Dietrich remained popular throughout her long career by continually re-inventing herself. In 1920s Berlin, she acted on the stage and in silent films. Her performance as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, brought her international fame and a contract with Paramount Pictures in the US. Hollywood films such as Shanghai Express and Desire capitalised on her glamour and exotic looks, cementing her stardom and making her one of the highest paid actresses of the era. Dietrich became a US citizen in 1939; during World War II, she was a high-profile frontline entertainer. Although she still made occasional films in the post-war years, Dietrich spent most of the 1950s to the 1970s touring the world as a successful show performer.
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Dietrich was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich on 27 December 1901 in Schöneberg, a district of Berlin, Germany. She was the younger of two daughters (her sister Elisabeth being a year older) of Louis Erich Otto Dietrich and Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Dietrich (née Felsing). Dietrich’s mother was from a well-to-do Berlin family who owned a clockmaking firm and her father was a police lieutenant. Her father died in 1911. His best friend, Eduard von Losch, an aristocrat first lieutenant in the Grenadiers courted Wilhelmina and eventually married her in 1916, but he died soon after as a result of injuries sustained during World War I.
Von Losch never officially adopted the Dietrich children, hence Dietrich’s surname was never von Losch, as is sometimes claimed. She was nicknamed “Lene” (pronounced Lay-neh) within the family. Around the age of 11, she contracted her two first names to form the then-unusual name, Marlene.
Dietrich attended the Auguste Victoria School for Girls from 1906 to 1918. She studied the violin and became interested in theatre and poetry as a teenager. Her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short when she injured her wrist.
In 1921, Dietrich auditioned unsuccessfully for theatrical director and impresario Max Reinhardt‘s drama academy; however, she soon found herself working in his theatres as a chorus girl and playing small roles in dramas, without attracting any special attention at first.
Dietrich made her film debut playing a bit part in the 1922 film, So sind die Männer. She met her future husband, Rudolf Sieber, on the set of another film made that year, Tragödie der Liebe. In the G. W. Pabst film Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse; 1925), the actress playing Elsa is Hertha von Walther (1903–87), who looks very much like the young Marlene Dietrich, giving rise to the false rumor that Dietrich has a bit part in this film.
Dietrich and Sieber were married on 17 May 1924. Her only child, daughter Maria Elisabeth Sieber, later billed as actress Maria Riva, was born on 13 December 1924.
Dietrich continued to work on stage and in film both in Berlin and Vienna throughout the 1920s. On stage, she had roles of varying importance in Frank Wedekind‘s Pandora’s Box, William Shakespeare‘s The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as George Bernard Shaw‘s Back to Methuselah and Misalliance. It was in musicals and revues, such as Broadway, Es Liegt in der Luft and Zwei Krawatten, however, that she attracted the most attention.
In 1929, Dietrich landed the breakthrough role of Lola-Lola, a cabaret singer who causes the downfall of a hitherto respected schoolmaster, in UFA‘s production, The Blue Angel (1930). The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg, who thereafter took credit for having “discovered” Dietrich. The film is also noteworthy for having introduced Dietrich’s signature song “Falling in Love Again“.
“Falling In Love Again” 1930
Another version of “Falling In Love Again” from the late 30’s
On the strength of The Blue Angel’s international success, and with encouragement and promotion from von Sternberg, who was already established in Hollywood, Dietrich then moved to the U.S. on contract to Paramount Pictures. The studio sought to market Dietrich as a German answer to MGM‘s Swedish sensation, Greta Garbo. Her first American film, Morocco, directed by von Sternberg, earned Dietrich her only Oscar nomination. However, at the time she knew very little English and so spoke her lines phonetically.
A crucial part of the overall effect was created by von Sternberg’s exceptional skill in lighting and photographing Dietrich to optimum effect—the use of light and shadow, including the impact of light passed through a veil or slatted blinds (as for example in Shanghai Express)—which, when combined with scrupulous attention to all aspects of set design and costumes, make this series of films among the most visually stylish in cinema history. Critics still debate vigorously how much of the credit belonged to von Sternberg and how much to Dietrich, but most would agree that neither consistently reached such heights again after Paramount fired von Sternberg and the two ceased to work together.
