This is why I wanted to start a history blog, so I can come across people or events I’ve never heard about. When I was looking up #OnThisDay, I came across an actress by the name of Marlene Dietrich, born Marie Magdalene Dietrich. Looking up pictures of her, she seemed like a classy lady, I needed to know more.
Well, wasn’t I surprised on what I found out.
On 27 December 1901, Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine (who was from a wealthy Berlin Family who owned a jewellery and clock making firm), and Louis Erich Otto Dietrich (a police lieutenant), had their second daughter, Marie Magdalene Dietrich in the neighbourhood of Rote Insel in Schoneberg, now a district of Berlin.
Their first daughter, Elisabeth, was a year older than Marie Magdalene Dietrich.
In 1907, Marie’s father dies and his best friend, Eduard von Losch, an aristocratic first lieutenant in the Grenadiers, courted his widowed wife, Wilhelmina, and in 1916 they married. Eduard never officially adopted Elisabeth and Marie, so their surnames remained Dietrich. He died not long after marrying Wilhelmina due to injuries from the first world war.
She changed her name at the age of eleven. Her family nickname was Lena and Lene, so she joined her two first names to form “Marlene”.
From 1907 to 1917, she attended the Auguste-Viktoria Girls’ School, graduating in 1918 at Victoria-Luise-Schule. She studied violin, and hoped to one day be a concert violinist. Her first job was playing violin in a pit orchestra for silent films in 1922, but she was fired after only four weeks.
I have read that she faked having an injured wrist to get out of it. Also, Weimar Berlin introduced her to the “nightlife”, which she couldn’t resist.
Marlene was bisexual, quietly enjoying the thriving gay scene of the time and drag balls of the 1920s Berlin. She also defied conventional gender roles through her boxing at Turkish trainer and prize fighter, Sabri Mahir, boxing studio in Berlin, which opened to women in the late 1920s.
I don’t know how Marlene went from playing the violin to acting, (could be the “nightlife”) but her earliest professional stage appearances were as a chorus girl on tour with Guido Thielscher’s Girl-Kabarett vaudeville-style entertainments, and in Rudolf Nelson revues in Berlin.
In 1922, Marlene auditioned unsuccessfully for theatrical director and impresario Max Reinhardt’s drama academy. However, not long after, she was working in his theatres as a chorus girl and playing small roles in dramas. She made her film debut playing in a bit part in the film “The Little Napoleon” in 1923. At first, she didn’t attract any special attention.
In 1923, while on the set of Tragodie der Liebe, she met her future husband, Rudolf Sieber. They married in a civil ceremony in Berlin on 17 May 1923. And on 13 December 1924, she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Maria Elisabeth Sieber.
Throughout the 1920’s, Marlene continued to work on stage and in film both in Berlin and Vienna. On stage, she had roles in varying importance in Frank Wedekind’s “Pandora’s Box”, William Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, as well as George Bernard Shaw’s “Back to Methuselah” and “Misalliance”.
What attracted most attention was her roles in musicals and revues such as “Broadway”, “Es Liegt in der Luft”, and “Zwei Krawatten”. By the late 1920s, Marlene was playing big parts on screen, “Café Elektric” 1927, “Ich Kusse Ihre Hand, Madame” 1928, and “Das Schiff der Verlorenen Menschen” 1929.
It wasn’t until 1929 that Marlene landed her breakthrough role of Lola Lola, a cabaret singer who caused the downfall of a hitherto respectable schoolmaster, played by Emil Jannings, in the UFA-Paramount co-production of “The Blue Angel” 1930. Director Josef von Sternberg took credit for having discovered Marlene. The film also introduced her signature song “Falling in Love Again”, which she recorded for Electrola and later made further recordings in the 1930s for Polydor and Decca Records.
On the success of “The Blue Angel” and with the encouragement and promotion from director Josef von Sternberg, who was already established in Hollywood, Marlene moved to the United States under contract to Paramount Pictures. The studio set to market Marlene as a German answer to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Swedish sensation, Greta Garbo.
On her arrival to America, Josef von Sternberg welcomed her with gifts, including a green Rolls-Royce Phantom II, which later appeared in their first US film, “Morocco”.
Between 1930 and 1935, Marlene starred in six films directed by Josef von Sternberg with Paramount. They worked together to create the image of a glamourous and mysterious femme fatale, also encouraging her to lose weight and coaching her intensively as an actress. Not sure if it was her drive to become a famous actress, but she would willingly follow his sometimes-imperious direction in a way that a number of other performers resisted.
In the film “Morocco” she was again cast as a cabaret singer. The films most memorable moment was when Marlene was performing a song dressed in a man’s white tie and kissing another woman, both provocative and unheard of for that era. “Morocco” earned Marlene her first and only Academy Award nomination.
