The Intriguing Marlene Dietrich

Intriging Marlene Dietrich

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Intriguing Marlene Dietrich, the well-known German-American actress and singer’s career spanned seven decades from the 1910s to the 1980s and had a power all her own. She became a legend but there are many twists and turn to her life’s story.

Early Life

Her mother came from an affluent Berlin family who owned a jewellery and clockmaking firm. Her father was a Prussian officer. Dietrich had only one sibling, an older sister. Her father was killed on the Eastern Front in World War I, when she was six years old, but had imbued a military attitude to life into Marlene.

Dietrich’s mother, Josephine, was a cold woman, set in her ways, given to commands and dictums. She remarried in 1914 but the stepfather died just two years later, from injuries sustained in World War I.

Always an Actor

At school Marlene was known for her ‘bedroom eyes’ and it was there she had her first affair. A professor at the school was terminated. Marlene was adept at playing the violin and piano, and was interested in poetry, but acting became her vocation. A broken wrist stopped her from following her passion for the violin.

During the 1920s Marlene entered the cabaret scene in Germany. She became fluent in German, English, and French, was bisexual, and enjoyed the drag balls of 1920s Berlin. Dietrich particularly enjoyed the flamboyant costumes and the world of fantasy.

In 1921, Marlene was accepted into an acting school run by Max Reinhardt, though she didn’t set the world of stage on fire, playing only small roles.


In 1923, Dietrich, aged 22, married the assistant director Rudolf Sieber but they only lived together for five years. Later she would fund her husband in exile and his long time lover. Nothing would be allowed to interfere with the image of intriguing Marlene Dietrich.

They had one child, a daughter, Maria, who also became an actress. Maria’s son became a well-known production designer. In 1948 Marlene was dubbed ‘the world’s most glamorous grandmother’.

Marlene never married again, though she had numerous affairs with both sexes. The list of lovers, which reached into her 70s, is not only extensive, but had many well-known names on it. Names such as George Bernard Shaw, Yul Bryner, John F. Kennedy, Michael Todd, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra and the Prince of Wales. Dietrich is reported to have said, “I can do better than Wallis Simpson.” She also said, “To be a woman you need a master. You need a man you can look up to and respect. If you dethrone him, it’s no wonder that you are discontented, and discontented women are not loved for long.”

Intriguing Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich acted in a dozen silent films. In the early 1930s she entered Hollywood, trading on her glamorous persona and exotic looks. She became the highest paid actress of her time. Movie goers were attracted to her image on the silver screen, but she had a reputation of romancing her co-stars, as well as other prominent artistic figures.

Paramount hoped to make Dietrich a German answer to Metro Goldwyn-Mayer’s Swedish-born star, Greta Garbo. Director Von Sternberg worked to create the image of a glamorous and mysterious femme fatale, coaching Dietrich intensively. Her professional image was carefully crafted and her personal life kept well hidden.

In her daughter’s memoir, published 25 years after Dietrich’s death, her daughter said, “She never laughed, aloof glacial stares were her specialty, acting like royalty, never once standing in a queue. The shimmering look, the incredible body, the hypnotic gaze from beneath those famous hooded lids. She embodied a languid exasperation.”

Mixed Success

The film Morocco, with Gary Cooper is best remembered for Marlene kissing another woman, while dressed in a man’s white tie. This was highly provocative for the era, but a Dietrich trademark. Dietrich redefined gender constructs and in many ways was a pioneer. In a man’s world she played the femme fatale to perfection.

During the late 1930s Marlene acted in several failures, though they were among cinema’s most visually stylish films, and expensive to produce. In May 1938, Film exhibitors proclaimed her ‘box office poison’. This was a distinction she shared with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Dolores del Rio and Fred Astaire. In the end you have to wonder at the judgement of film exhibitors, who only look at the dollars.

In 1939, Dietrich starred opposite James Stewart in Destry Rides Again. There she revealed her ability to be a romantic comedienne and for her it was a comeback.

War Effort

Becoming a United States citizen Marlene was one of the most prominent political refugees of her generation and openly opposed Hitler. As a high-profile entertainer she sang extensively for American troops during World War II.

She was well known for her humanitarian efforts during the war, helping Jews and other dissidents escape from Germany and housing German and French exiles. Her entire salary of $450,000 for acting in Knight without Armor, was put into escrow to help refugees, advocating their American citizenship.

