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,

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - REPORTAGE - writes Emily Houri­can

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

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