In 1931 the film “Dishonored” was released, a major success with Marlene cast as a Mata Hari-like spy. “Shanghai Express” released in 1932, which was dubbed by critics as “Grand Hotel on wheels”, was Josef von Sternberg and Marlene’s biggest box office success, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1932. Winning best cinematography at the 5th Academy Awards.
Marlene and Josef von Sternberg worked together again on the romance “Blonde Venus”. But in 1933, for the first time in three years, Marlene worked without Josef von Sternberg on the romantic drama “Song of Songs”. Under the direction of Rouben Mamoulian, she played a naïve German peasant.
The last two films Marlene did with Josef von Sternberg were “The Scarlet Empress” 1934, and “The Devil Is a Woman” 1935, both being the most stylized of their collaborations, were their lowest-grossing films.
Later on, Marlene remarked that she was at her most beautiful in “The Devil Is a Woman”.
Josef von Sternberg was exceptionally skilled in lighting and photographing Marlene perfectly. He knew how to use light and shadow to it’s advantage. This combined with the precise detail to set design and costumes, made these films visually stylish in cinema history.
Critics debate if it was Josef von Sternberg or Marlene that made this possible, but they do say that once Paramount fired Josef and he no longer worked with Marlene, things were no longer the same.
I believe it’s both that made their films visually pleasing. You make a film with everyone working together to create something special.
For Josef and Marlene to create seven films together is a feat on its own. Maybe, they could’ve made more, we will never know.
Marlene’s first film after her partnership with Josef von Sternberg was with Frank Borzage’s “Desire” in 1936. A success that gave Marlene an opportunity to try romantic comedy. Her next film, “I Loved a Soldier” in 1936, was scrapped several weeks into production due to script problems, scheduling confusion and the studio’s decision to fire director, Ernst Lubitsch.
Not long after, she received an extravagant offer that lured her away from Paramount Pictures to make her first colour film, “The Garden of Allah” (1936) with independent producer David O. Selznick, receiving $200,000. Then to Britain for Alexander Korda’s production, “Knight Without Armour” in 1937, receiving a salary of $450,000. Which, at the time, made her one of the best paid film stars.
While she was in London, officials of the Nazi Party approached Marlene, offering her a lucrative contract to return to Germany as a foremost film star in the Third Reich. She refused their offer and applied for a US citizenship in 1937.
While both films were well received at the box office, her vehicles were costly to produce and her public popularity had declined. Also around this time, she was placed 126th in box office rankings.
She returned back to America and Paramount Pictures to film another romantic comedy, “Angel” in 1937, by director Ernst Lubitsch. Unfortunately, the film was poorly received, which led to Paramount to buy out the remainder of her contract.
In May 1938, American film exhibitors proclaimed her “box office poison”, which she also shared with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Dolores del Rio and Fred Astaire to name a few.
With the encouragement from Josef von Sternberg in 1939, she accepted producer Joe Pasternak’s offer to play in her first film in two years. A cowboy saloon girl, Frenchie, in the western-comedy “Destry Rides Again”, opposite James Stewart. Even though she was significantly paid less than previous roles, the bawdy role revived her career. Even her song she introduced in the film, “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”, became a success when she recorded it for Decca.
She played similar roles in “Seven Sinners” in 1940, and “The Spoilers” in 1942, both opposite John Wayne.
Besides acting, Marlene was also known for having strong political convictions. In the late 1930, Marlene, director Billy Wilder and several other Germans, started a fund to help Jews and dissidents to escape Germany. Her entire salary for “Knight Without Armour”, $450,000, was put into escrow to help the refugees.
In 1939, after applying in 1937, she becomes an American citizen and renounces her German citizenship.
In December 1941, the United States join World War II. Marlene was one of the first celebrities to help sell war bonds. She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943, reportedly having sold more war bonds than any other star.
During two extended tours for the USO in 1944 and 1945, she performed for Allied troops in Algeria, Italy, the United Kingdom, and France. Then even going into Germany with General James M. Gavin and General George S. Patton. When asked why she had gone within in a few kilometres of German lines, she replied, “aus Anstand” (“out of decency”). Director Billy Wilder later remarked that she was at the front lines more than Eisenhower.
Her performance, with Danny Thomas as her opening act for the first tour, included songs from her films, performances on her musical saw (a skill she had originally acquired for stage appearances in berlin in the 1920s) and a pretend “mindreading” act, which director and close friend, Orson Welles, had taught her. She would inform the audiences that she could read minds and ask them to concentrate on whatever came into their minds. Then she would walk over to a soldier and earnestly tell him, “Oh, think of something else. I can’t possibly talk about that!” And what do you know, American church papers reportedly published stories complaining about this part of her act. I wonder what their thoughts were on the film “Morocco”?