Dietrich became one of the first public figures to help sell war bonds and was reported to sell more bonds than any other star. For her work on improving morale on the front line she received several honours from the United States, France, Belgium and Israel. It was reported that she went to the front lines more than Dwight Eisenhower.

Back to Cabaret

Following the war she limited her cinematic life to a new career as a singer and performer. She appeared in reviews and shows in Las Vegas, touring theatricals and Broadway.

Her appearance in a sheer ‘nude dress’ at the Sahara Hotel on Las Vegas, a heavily beaded evening gown of silk souffle which appeared to be transparent, was stunning to say the least.

One-Woman Show

In the mid-1950s Marlene embarked on an ambitious theatrical one-woman show with an expanded repertoire, despite her limited vocal range. She was a contralto and in the second half of the show she sang songs usually associated with male singers.

Francis Wyndham said of Marlene, “The illusionist’s sleight of hand and the stooge’s desire to be deceived were necessary elements, to which Marlene added the mysterious force of her belief in her own magic.” As she grew older the use of body-sculpting undergarments, nonsurgical facelifts (tape), expert makeup and wigs, combined with careful stage lighting, preserved Marlene’s glamorous image. Not for her the dark side of cosmetic surgery.

Intriguing Marlene Dietrich on Tour

In 1960, Marlene dared to return to West Germany to a mixed reaction, which included two bomb threats. The tour was an artistic triumph, though a financial failure. Strangely, East Germany received her well, as did Israel, where she broke the taboo of singing in German.

In 1962, her narrative for the documentary Black Fox: The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler won her an Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature. She was the first woman and the first German to receive the Israeli Medallion of Valor, in recognition of her courageous adherence to principle and consistent record of friendship for the Jewish people. It was 1965.

Intriguing Marlene Dietrich Health Issues

During the 60s and 70s Dietrich’s health declined, though, surviving cervical cancer in 1965. She became increasingly dependent on painkillers and alcohol, besides being a smoker.

The documentary film about her life, in 1984, won several European film awards and was nominated for an Academy Award. Marlene refused to be filmed, allowing only her voice to be recorded. Newsweek named it a unique film, perhaps the most fascinating and affecting documentary ever made about a great movie star.

Still Politically Active

For the final thirteen years of her life, she was bedridden in her Paris apartment, though she maintained active telephone and correspondence with friends and associates, allowing only a select few to enter her apartment. She kept in contact with world leaders by telephone, including Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher. She ran up a monthly phone bill of over US$3,000. She spoke on television via telephone when the Berlin Wall came down; a woman whose voice was heard in high places.

1999 the American Film Institute named Dietrich, the ninth greatest female screen legend of classic Hollywood cinema.

Spectacular Finish

Intriguing Marlene Dietrich died at the age of 90. Her funeral service was attended by 1,500 mourners in the church, which included ambassadors from Germany, Russia, The United States, the United Kingdom and other countries. There were thousands outside the church.

Her coffin was draped with the French flag, adorned by a simple bouquet of white wildflowers and roses from the French President, Francois Mitterrand. At the foot of the coffin lay three medals, including the French Legion of Honour, and the United States Medal of Freedom, in military style. Through her strong stand against Nazism, the officiating priest remarked, “She lived like a soldier and would like to be buried like a soldier.” She was a freedom fighter besides being a movie icon.

She was laid to rest in Berlin, according to her wishes. The coffin was draped with an American flag, befitting her status as an American citizen.

Dietrich Estate

The Dietrich estate included over 3,000 items from the 1920s and 1930s, including stage costumes, besides over a thousand items from her personal wardrobe. There were 15,000 photographs, including many from well-known photographers, such as Cecil Beaton, Lord Snowden and Edward Steichen.

Dietrich left behind a lifetime of memories. The estate included 300,000 pages of documents, with some high-profile correspondence. There were film posters and sound recordings. The Marlene Dietrich Collection was sold to Stiftung Deutsche Kinematheke for $5 million by her heirs.

Marlene Dietrich Legacy

Marlene Dietrich was an icon to fashion designers and screen stars alike. It was said she knew more about fashion than any other actress, favouring Dior. She said, “I dress for image not for myself, nor for the public. Not for fashion, nor for men. Clothes bore me. I’d wear jeans, though I can’t wear women’s trousers. I dress for the profession.”

In May 2020, Marlene Dietrich was part of an Entertainment Weekly cover celebrating LBGTQ celebrities.

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