Dietrich, Marlene (1901–1992)
Dietrich, Marlene (1901–1992)
German-born film actress who became an international celebrity following her appearance in The Blue Angel. Born Maria Magdalena Dietrich in Berlin, Germany, on December 27, 1901; died in Paris, France, on May 6, 1992, of liver and kidney failure; daughter of Louis (a lieutenant in the Royal Prussian police) and Wilhemina (Felsing) Dietrich; had an older sister, Elisabeth; married Rudolph Sieber, in 1923; children: one daughter, Maria Riva (b. 1924).
Began her show business career as a chorus girl and was given her first substantial film role (1923); known only to German-speaking audiences until her discovery by director Josef von Sternberg, who cast her as the female lead in his The Blue Angel (1929); an international hit, the film brought her to Hollywood; continued to work with von Sternberg on a number of films before establishing professional credentials on her own and gaining international celebrity status; refused an offer by Hitler just before World War II to return to Germany and appear only in German films; instead, became a U.S. citizen, entertained U.S. troops during the war, and was awarded the National Medal of Freedom for tireless support of the Allied war effort; acting career faded (1950s), though she was much praised for work in smaller roles in such prestigious films Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); rarely appeared in public (1980s), only her voice being heard in the last film in which she participated, the biography Marlene (1984).
Der kleine Napoleon (1923); Tragödie der Liebe (1923); Der Mensch am Wege (1923); Der Sprung ins Leben (1924); Die Freudlose Gasse (1925); Manon Lescaut (1926); Eine Dubarry von heute (1926); Kopf hoch Charly! (1926); Madame wünst keine Kinder (1926); Der Juxbaron (1927); Sein grösser Bluff (1927); Wenn ein Weib den Weg verliert (1927); Prinzessin Olala (1928); Ich küsse ihre Hand Madame (1929); Die Frau nach der man sich sehnt (1929); Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen (1929); Gehfaren der Brautzeit (1929); Der blaue Engel (1930).
Morocco (1930); Dishonored (1931); Shanghai Express (1932); Blonde Venus (1932); Song of Songs (1933); The Scarlet Empress (1934); The Devil Is a Woman (1935); Desire (1936); The Garden of Allah (1936); (British) Knight Without Armor (1937); Angel (1937); Destry Rides Again (1939); Seven Sinners (1940); The Flame of New Orleans (1941); Manpower (1941); The Lady Is Willing (1942); Pittsburgh (1942); The Spoilers (1942); (cameo only) Follow the Boys (1944); Kismet (1944); (French) Martin Roumagnac (1946); Golden Earrings (1947); A Foreign Affair (1948); (cameo only) Jigsaw (1949); Stage Fright (1950); No Highway In the Sky (1951); Rancho Notorious (1952); (cameo only) Around the World in Eighty Days (1956); Monte Carlo (1957); Witness for the Prosecution (1958); A Touch of Evil (1958); Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); (narration only) Black Fox (1962); (cameo only) Paris When It Sizzles (1964); Just a Gigolo (1979); (voice only) Marlene (1982).
On a warm summer's day in 1997, journalist Francine du Plessix Gray was invited to inspect a rather modest apartment on upper Park
Avenue in New York. Although Marlene Dietrich had died in Paris nearly five years previously and had not lived in New York since the late 1970s, her family had maintained the apartment virtually undisturbed before finally deciding to sell and put much of its contents up for auction at Sotheby's. In opposition to Dietrich's flamboyant and sometimes controversial lifestyle, Gray reported, the objets d'art and furnishings were few and unassuming and of less interest than a number of smaller items, the "private tokens of a complex woman." There was a small sewing table at which Dietrich, in the later years of her career, repaired the beads and sequins of the gowns worn for her cabaret act; two ancient rotary phones with cords long enough to allow Dietrich to talk while she moved about the kitchen preparing her favorite recipes; and a cheap electric clock onto which Dietrich had pasted the telephone numbers of the daughter and husband she rarely saw. Such were the domestic icons of a woman who was, successively, a notorious Hollywood "love goddess" and rival to Greta Garbo , a hero of the Allied war effort in World War II, a smoky-voiced cabaret singer, and, for the last 20 years of her life, a recluse who refused to be photographed even for a documentary film prepared about her.
Marlene Dietrich in the film Foreign Affair">
Take my lovely illusions—some for laughs, some for tears.