Maintaining her image required hard work: according to her daughter, she would have herself strapped into an elaborate contraption of her own design that moulded her figure, especially her “terrible breasts”, and she kept a full-length dressing mirror on wheels in which she would check the lighting before a shoot. The skin of her face was tightened by a painful arrangement of small hooks stuck into her scalp under the wigs. In later years she suffered terrible pain in her legs but maintained a trooper’s attitude to whatever she felt was necessary to look her best for her public.
Without von Sternberg, Dietrich—along with Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Mae West, Dolores del Río, Katharine Hepburn and others—was labeled “box office poison” after her 1937 film, Knight Without Armour, proved an expensive flop. In 1939, however, her stardom revived when she played the cowboy saloon girl Frenchie in the light-hearted western Destry Rides Again opposite James Stewart. The movie also introduced another favorite song, “The Boys in the Back Room”. She played a similar role in 1942 with John Wayne in The Spoilers.
“Lilli Marleen: sung in German
While Dietrich arguably never fully regained her former screen glory, she continued performing in the movies, including appearances for such distinguished directors as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, in successful films that included A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil, Judgment at Nuremberg,
Dietrich’s most lasting contribution to film history was as the star of a series of six films directed by von Sternberg at Paramount between 1930 and 1935: Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil is a Woman. In Hollywood, von Sternberg worked very effectively with Dietrich to create the image of a glamorous femme fatale. He encouraged her to lose weight and coached her intensively as an actress – she, in turn, was willing to trust him and follow his sometimes imperious direction in a way that a number of other performers resisted. Dietrich was known to have strong political convictions and the mind to speak them. In interviews, Dietrich stated that she had been approached by representatives of the Nazi Party to return to Germany, but had turned them down flat. Dietrich, a staunch anti-Nazi who despised antisemitism, became an American citizen in 1939.
In December 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds. She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943 (appearing before 250 000 troops on the Pacific Coast leg of her tour alone) and it is said that she sold more war bonds than any other star.
During two extended tours for the USO in 1944 and 1945, she performed for Allied troops on the front lines in Algeria, Italy, England and France and went into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometres of German lines, she replied, “aus Anstand” — “it was the decent thing to do.” Her revue, with future TV pioneer Danny Thomas as her opening act, included songs from her films, a mindreading act and performances on her musical saw, a skill she had originally acquired for stage appearances in Berlin in the 1920s.
In 1944, the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) intitiated the Musac project, musical propaganda broadcasts designed to demoralize enemy soldiers. Dietrich, the only performer who was made aware that her recordings would be for OSS use, recorded a number of songs in German for the project, including Lili Marleen, a favourite of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. William Joseph Donovan, head of the OSS, wrote to Dietrich, “I am personally deeply grateful for your generosity in making these recordings for us.
From “Destry Rides Again” (1939) Starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart.
Here’s the same song performed by Marlene in 1963
Dietrich was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the US in 1945. She said that this was her proudest accomplishment. She was also awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government as recognition for her wartime work.
Dietrich’s recording career spanned over half a century. Prior to international stardom, she recorded a duet, “Wenn die Beste Freundin“, with Margo Lion. This song, with its lesbian overtones, was a hit in Berlin in 1928.
In 1930, Dietrich recorded English and German language selections from her film The Blue Angel, for Electrola in Berlin. It was at this time that she recorded Friedrich Hollaender‘s “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)” for the first time—it would become her theme song, to be sung in thousands of concerts.
A 1933 Parisian recording session for Polydor produced several classic tracks, including Franz Waxman’s “Allein in Einer Grossen Stadt.” Dietrich recorded “The Boys in the Back Room” from Destry Rides Again for Decca Records in 1939. In 1945, she recorded her version of “Lili Marleen”.
Dietrich signed with Columbia Records in the 1950s, with Mitch Miller as her producer. The 1950 LP Marlene Dietrich Overseas, with Dietrich singing German translations of American songs of the World War II era, was a hit. She also recorded several duets with Rosemary Clooney; these tapped into a younger market and charted.
During the 1960s, Dietrich recorded several albums and many singles, mostly with Burt Bacharach at the helm of the orchestra. Dietrich in London, recorded live at the Queen’s Theatre in 1964, is an enduring document of Dietrich in concert. In 1972 Dietrich taped a television special, An Evening With Marlene Dietrich – also known as I Wish You Love – at the New London Theatre in London: the concert was re-released, with bonus material, as a 75-minute DVD in 2003.
