The life of icon Marlene ... by her daughter, witness for the prosecution
German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich was a polished and dazzlingly sophisticated film icon but apparently a cold, selfish, and even vicious mother,
The power of Marlene Dietrich’s carefully-constructed image was so great that even now, when the dust should long have settled, she is always instantly associated with the hardcore glamour of her heyday — that carefully made-up, artfully-lit and cleverly-deployed stage creation — and almost never with the squalid circumstances of her end, or indeed her many personal failings, particularly as a wife and a mother.
Dietrich lived a long time, nearly the span of the century. Born in 1901, she died, aged 91, in 1992. By then, she had not left her Paris apartment in many years. A fall in 1979 left her with a fractured hip, and a refusal to get out of bed — apparently she could drink better there, without risk of falling on something hard if she passed out. She saw almost no one, although she would speak for hours on the phone, cooked on a hotplate set up beside her bed, and used a Limoges pitcher as a chamber pot. The bed was a mess of dirty, dishevelled sheets; knotted into it were bottles of pills and booze. Beside it was the diary she kept, in which she recorded the miserable details of her daily life: ‘‘Have not heard from Maria”; ‘‘no food”; “all alone”.
Except that ‘Maria’, her daughter with Rudolf Sieber, claims that much of what she wrote was a lie. That she was manipulative to the end, trying to curate her posthumous reputation in the same way she had created her living legend.
All this, and far more — indeed, far more lurid — is explored in damning detail in Marlene Dietrich: The Life, written by Maria Riva, first published in 1992 and now reissued in a 25-year anniversary edition. Riva describes her mother, Hollywood icon and star of many wonderful films, including The Blue Angel and Touch of Evil with Orson Welles, with vicious exactitude, detailing “the crepe-flesh of her hanging thighs … her once-translucent skin is parchment. She exudes an odour of booze and human decay,” and blaming her mother for many of the traumas of her own life, including being raped as a teenager by her lesbian nanny — something she claims Dietrich wanted to happen — chronic lack of self-esteem and her failed marriage at 18. She married in order to escape her mother, and when that didn’t work, began to drink. Later, having dried out but with nowhere to go, she moved in with her father’s mistress, herself living a kind of secret half-life for fear of displeasing Marlene, then returned home and even shared her mother’s bed on occasion.
Clearly, this was a relationship that was twisted and difficult, characterised by what Riva describes as great coldness on her mother’s part — all Dietrich’s imagination, ingenuity and enthusiasm seemed reserved for playing the role she had created. Her many lovers included Maurice Chevalier, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Edith Piaf, Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, Joe Kennedy, John F Kennedy, possibly Joe Jnr too, Frank Sinatra, and Edward, Prince of Wales (“I can do it better than Wallis Simpson,” she once boasted) and those are just the most famous. All were managed and manipulated to suit Marlene, and often overlapped one another in a way that must have come pretty close to French farce. Men were trophies to be collected, and boasted of. Years after her affair with John F Kennedy, she kept the knickers he apparently ripped off her, once producing them for her son-in-law, Maria’s second husband, she “held them under his nose, saying: ‘Smell. It is him. The President of the United States. He — was wonderful’.” Her interactions with her daughter, however, don’t seem to have involved even that level of performance. As a mother, she was indifferent, humourless, permanently grand, and completely self-obsessed. “A child brings you nothing but trouble,” was her tactless response to the news of Riva’s first pregnancy. She marvelled at “how ugly” normal people were, avoiding them wherever possible, and enjoyed only the relationships in which she was unashamedly adored. Riva’s childhood was spent on set more than in school, she wasn’t allowed friends, even a pet dog was disapproved of because it took too much of her attention, and from the time she was six or so, she had to pretend to be younger so as not to age her mother. And yet the two, somehow, clung together so that in the end, when all else had fallen away, there was only Maria left, keeping a jaundiced vigil by her mother’s chaotic bedside, watering down the whiskey in a final, pathetic effort to control the drinking, adding “Maria here” to her mother’s diary, only to find her words crossed out the next time she came. The great strength of the book — which runs to a whopping 787 pages — is Maria’s access to Marlene’s diaries, which she kept from the time she was a child in Germany (although in her own, fabulously unreliable autobiography, she denied ever having a diary), and the many love letters she received throughout her life, which, unusually, she would give to her husband to keep.
The picture that emerges, from Marlene’s own account, is indeed of someone particularly self-absorbed from a very early age, and highly aware of her effect on others, particularly men; she talks about boys she is “mad about” from the age of 10 or so, and describes clothes she admires or wants. Where she mentions women — her mother, her sister, various aunts — it is usually without either affection or much interest. They are clearly bit-part players in the story of her life.