—Sung by Marlene Dietrich in the film Foreign Affair
Such notoriety did not seem likely during Marlene Dietrich's childhood in a bourgeois Berlin household ruled by her domineering father Louis Dietrich, a lieutenant in the Royal Prussian police, and, following his wishes, her disciplinarian mother Wilhemina Felsing Dietrich ; they had two daughters. Elisabeth had been born in February of 1900, a year after the couple's marriage, while Maria Magdalena, later known as Marlene, followed on December 27, 1901. Friends noted that Marlene seemed to be the more clever of the two girls, able to read by the time she was four, as well as being prettier than her older sister, with the blue eyes and clear skin of her Prussian forebears. As soon as Marlene and Elisabeth were old enough, their mother assigned them daily household tasks to help her keep their genteel home in Berlin's Schöneberg section as immaculate as any of the military barracks her husband supervised. Louis Dietrich demanded inner discipline from his daughters, too, discouraging any outward display of emotion. As an elderly woman, Dietrich would still remember the sting of her mother's slap, delivered in private after a dancing lesson during which she had refused to partner one of the boys present and had pulled a long face. "You must not show your feelings," Wilhemina reminded her. "It is bad manners." Wilhemina did not even allow her daughters, or herself, the luxury of public displays of grief when Louis Dietrich died in 1907, after a fall from a horse precipitated a heart attack.
But Wilhemina took care to reward her daughters when they had performed up to standard, taking them to Berlin's Scala Theater, which then presented the city's largest variety shows full of jugglers, clowns, singers, and impersonators, or to the State Theater, famous throughout Europe for the quality of its dramatic productions. From their grandmother Felsing, the matriarch of a long-established family of jewelers, the girls learned about current fashions and the fine art of dressing and adornment by being taken to the Felsing jewelry shop on Berlin's Unter den Linden. By the time Marlene was enrolled in a girls' school with a female staff and had begun violin and piano lessons with female teachers, her world was largely devoid of men, the few males with whom they came in contact being "old or ill, not real men," Dietrich said. Even a stepfather—Eduard von Losch, another military man whom Wilhemina married in 1911—did not intrude, for he lived in the household only eight months before being called to duty and later dying of an infection from a battle wound received early in World War I. An uncle and two cousins were also among the nearly two million Germans killed during the conflict.
Wilhemina and her two girls survived the deprivations of wartime by moving to a smaller apartment, Wilhemina finding work as a housekeeper while struggling with her depression at the loss of two husbands. Marlene found her own solace in the stories and lessons of gay Parisian life before the war which had been taught to her by a French teacher on whom she developed her first crush. When the teacher was summarily fired as anti-French sentiment swept Germany on the outbreak of war, Marlene clung to the bright visions of a world of dance halls, music, and laughter. She also began to notice during these war years that men were, by and large, unnecessary. "[German women] did not seem to suffer in a world without men," she recalled many years later. "Our life among women had become such a pleasant habit that the prospect that the men might return … disturbed us—men who would again take the scepter in their hands and again become lords of their households."
Matters did not seem to improve with Germany's defeat at the end of the war, when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne and the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Germany, with its severely leftist orientation, set off street riots throughout the country culminating in the assassination of the Republic's prime minister in 1919. That same year, a new, more moderate government was formed in Weimar, long a center of Germany's intellectual and musical life. Leaving Elisabeth behind in Berlin to begin training as a teacher, Wilhemina and Marlene moved to Weimar where Dietrich, now 17, began a course of study as a classical violinist and took advantage of living in a dormitory away from her mother by embarking on her first affair with a male lover, who happened to be her violin teacher. This indiscretion may have been responsible for Wilhemina's hurried move back to Berlin barely a year later, where Marlene was enrolled at Berlin's Music Academy. But the social and intellectual ferment that marked Weimar Germany was already having its effect on Wilhemina's younger daughter. It was during these years that Marlene became passionately devoted to the theater and cabaret, where the cynical wit and amorality of a country adrift after a crushing defeat found full expression.