“The Laziest Gal In Town” 1963
In 1978, Dietrich’s performance of the title track from her last film, Just a Gigolo, was issued as a single. She made her last recordings from her Paris apartment in 1987: spoken introductions to songs for a nostalgia album by Udo Lindenberg.
Asked by Maximilian Schell in his documentary, Marlene (1984), which of her own recordings were her favorites, Dietrich replied that she thought Marlene singt Berlin-Berlin (1964) – an album featuring her singing old Berlin schlager (popular songs) – was her best-recorded work.
From the early 1950s until the mid-1970s, Dietrich worked almost exclusively as a highly-paid cabaret artist, performing live in large theaters in major cities worldwide.
In 1953, Dietrich was offered a then-substantial $30,000 per week to appear live at the Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. The show was short, consisting only of a few songs associated with her. Her daringly sheer costumes, designed by Jean Louis, attracted a lot of publicity and attention. This engagement was so successful that she was signed to appear at the Cafė de Paris in London the following year, and her Las Vegas contracts were also renewed. It was the start of a new phase in Dietrich’s career.
Great Interview with Marlene in 1971
When Dietrich signed Burt Bacharach as her musical arranger in the mid-1950s, her show started to evolve from a mere nightclub act to a more ambitious one-woman show featuring an array of new material. Her repertoire included songs from her films as well as popular songs of the day. Bacharach’s arrangements helped to disguise Dietrich’s limited vocal range – she was a contralto – and allowed her to perform her songs to maximum dramatic effect.
Dietrich’s return to Germany in 1960 for a concert tour elicited a mixed response. Many Germans felt she had betrayed her homeland by her actions during World War II. During her performances at Berlin’s Titania Palast theatre, protesters chanted, “Marlene Go Home!” On the other hand, Dietrich was warmly welcomed by other Germans, including Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. The tour was an artistic triumph, but a financial failure. She also undertook a tour of Israel around the same time, which was well-received; she sang some songs in German during her concerts, including a German version of Pete Seeger‘s anti-war anthem “Where Have All the Flowers Gone“, thus breaking the unofficial taboo against the use of German in Israel.
Dietrich appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, with Bacharach as conductor, in 1964 and 1965 and made appearances on Broadway twice (1967 and 1968), winning a special Tony Award for her performance. Her costumes (body-hugging dresses covered with thousands of crystals as well as a swansdown coat), body-sculpting undergarments, careful stage lighting helped to preserve Dietrich’s glamorous image well into old age.
Live in London in 1972. She was more beautiful as an older woman than all through her career.
In November 1972, a version of the show Dietrich had performed on Broadway was filmed in London. She was paid $250,000 for her cooperation, but was hopelessly drunk during the shoot and unhappy with the result. The show, originally titled I Wish You Love, was broadcast in the UK on the BBC on 1 January 1973 and in the US on CBS on 13 January 1973. The show was retitled An Evening With Marlene Dietrich for the later VHS and DVD releases.
Dietrich’s show business career largely ended on 29 September 1975, when she broke her leg during a stage performance in Sydney, Australia. Her husband, Rudolf Sieber, died of cancer on 24 June 1976.
An alcoholic and dependent on painkillers (especially a brand of morphine suppositories she referred to as her Fernando Lamases after “the most boring actor in Hollywood“), Dietrich withdrew to her apartment at 12 avenue Montaigne in Paris. She spent the final 11 years of her life mostly bedridden, allowing only a select few—including family and employees—to enter the apartment, where she lived surrounded by bottles of whisky, Handi Wipes, a Limoges pitcher that served as a bed pan, garbage cans and various other necessities, warming food on a little hot plate she kept by the bed. During this time, she was a prolific letter-writer and phone-caller. Her autobiography, Nehmt nur mein Leben, was published in 1979.
Marlene in her last performance in 1975 in the film, “Just A Gigolo”
In 1982, Dietrich agreed to participate in a documentary film about her life, Marlene (1984), but refused to be filmed. The film’s director, Maximilian Schell, was only allowed to record her voice. He used his interviews with her as the basis for the film, set to a collage of film clips from her career. The final film won several European film prizes and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 1984. Newsweek named it “a unique film, perhaps the most fascinating and affecting documentary ever made about a great movie star”.