Lena, as she was christened, was born in 1901 in Berlin, the daughter of a dashing Prussian officer and the quieter, more humble girl he married when his many, notorious exploits with women tainted his reputation to the point where he was no longer seen as suitable husband material by the parents of carefully brought-up young ladies.
Marlene was the second daughter, and a beauty from birth. Her father, who she adored and who unashamedly favoured her, was killed in the First World War, leaving the family with almost no money, until her mother married again. Even so, against a backdrop of massively rising inflation, poverty was rife across the Weimar Republic, and Marlene, as she styled herself from the age of 16, was determined to lift herself up and out of it.
She studied at the Max Reinhardt Acting Academy, and by the age of 20 had established herself as hardworking, willing, and talented at transforming herself physically into whatever character she played. She began to get bit-parts in films, even though her mother dismissed actors as “shiftless, tambourine-playing thieves,” and to transform herself into the star that was Marlene Dietrich. When she was 22, she married Rudolf Sieber, an assistant director. Maria, her only child, was born a year later. The two stayed married, although Dietrich was unfaithful from the start, and he sometimes shockingly complicit. The fiction that he was her husband was useful in keeping too-attentive lovers at bay, and in smoothing over Dietrich’s public image in America. Yes, it was known that she was a femme fatale, a man-eater and sexually voracious, and yet, alongside that ran the pretty story that she was also, in her way, a wife.
Because of this, although Sieber had a partner of his own for many years, Tamara Matul, there could be no public scandal, particularly no pregnancy, and so Matul, according to Riva, was forced into several abortions in order to keep the fiction alive. Eventually, she had a breakdown and tried to kill herself, for which Marlene blamed her bitterly.
Meeting director Josef von Sternberg was the real turning point in Dietrich’s life. He seems to have instantly understood her, personally, and professionally — directing her in several films, including the seminal Blue Angel — and was instrumental in adding the rather sadomasochistic edge that sharpened her performance. This was where the fully-formed Dietrich emerged: the heavily-lidded eyes and knowing, even mocking expression, the deep rasping voice, and defiantly ambiguous sexuality.
The two had an affair for many years, with von Sternberg living openly in the family home, and Sieber acting as a kind of butler. Dietrich was very much in thrall to von Sternberg, and Riva recalls her mother fondling his overcoat before hanging it up, ‘as though (it) had magic powers’.
The call from Hollywood came as a direct result of The Blue Angel, and in 1930, Dietrich moved there under contract to Paramount
Pictures, and made a string of successful films, including Morocco, in which she dressed in white tie and kissed a woman — highly provocative for the time — and Blonde Venus. She was a Hollywood anomaly, permitted a far darker and more brazen image than any of the homegrown stars, still stuck with playing wholesome sweetheart roles. As such, she stood out instantly, and was adored by fans.
Dietrich’s relationship with Germany after she left, and particularly once the Nazis came to power, was complicated. She claimed to have been approached by them to return, and to have flatly refused. Instead, she renounced her German citizenship — and was hated in her homeland as a result — was at the forefront of the Hollywood war effort, and was a generous contributor to funds aimed at helping Jews escape. And yet she was capable of anti-Semitic quips — “I gave up my country for them, and now what do I get?” she once said: “The stores are closed for Yom Kippur” — and was openly racist towards black Americans, refusing to allow black nurses tend to her in hospital.
After the war, Dietrich pulled strings to get herself to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp because, she claimed, she believed her sister Elisabeth to be there. Instead, she discovered that her sister and her husband, although indeed in Bergen, had been working for a group supporting the Nazis. Thereafter, she began to publicly deny Elisabeth’s existence. Riva spins this story rather differently though, claiming that her mother knew well Elisabeth wasn’t in the camp, but deliberately suggested it in order to gain sympathy and establish herself on the right side of American public opinion, at a time when being German could have worked against her.
There are many such moments in Marlene Dietrich: The Life, where Riva’s account doesn’t match what was widely believed, but then, Dietrich’s own version of her life is so thoroughly self-serving and subjective, that this is hardly surprising. Between them, there is no monopoly on truth.
However, although it is hard not to detect the spiteful relish Riva feels when describing her mother in her later years as “a pathetic creature”, saying it’s as if her “basic nastiness” was finally revealed, in fact, by describing the lengths her mother went to in order to try and continue playing the glorious part of Marlene Dietrich — the corsets and harnesses, the make-up and wigs, the tricks and cheats and sheer determination to be beautiful and desirable — she leaves us cheering rather than spitting. Undoubtedly Dietrich was a terrible mother, and possibly not a great person in general, but she was — still is — a perfect screen icon, infinitely larger than life. Marlene Dietrich: The Life by Maria Riva, is published by Pegasus Books, £21
MOMMY DEAREST: The star with daughter Maria in 1928
SMOULDERING STAR: Marlene Dietrich above, in a trademark pose and left, in Shanghai Express