Flooded by immigrants displaced by the upheavals of war, Berlin during the early 1920s had become the third largest city in the world with a population of some four million. The resulting cultural fertilization was evident in the explosive growth of artistic expression on the stage, where Max Reinhardt was staging innovative, avantgarde works at the Deutsches Theater for the intellectual upper classes while cabarets, popular with the middle and lower classes, were famous for their political satire and flaunting of sexual taboos ("We say no to everything!" one of them smirked in an advertisement). The German film industry, which had been consolidated under government sponsorship during the war in the immense Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft (Universal Film Company, or UFA) was now privately held and was producing silent films known around the world for their startling creative effects and psychologically penetrating stories. (Among the many directors who learned their craft at UFA were Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Ernst Lubitsch, all of whom would eventually direct Marlene Dietrich.) Along with this artistic ferment came a complete lack of censorship, so that silent film masterpieces like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Dr. Mabuse jostled for screen time with Hyenas of Lust and A Man's Girlhood.
Maria Magdalena Dietrich von Losch, now permanently living apart from Wilhemina, partook enthusiastically of Berlin's frenetic social life, earning her living by day in hat shops or glove factories and spending her nights at any number of cabarets catering to every variety of political and sexual orientation. It is likely that her roommate at this time, an aspiring writer named Gerta Huber , became the first of many female lovers. Friends from this period remembered Dietrich as a boisterous, somewhat chubby young woman fond of a good meal and a good time. "She was anything but a sex bomb," one of them recalled. "She was much more interested, although not exclusively, in women. If she wanted a man now and then, she simply showered him with sweetness, but any direct offer would have to come from her. She forgot [casual sexual encounters] immediately."
As her independence from her mother grew, Dietrich found work not as a violinist for a respectable orchestra, but in the small ensembles that played cabarets. She also managed to get herself accepted in Max Reinhardt's acting classes at the Deutsches Theater; and, on being repeatedly complimented on her legs, began posing for commercial photographers. Films beckoned, too, although her first audition at UFA's Templehof studios did not impress the director, who predicted she had no future in films. But it was under her chosen name of Marlene Dietrich (Marlene being a contraction of her first and middle names) that she was selected from a group of fellow acting students to play a small role in a melodrama called Tragödie der Liebe (The Tragedy of Love), in which she was given one scene that served as a brief comic relief in an otherwise grim tale of an ill-fated romance. She was hired for the picture after the director's assistant, a handsome blond named Rudolph Sieber, urged his superior to use her. A courtship ensued, Rudi Sieber attracted by Dietrich's sensuality and Dietrich impressed by Sieber's refined manners and the fact that he had influence with film directors. The two were married in a civil ceremony on May 17, 1923, by which time Marlene was already pregnant with a daughter, Maria (Riva) , born in December of that year.
Sieber attempted to keep a close eye on Dietrich's nocturnal adventures and her affections for other women, but even marriage failed to reduce his wife's reputation at Berlin's cabarets, at which she often appeared wearing a monocle, a feather boa, and no underwear. Her professional talents drew attention, too, when she was cast in her first major stage role in a drama at the Grosses Schausspielhaus called Von Mund zu Mund (From Mouth to Mouth). Three musical numbers were inserted into her spoken dialogue, and Dietrich mesmerized audiences with her detached, almost disinterested delivery. She later said that the half-spoken, half-sung style she adopted was modeled on two leading singer/actresses of the day—Zarah Leander , known for her poignant delivery of romantic ballads, and Claire Waldoff , famous for her gruff presentation to cabaret audiences of sharp social satires. Although one reviewer at the time called Waldoff "a barrel-chested little Valkyrie" and a modern biographer felt she looked "like Mickey Rooney in drag," Waldoff and Dietrich later became lovers and often appeared in cabaret shows together.
While Dietrich's film career seemed stalled, with only three small roles during 1926 and 1927, she became an overnight sensation for her work in a musical review at Berlin's Komödie Theater in Es Leigt in der Luft (It's in the Air), in which she and the wife of the show's producer famously played one sketch called "Sisters" with unmistakable lesbian undertones, emphasized by bunches of violets—known to all of Berlin's demimonde at the time as symbols of homosexuality—pinned to their costumes. "Marlene Dietrich sings with delicacy and tired elegance," one reviewer wrote. "The number 'Sisters' goes beyond anything so cultivatedly daring we've ever seen." While the show was playing to packed houses during 1928, Dietrich's notoriety landed her the title role in the sexually satirical film Prinzessin Olala, in which she was first compared to Greta Garbo, whose work Dietrich much admired. Another film role that year, playing the mistress of a man who murders his wife in Die Frau nach der man sich sehnt (The Woman One Longs For), strengthened the similarity between herself and Garbo, although the film's director, Kurt Bernhardt, found Dietrich exasperating. "She was so aware of her face that she would not let herself be photographed in profile, because her nose turned up somewhat," he later remembered. "She never moved her head from the spotlight over the camera, facing forward and refusing to move her head to speak with other actors. She simply looked at them out of the corner of her eye. Marlene looked fantastic, but as an actress she was the punishment of God." Bernhardt would not be the last to suffer from Dietrich's preoccupation with her appearance.