In 1944, the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) initiated the Musak project. A musical propaganda broadcast designed to demoralize enemy soldiers. Marlene was the only performer who was made aware that her recordings would be for the Musak project. She recorded a number of songs in German for the project, including “Lili Marleen”, a favourite of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Major General William J. Donovan, head of the OSS, wrote to Marlene, “I am personally deeply grateful for your generosity in making these recordings for us”.
When the war ended in Europe, Marlene was reunited with her sister Elisabeth, her sister’s husband and their son. They had lived in the German city of Belsen throughout the war years, running a cinema that was frequented by Nazi officers and officials who oversaw the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
She vouched on behalf of her sister and brother-in-law, sheltering them from possible prosecution as Nazi collaborators. But Marlene would later omit the existence of her sister and her nephew from all accounts of her life, completely disowning them and claiming to be an only child.
Marlene’s mother remained in Berlin during the war.
In November 1947, Marlene received the Medal of Freedom. She said this was her proudest accomplishment. She was also awarded by the French government the Legion d’honneur, for her wartime work.
Marlene’s film acting career, however, never regained her former screen glory, but she continued acting in films for such as;
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” 1950
Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious” 1952
Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair” 1948 and “Witness for the Prosecution” 1957
Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil” 1958
Besides those films, she worked almost exclusively as a highly paid cabaret artist from the early 1950s until mid-1970s, performing live in large theatres in major cities worldwide.
In 1953, she was offered $30,000 per week to appear live at the Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. A short show consisting only of a few songs.
A dress designed by Jean Louis, heavily beaded evening gown of silk soufflé, which gave the illusion of transparency. It was daringly sheer for this time, but of course Marlene pushes boundaries. This “nude dress” created a lot of publicity.
Her performance, or dress, was so successful that, not only was her Las Vegas contract was renewed but, she was signed to appear at the Café de Paris in London the following year.
During the mid-1950s, Marlene employed Burt Bacharach as her musical arranger. They refined her nightclub act into more of a theatrical one-woman show, with more songs from her films as well as popular songs of the day. This arrangement helped disguise her limited vocal range as she was a contralto, which is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type.
She would often perform the first part of her show in a body-hugging dress and a swansdown coat, and later change to a top hat and tails for the second half. This allowed her to sing songs usually associated with male singers, like “One for My Baby” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”.
Can you imagine 50 or more years ago from this time period, a woman dressed in “men’s clothing”. I would love to be there to see people’s reaction, she seems like a woman who was setting trends not following.
In 1960, Marlene returned to West Germany for a concert tour that was met with mixed response. Despite a consistently negative press, protests by chauvinistic Germans who felt like she betrayed her homeland, chanting “Marlene Go Home!”, and two bomb threats, her performance attracted huge crowds. Even though she wasn’t welcomed by all the German people, she was warmly welcomed by other Germans including Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, who was as an opponent of the Nazis.
The tour was an artistic triumph, but a financial failure. She was emotionally drained by the hostility she encountered, leaving convinced she would never visit again. East Germany, however, received her well. Around this time, she also went on tour in Israel, which was also well received. She would also become the first woman and German to receive the Israeli Medallion of Valor in 1965, “in recognition for her courageous adherence to principle and consistent record of friendship for the Jewish people”.
During her engagement at the Queen’s Theatre, she recorded her concert album “Dietrich in London” in 1964.
Marlene and Burt Bacharach recorded four albums and several singles together between 1957 and 1964. It was an interview in 1971, where she credited Burt Bacharach for giving her the inspiration to perform during those years.
Burt Bacharach left Marlene and devoted his time to song writing. She later wrote in her memoir;
“From that fateful day on, I have worked like a robot, trying to recapture the wonderful woman he helped make out of me. I even succeeded in this effort for years, because I always thought of him, always longed for him, always looked for him in the wings, and always fought against self-pity…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”.
Between 1967 and 1968, she performed on Broadway twice and won a special Tony Award in 1968.
In November 1972, “I Wish You Love”, a version of Marlene’s Broadway show titled “An Evening With Marlene Dietrich”, was filmed in London. It was broadcast in the UK on the BBC and in the US on CBS in January 1973.
Marlene was paid $250,000 for her cooperation but was unhappy with the result.
Now, I bet you are wondering about her personal life. Even though her professional celebrity was carefully crafted and maintained, her personal life was kept out of public view.
She was married once to assistant director Rudolf Sieber, who later became an assistant director at Paramount Pictures in France. He was responsible for foreign language dubbing. Their only child, Maria Riva, would later become an actress, primarily working in television. In 1948, when Maria gave birth to a son, Marlene was dubbed “the world’s most glamourous grandmother”.
