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#BornThisDay: Marlene Dietrich

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In “Dishonored” (1931), Eugene Robert Richee, National Portrait Gallery, NPR via YouTube

 

December 27, 1901– Marlene Dietrich:

“I am at heart a gentleman.”

Do you continue to find her to be fabulous? I do. She had quite the gay life. Marie Magdalene Dietrich, the smoky voiced Gay Icon, always ended her cabaret show in the very dangerously conservative 1950s with this toast:

“Please try to be gay tonight as I know it is so difficult to be gay in the morning.”

She had her own brand of dangerous glamour and she carried a smoky air of decadence to her work and persona. Blonde, Teutonic, with high cheekbones and a heavy lower lip, displaying the artifice of languor, Dietrich seduced audiences by innuendo.

Dietrich is an Ultra-Icon and she had a personal relationship with Gayness. She picked her men for eye-candy and her women for love, lust and laughs. She was a movie star when movie stars were movie stars.

Dietrich’s thing was to be idolized, indomitable and indifferent. She didn’t like mistakes. She was a perfectionist. When her mentor, Joseph vonSternberg, the director of early films: The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), and The Devil Is A Woman (1935), would not relinquish control to her, she gave him up. Like Mae West, Dietrich didn’t let a little thing like a film business run by men tell her what she could and couldn’t do.

Dietrich possessed a profoundly complex personality, including her attitude about sexuality. She had a major magnetism for gay people from the very beginnings of her career: the campiness of her films, her casual approach toward convention, the trouser-wearing that nearly got her arrested, her expression of world-weary disillusion, and, of course, her marvelous voice.

German born Dietrich was bravely Anti-Nazi during WW II. She turned her back on her native country and for four years she actively worked against Adolf Hitler and his brutal band of bad baddies. For her courage and her commitment to the Allied cause, she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in France and the Congressional Medal Of Honor in the USA, both nations’ highest honors that can be bestowed on a civilian.

Dietrich was an atheist, abandoning the Lutheran faith:

“If God exists, he needs to review his plan.”

But, she had honor, humor, and humanity. At a time when it could not have been easily accepted, she gave the world her own eye-popping style of sexual liberation. Fred Astaire stated that no one wore a tuxedo as well as Dietrich. She was a woman ahead of her time.

dietrich-3-768x512

via YouTube

Dietrich remained popular throughout her long career by continually re-inventing herself, professionally and personally. In 1920s Berlin, she acted on the stage and in silent films. Her performance as the ultimate temptress Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel, directed by von Sternberg, introduced her signature song, Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It), brought her international fame, and provided her with a contract with Paramount Pictures.

Hollywood films such as Shanghai Express (1932) and Desire (1936) capitalized on her glamour and exotic beauty, cementing her stardom, and made her one of the highest paid actors of the Hollywood Golden Era.

When she got rid of her mentor and frequent collaborator, Sternberg, after their highly stylized The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is AWoman (1935) flopped, Dietrich, along with Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, was labeled “box office poison” by the press. Yet, she bounced back big when she played a Wild West saloon girl in the fun Destry RidesAgain (1939) opposite James Stewart, singing See What The Boys In The Back Room Will Have.

Dietrich became a citizen of the USA in 1939, at the very apex of the troubles in Europe. Throughout WW II, she was a high profile entertainer on the frontlines. She still made the occasional film after the war, but Dietrich spent most of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s touring the world as a phenomenally successful cabaret performer.

Dietrich never fully regained her box-office clout, but she did give some of her most interesting performances, working with the very best Hollywood directors: Billy WilderAlfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles, in popular films: A Foreign Affair (1948), Stage Fright (1950) where she sang my own theme song, Cole Porter’s The Laziest Gal In TownWitness For The Prosecution (1957); Touch Of Evil (1958) and Judgment At Nuremberg (1961). Her first film was The Little Napoleon in 1923 and her final role was in Schöner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo in 1979, opposite David Bowie. That’s 56 years of great performances!

1952, Milton Greene, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

 

Dietrich’s love affairs included many women, including: Mercedes deAcosta, Garbo, Eva Le GallienneIsadora Duncan, the great French writer Colette, and Edith Piaf. Throughout her career, Dietrich had a long string of sexual and romantic relationships, some lasting for decades. They often overlapped and were almost all known to her husband. She had a novel quirk of passing him the love letters from her lovers, along with her biting commentary about them

She had liaisons with many men. During the filming of Destry Rides Again, Dietrich had an affair with Jimmy Stewart, which ended when the filming stopped. In 1938, Dietrich met and began a relationship with the writer Erich Maria Remarque. In the 1940s, she had an affair with the French film star and military hero Jean Gabin. Her last greatest passion, when she was in her 50s, was for hot actor Yul Brynner. Her very active sex life continued well into her 70s. Her many diverse male conquests included: John WayneGeorge Bernard Shaw, Gary Cooper, and John F. Kennedy. Dietrich’s household included her husband and his mistress, first in Europe and eventually on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Now that is what I would dub “Modern Living”.

She survived cancer in her 60s and 70s, but she became dependent on painkillers, and for the last decade of her life, Dietrich withdrew to her apartment in Paris. She spent her last decade mostly bedridden, allowing only a few family and staff to see her. During this time, she was a prolific letter writer and spent a lot of time on the telephone (which she answered in the character of a maid), talking with friends and world figures, and surviving on a diet of champagne and autographs. She published a well written memoir Take Just My Life (1979).

In “Dishonored” (1931), Eugene Robert Richee, National Portrait Gallery via YouTube

 

Even though she gave up on her native Germany, Germany did not give up on Dietrich. She was made an honorary citizen of Berlin in 2002. Her memorial plaque reads:

“Where have all the flowers gone?”

MARLENE DIETRICH

December 27, 1901 – May 6, 1992

“I am, thank God, a Berliner.”

Marlene Dietrich: Anti-Fascist, Bisexual, Movie Star, Vegas Headliner, Fashion Icon, Recording Artist, and Ultimate Gay Icon. She was friendly with Ronnie and Nancy Reagan, but I like to consider what members of today’s American White Nationalist Party might make of Dietrich. Do you think any of them would even know who she was? Just one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century and one of those damn immigrants.


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