Riva, Maria (1924—)
American writer and actress. Born Maria Sieber in December 23, 1924, in Berlin, Germany; daughter of Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992) and Rudolph Sieber; married; children: three sons.
Maria Riva was born Maria Sieber in 1924, the daughter of Marlene Dietrich and Rudolph Sieber. In 1934, she appeared as an actress in the film The Scarlet Empress. Under the name Maria Riva, she also made frequent appearances on many top shows in the early years of television, including "Hallmark Hall of Fame," "Philco Playhouse," "Armstrong Circle Theater," "Omnibus," as well as ten appearances on "Studio One," and three on "Robert Montgomery Presents." Her mother kept her date of birth so secret, that Riva did not know the year until 1976, when she found her birth certificate among her just-deceased father's papers. In 1993, Riva published her landmark biography of her mother, a work that met with critical acclaim.
By now, Berlin representatives of major Hollywood studios were sending cables to America about "the new Garbo," even though for most Berliners, Marlene Dietrich remained a stage personality. In the audience one night during her appearance in a 1929 revue called Zwei Krawatten (Two Neckties) was an Austrian who had immigrated to Hollywood some 20 years before to become one of Paramount's leading directors, with seven successful films to his credit. Now casting the female lead in his next production, Josef von Sternberg knew he had found her when Dietrich stepped on stage that night. "Here was the face I had sought," he later wrote, "and as far as I could tell, a figure that did justice to it." Von Sternberg's film was Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), based on a 1902 German novel about a respected bourgeois professor whose love for an amoral cabaret singer destroys him socially and professionally. Neither the film's producer nor its male star, the great German actor Emil Jannings, thought much of Dietrich's abilities when she auditioned, but von Sternberg was so smitten with her that he threatened to quit the film if she wasn't hired to play Lola Lola. "Von Sternberg had only one idea in his head," Dietrich later wrote. "To take me away from the stage and to make a movie actress out of me, to 'Pygmalionize' me. I didn't know what I was doing. I just tried to do what he told me." Von Sternberg dictated her every move, every expression, every reaction during the filming, which stretched from November of 1929 to January of 1930 because each scene had to be shot twice—once in German and once in English, Dietrich's thick accent adding even more frustration to the process. She sang four songs as Lola Lola, the most famous of which became her signature, "Falling in Love Again," although it was "A Regular Man," with its sexually domineering lyrics, that became the anthem of thousands of Berlin women during the early 1930s:
How he looks, I care a lot.
I can pick him like a shot.
There's nothing to it
I have to get a man that's a man,
That's a regular man.
Dietrich complained throughout the shoot that von Sternberg was torturing her and that Jannings hated her, especially when she felt Jannings' enthusiasm during a scene in which he attempts to strangle her was needlessly energetic. She predicted that the film would ruin her future in pictures but nonetheless took care to ask von Sternberg, who by now was her lover, to arrange a contract for her with Paramount as long as it stipulated that he would direct her. Despite her expectations, the Berlin reviews for her work in Der Blaue Engel were ecstatic. "She is common without being common," one critic enthused, "and altogether extraordinary." The day after the Berlin opening, Dietrich set sail for America with a one-picture deal from Paramount, causing somewhat of a stir during the Atlantic crossing by propositioning the American wife of a prominent theatrical costumer. She was rebuffed in her advances, even when she explained that "in Europe, it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman. We make love with anyone we find attractive."
