, and they’re all “Marlene can I have your autograph?” And she said – loudly – “You don’t vont my autograph. You vont him!” Here she is displaying her 'nude dress' and her limited vocal range:

Her story ended sadly - she died a recluse in Paris in 1992, bedridden, alcoholic and addicted to painkillers. "When you're dead, you're dead. That's it", she once said - but even though she had renounced her German nationality and become American, she retained her sense of Germaness: at her request, she was buried back in Schöneberg, near the house where she had been born.

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Apr 17, 2020

Interesting! I was just reading about her in the book, the Bitter Taste of Victory.

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