Marlene had an unending string of affairs, some short-lived, some lasting decades. They often overlapped and were almost all known to her husband.
She had an affair with Gary Cooper while filming “Morocco” in 1930, even though he was already having an affair with Mexican actress, Lupe Velez.
Another of her famous affairs was with John Gilbert, famous for his alleged affair with Greta Garbo. When he suddenly died on 9 January 1936 of a heart attack, Marlene was devastated, claiming it was one of the most painful events of her life.
Marlene also had a brief affair with American actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., even though he was married to Joan Crawford.
Another love affair was with co-star James Stewart while working together on “Destry Rides Again”. It ended once filming did.
In 1938 she met writer Erich Maria Remarque, beginning an affair. In 1941, while supporting Allied troops in World War II she started another affair with French actor and military hero, Jean Gabin. It ended in the mid-1940s.
In the early 1940s, she also had an affair with John Wayne, her co-star in two films.
Yeah, this woman had affairs with nearly everyone, and I didn’t mention all of them. In no way am I judging her, but bloody hell, she could’ve at least divorced her husband and lived a free life.
There is a phrase that Marlene used, “Sewing Circles”, which was to describe the underground, closeted lesbian and bisexual film actresses and their relationships in Hollywood.
The names of this “Marlene’s Sewing Circle” were Ann Warner (wife of Jack L. Warner, one of the owners of Warner studios), Lili Damita (an old friend of Marlene’s from Berlin and wife of Australian actor Errol Flynn), actresses Claudette Colbert and Dolores del Rio that Marlene considered the most beautiful women in Hollywood.
During her stay in Paris in the 1950s, Marlene was close friends with French singer Edith Piaf. There were rumours of something more than friendship between the two.
There is lots of rumours surrounding Marlene and her affairs. Especially with her so called “rival” Greta Garbo. Whether it is true or not, only Marlene knows.
Marlene’s family was brought up to follow the Lutheran religion, but she abandoned it as a result of her experiences as a teenager during World War I. After hearing preachers from both sides invoking God as their support she is quoted, “I lost my faith during the war and can’t believe they are all up there, flying around or sitting at tables, all those I’ve lost”.
However, according to her daughter, Maria Riva, Marlene was always travelling with a satchel containing many religious medallions, showing her desire to keep her faith.
I think it’s fine to question religion, some, if not all, doesn’t make any sense. Some people, just want to know why.
In 1965 she survived cervical cancer and suffered from poor circulation in her legs, becoming increasingly dependent on painkillers and alcohol.
At the Shady Grove Music Fair in Maryland, United States in 1973, Marlene had a stage fall injuring her left thigh. She also fractured her right leg in August 1974. She told writer and critic in 1973, “Do you think this is glamourous? That it’s a great life and that I do it for my health? Well it isn’t. Maybe once, nut not now”. She also explained that she continued to perform only for the money. At least she is honest.
Her show business career, however, ended after she fell of stage and broke her thigh during a performance in Sydney, Australia on 29 September 1975. The following year, Rudolf Sieber, her husband, died from cancer on 24 June 1976.
Her last on-camera film was a cameo appearance in “Just a Gigolo” in 1979. Starring David Bowie and directed by David Hemmings, which she sang the title song.
During the final 11 years of her life, still dependant on alcohol and painkillers, she withdrew to her apartment at 12 Avenue Montaigne in Paris. She would only allow a select few, including family and employees, to enter the apartment. She also became a prolific letter-writer and phone-caller. Her autobiography, “Nehmt nur mein Leben” (“Take Just My Life”) was published in 1979.
In 1982, Marlene agreed to participate (but not to be filmed) in a documentary about her life title “Marlene”, released in 1984. The director, Maximillian Schell, was only allowed to record her voice, using interviews he conducted as the basis of the film. “Marlene” won several European film prizes and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 1984.
Sadly, on 6 May 1992 at the age of 90, Marlene died of renal failure at her flat in Paris. Her funeral ceremony was conducted at La Madeleine in Paris, a Roman Catholic church on 14 May 1992. Her funeral service was attended by approximately 1,500 mourners in the church itself, including several ambassadors from Germany, Russia, United States, United Kingdom, and other countries, with thousands outside.
Her closed coffin rested beneath the alter draped in the French flag and adorned with a simple bouquet of white wildflowers and roses from French President, Francois Mitterrand. Her three medals, including France’s Legion of Honour and the US Medal of Freedom, were displayed at the foot of her coffin, military style.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall (on 9 November 1989) Marlene instructed in her will that she wished to be buried in her birthplace, Berlin, near her family. On 16 May 1992, her body was flown there to fulfil her wish.
She was buried at the Stadtischer Friedhof III, Berlin-Schoneberg, next to the grave of her mother and near the house where she was born.