America first heard Marlene Dietrich's husky, smoke-edged voice on Paramount's national radio show, the "Publix Hour," on her arrival in New York. It was followed by a carefully stage-managed arrival in Hollywood to begin Morocco, the first of seven American films with von Sternberg, while Dietrich carried on simultaneous affairs with one of her leading men, Gary Cooper, and with Maurice Chevalier, who denied the liaison in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the divorce for which his wife had promptly filed. Although there was the usual difficulty with Dietrich's accent, Morocco premiered to great acclaim in November of 1930, quickly followed by the English version of The Blue Angel, the release of which Paramount had delayed to allow public attention to build for the star they promoted as their answer to Garbo ("And who is this Miss Dietrich?" Garbo disingenuously inquired when reporters asked for her opinion of her new rival.) Morocco was nominated for four Oscars, including one for Dietrich for her portrayal of a cabaret singer who falls in love with a wealthy entertainer. With just two pictures, von Sternberg had catapulted Dietrich to the top of the Hollywood pecking order.
Thus began one of the American film industry's most curious relationships, von Sternberg obsessed with his creation and Dietrich unwilling to work with any other director. "I am Miss Dietrich. Miss Dietrich is me," von Sternberg intoned to the press. On her return from a vacation to Germany to visit husband Rudi and bring back her daughter Maria (who was traveling to the States with her mother and Gerta Huber, who was now hired as nanny), Dietrich was served with divorce papers by von Sternberg's wife, accusing her of alienation of affections and asking for $600,000 in damages. After the divorce, von Sternberg and Dietrich kept house together, occasionally welcoming Rudi Sieber on his visits to the woman who was still legally his wife. Dietrich made no secret of her admiration and devotion to von Sternberg, whose mission, she said, was "to photograph me, make me laugh, dress me up, comfort me, advise me, coddle me, explain things to me." Such a demanding list of requirements soon began to tell on von Sternberg, who threatened at least twice to quit Paramount rather than do another picture with Dietrich but who was always wooed back into the fold by Paramount's offers of higher salaries and Marlene's persuasive outbursts.
Meanwhile, Maria was sent off to a private school. While Dietrich lavished expensive clothes and gifts on her daughter, the relationship between the two remained distant. "I always felt she wanted to be with other people," Maria Riva wrote in her biography of her mother published 60 years later. "I remember how I used to cry at night. I wasn't left alone, but I knew that the servants and bodyguards were simply there to take care of me, and I disliked them." Her happiest times were when Rudi came to visit, usually when Paramount needed to show Dietrich in a traditional family setting after her much publicized amours. Knowledge of Marlene's relationships with other women (notably screenwriter Mercedes de Acosta who, to Dietrich's great satisfaction, threw over Greta Garbo for her) were usually confined to Hollywood's inner circles. Dietrich's habit of dressing in trousers, tweed jackets, monocles and berets became a fad among American women and led The Los Angeles Times to call her "the best dressed man in Hollywood."
By the mid-1930s, Marlene Dietrich had become Paramount's biggest grossing female star under von Sternberg's meticulous eye. Blonde Venus, for example, earned $3 million for the studio in the first few weeks of its release. She was not without her critics in the trade press who accused her of being a mere icon and not a true actress. Perversely, Dietrich agreed with them. "I am not an actress, no," she said. "I don't like making pictures, and I haven't got to act to be happy. Perhaps that is the secret." Also numbered among her critics was the increasingly powerful Nazi party in Germany, which accused her of betraying her native country. "As long as she opts for the dollar and has shaken the dust of her Fatherland from her feet, can the new Germany place any value on the importance of her movies?" asked one party-controlled newspaper. In 1934, by which time Hitler's National Socialist Party controlled the Reichstag, Dietrich's Song of Songs was banned from German cinemas because it had been adapted from a novel by a Jewish writer and had been financed by "Jewish Hollywood money."
Song of Songs was the first film in six years that had not been directed by von Sternberg, after Paramount had threatened legal action against Dietrich for refusing to do the picture under Rouben Mamoulian's direction. By now, von Sternberg wanted to move on to other projects with other stars. "She is a complete artist and another director will be better for her now," von Sternberg said publicly, keeping silent about the strains in personal and professional lives and Dietrich's insecurities about working with anyone else. Their last film together was 1935's The Devil Is a Woman, yet another tale of a good man (Lionel Atwill's military officer) brought low by a bad woman (Dietrich's factory worker). Tensions between Dietrich and von Sternberg during filming often erupted in violent arguments. "He bawled her out in front of everyone," remembered co-star Cesar Romero, "and made her repeat difficult scenes endlessly and needlessly until she just cried and cried." To add to their crumbling relationship, the picture performed badly at the box office and was banned not only in Germany, but in Spain, where Francisco Franco's regime objected to a military officer being made a fool by a peasant girl. Paramount eventually withdrew the film completely from international release.
Early in 1935, Dietrich announced to the press that she was no longer Josef von Sternberg's protegée, making sure to point out that it was his wish to sever the relationship. "I would prefer to go on as in the past," she said. "It is so wonderful to have someone to look after your interests." Many years later, von Sternberg put their separation in plainer terms in his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. Noting that Marlene would often whisper "Where are you, Jo?" into the microphone after a scene, he retorted, "Well, I'm right here, and should she be angry once more when she reads this, she might recall that she was often angry with me, and for no good reason." Von Sternberg left both Dietrich and Paramount after The Devil Is a Woman, suffered a nervous breakdown, and completed only seven more films over the next thirty years, none of which were successful, before his death in 1969.
As Dietrich had feared, her Hollywood star began to wane with von Sternberg's departure while her attempts to insist on arranging her own lighting and camera angles were the bane of directors. After only three films, her contract was not renewed by Paramount. From June 1937 to September 1939, she was absent from the screen completely and even appeared on a list of actresses of whom the president of the Independent Theater Owner's of America claimed Americans had grown tired. During her enforced retirement, Dietrich indulged in several wellpublicized affairs, taking among her lovers Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., novelist Erich Maria Remarque (who described her as a "steel orchid"), and French actor Jean Gabin, who had come to Hollywood to film Manpower with her. He was the only man, Dietrich later said, with whom she was truly in love.
In June 1939, as Europe prepared for war, Dietrich answered increasingly strident Nazi demands that she return to her own country by becoming a U.S. citizen. Later that summer, novelist Remarque urged her to accept the role of an over-the-hill, dance-hall girl of the Old West in Joe Pasternak's spoof of the Western genre, Destry Rides Again, telling her the role of the boozy Frenchy would revive her career. He was right. Her rendition of "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" made her just as famous as "Falling in Love Again" had done ten years earlier, and her scenes opposite Jimmy Stewart's gentle Tom Destry were praised for their ironic wit. The experience led to two more pictures for Pasternak, Seven Sinners with John Wayne and The Spoilers in 1942.
By now, Hollywood was going to war. Dietrich, angry at what the Nazis were doing to Germany and fearful for her mother's safety, plunged into war work with startling energy. She tirelessly entertained troops during USO shows in the United States and Europe, sometimes being so close to the front lines that she narrowly
escaped injury on at least two occasions and had to be airlifted to safety. From England, she sang on radio broadcasts beamed to Germany, during which she urged her nation to have courage and resist Nazi tyranny. For two years, from 1942 to 1944, Dietrich remained in Europe and refused all offers of work not directly related to the war. Finally, after Germany's surrender in 1944, she was briefly reunited with her mother in June of that year. The following November, Wilhemina Felsing Dietrich von Losch died and was buried in Berlin.
Returning to America, Dietrich was awarded the Medal of Freedom for her war work and appeared in her first postwar film, Golden Earrings, playing a Rom (gypsy) who helps a British intelligence officer smuggle war secrets out of Germany. It was the beginning of a number of respected films for Hollywood's best directors, many of whom were themselves Europeans who had emigrated. In Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, playing the German mistress of an American officer in postwar Berlin, Dietrich is first seen with her hair unkempt, wearing hardly any makeup, and sloppily brushing her teeth—certainly a departure from her carefully cultivated screen image of the von Sternberg days and a tribute to Wilder's influence. Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, gave her free rein on the set of his Stage Fright and ignored the complaints from fellow cast members that Dietrich was directing her own lighting and performance. "Marlene was a professional star," Hitchcock later said, adding puckishly, "She was also a professional cameraman, art director, editor, costume designer, hairdresser, makeup woman, composer, producer, and director." Hitchcock's instincts were predictably correct, for Dietrich's performance as actress Charlotte Inwood in the film is generally considered among her finest, along with her performance as Christine Vole in Wilder's 1957 Witness for the Prosecution, in which she adopted a Cockney accent taught to her by co-star Charles Laughton. Marlene was sure her portrayal of a woman who lies on the witness stand to protect her husband would bring her a second Oscar nomination and was bitterly disappointed when it failed to materialize.
Now nearing 60 and with parts becoming more scarce, Dietrich decided to return to the stage. She had already been appearing with her own cabaret show in Las Vegas, starting in 1953, and then hired a 30-year-old Burt Bacharach to help her redesign the act and supply new material. Bacharach's suggestions paid off, for by 1958, Dietrich could command a salary of over $100,000 for a two-week engagement. But salary was hardly the issue in 1958, when Dietrich stepped onto a Berlin stage for the first time in nearly 30 years. Her Allied war work still rankled, for she was the object of several street protests and indignant editorials; and a quarter of the Titiania Palace's 2,000 seats remained empty on opening night. But the audience, led by then-chancellor Willy Brandt, rose to its feet after her last number, "I Still Have a Valise Left in Berlin," which she had carefully rehearsed to reaffirm her German heritage. She gracefully accepted 11 curtain calls. "She won her battle from the first moment," reported Berlin's Der Abend. "She stood there like a queen, proud and sovereign."
By the 1970s, however, reminders of her days of glory seemed to be fading. Von Sternberg's death was followed by those of Gary Cooper, Erich Maria Remarque, Maurice Chevalier, and Mercedes de Acosta. In London preparing for her first television special, her quiet grief boiled over into anger when she snapped at the show's producer that no one knew how to light her or knew which camera angles were right for her. "I was trained by the Master, Josef von Sternberg!" she shouted imperiously. "I'll pick the shots I think are best!" Tempers on the set were not helped when Dietrich fell during shooting, postponing production for several weeks. By 1975, she was painfully frail and collapsed after walking on stage in Sydney, Australia, suffering a broken leg. It proved to be her last appearance on a stage.
While she recuperated in a hospital during the spring of 1976, Dietrich learned that Rudi Sieber, whom she had never divorced, had died in California. "Poor Rudi," she mourned. "I don't know how he could have put up with it, living in the shadow of a famous woman." She might have said the same of her sister Elisabeth, who died the following year. Dietrich had never spoken publicly of the older sibling who had married and lived quietly in Berlin, and Elisabeth had never revealed voluntarily her relationship to one of the world's most well-known stars.
The year of Elisabeth's death, Dietrich made her last appearance on camera, in 1977's Just a Gigolo. She received $250,000 for two-and-ahalf days' work, playing a baroness who runs a ring of male prostitutes in Weimar Berlin. She arrived on the set for her first day's work with "her jaw set and her shoulders hunched with determination," as one crew member reported, walking with the support of her makeup artist because her eyesight was failing. Dietrich even sang on screen for the last time. It was an old, pre-World War I, German song, with the lines:
There will come a day
When youth will pass away.
Then what will they say
Hardly anyone ever saw Marlene Dietrich again after she finished work on the picture. She lived in self-imposed isolation in her Paris apartment on Avenue Montaigne, refusing all interviews and never venturing out in public except for appointments with doctors or for hospitalizations that became more frequent as the years passed. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., telephoned several times during a stay in Paris but reported that Dietrich pretended to be the maid, or the cook, and hung up; and Billy Wilder's repeated requests for a visit while he was shooting a picture in Paris were rebuffed. There was a flurry of anticipation in 1981 when it was learned that Dietrich had agreed to be interviewed for a filmed biography being prepared by German actor Maximilian Schell; but at the last minute, she refused to be photographed and only allowed her voice to be used. Dietrich completely disappeared from view after Schell's film was released in 1982, largely forgotten until the world learned of her death in Paris on May 6, 1992, at the age of 91.
An American flag, sent by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in honor of her war service, hung alongside the French tricolor during her funeral service at Paris' Church of the Madeleine; and at her burial next to her mother and sister in Berlin, that city's flag was draped over her coffin in tribute to the woman who had forsaken her career during the war to do what she thought best for her country. Like the sturdy plastic clock and the chunky black telephones left behind in her New York apartment, Marlene Dietrich often hid her natural pragmatism under the carefully applied veneer created by von Sternberg. "I'm no romantic dreamer," her ghostly, offcamera voice scoffs in Schell's biography, Marlene. "I'm a logical, practical person," she says, "who has worked all her life."
Gray, Francine du Plessix. "Revisiting Marlene Dietrich Through Her Homey Odds and Ends," in The New Yorker. August 25, 1997.
Spoto, Donald. Blue Angel: The Life and Death of Marlene Dietrich. NY: Doubleday, 1992.
Von Sternberg, Josef. Fun in a Chinese Laundry. NY: Macmillan, 1965.
Riva, Maria. Marlene Dietrich. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Norman Powers , writer/producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York