She began a close friendship with the biographer David Bret, one of the few people allowed inside her Paris apartment. Bret is thought to have been the last person outside her family that Dietrich spoke to, two days before her death: “I have called to say that I love you, and now I may die.” She was in constant contact with her daughter, who came to Paris regularly to check on her.
In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in November 2005, Dietrich’s daughter and grandson claim that Dietrich was politically active during these years. She kept in contact with world leaders by telephone, including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, running up a monthly bill of over US$3,000. In 1989, her appeal to save the Babelsberg studios from closure was broadcast on BBC Radio, and she spoke on television via telephone on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.
At the Cafe de Paris in 1954. Singing “La Vie En Rose”
Dietrich died of renal failure on 6 May 1992 at the age of 90 in Paris. A service was conducted at La Madeleine in Paris before 3,500 mourners and a crowd of well-wishers outside. Her body, covered with an American flag, was then returned to Berlin, where she was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg, Stubenrauchstraße 43–45, in Friedenau Cemetery, near her mother’s grave and not far away from the house where she was born.
Unlike her professional celebrity, which was carefully crafted and maintained, Dietrich’s personal life was kept out of public view. Dietrich, who was bisexual, enjoyed the thriving gay scene of the time and drag balls of 1920s Berlin.
She married only once, assistant director Rudolf Sieber, who later became an assistant director at Paramount Pictures in France, responsible for foreign language dubbing. Dietrich’s only child, Maria Elisabeth Sieber, was born in Berlin on 13 December 1924. She would later become an actress, primarily working in television, known as Maria Riva. When Maria gave birth to a son in 1948, Dietrich was dubbed “the world’s most glamorous grandmother”. After Dietrich’s death, Riva published a frank biography of her mother, titled Marlene Dietrich (1992).
Throughout her career Dietrich had an unending string of affairs, some short-lived, some lasting decades; they often overlapped and were almost all known to her husband, to whom she was in the habit of passing the love letters of her men, sometimes with biting comments. In 1938, Dietrich met and began a relationship with the writer Erich Maria Remarque, and in 1941, the French actor and military hero Jean Gabin. Their relationship ended in the mid-1940s. She also had an affair with the Cuban-American writer Mercedes de Acosta, who was Greta Garbo‘s lover. Her last great passion, when she was in her 50s, appears to have been for the actor Yul Brynner, but her love life continued well into her 70s. She counted George Bernard Shaw and John F. Kennedy among her conquests. Dietrich maintained her husband and his mistress first in Europe and finally on a small ranch in the San Fernando Valley, California.
Dietrich was a fashion icon to the top designers as well as a screen icon that later stars would follow. She once said, “I dress for myself. Not for the image, not for the public, not for the fashion, not for men.” Her public image and some of her movies included strong sexual undertones, including bisexuality.
A significant volume of academic literature, especially since 1975, analyzes Dietrich’s image, as created by the movie industry, within various theoretical frameworks, including that of psycho-analysis. Emphasis is placed, inter alia, on the “fetishistic” manipulation of the female image.
In 1992, a plaque was unveiled at Leberstraße 65 in Berlin-Schöneberg, the site of Dietrich’s birth. A postage stamp bearing Dietrich’s portrait was issued in Germany on 14 August 1997.
For some Germans, she remained a controversial figure as a war-time traitor. In 1996, after some controversy, it was decided not to name a street after Dietrich in Berlin-Schöneberg, her birthplace. However, on 8 November 1997, the central Marlene-Dietrich-Platz was unveiled in Berlin to honor Dietrich. The commemoration reads Berliner Weltstar des Films und des Chansons. Einsatz für Freiheit und Demokratie, für Berlin und Deutschland (“Berlin world star of film and song. Dedication to freedom and democracy, to Berlin and Germany”).
Dietrich was made an honorary citizen of Berlin on 16 May 2002.
in Las Vegas,
with a Live Recording from 1959 of:
“Alright, Okay, You Win”
The U.S. Government awarded Marlene Dietrich the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her war work. Dietrich has been quoted as saying this was the honor of which she was most proud in her life. She was also made a chevalier (later commandeur) of the Légion d’honneur by the French government.
On 24 October 1993, the largest portion of Dietrich’s estate was sold to the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek—after U.S. institutions showed no interest—where it became the core of the exhibition at the Filmmuseum Berlin. The collection includes: over 3,000 textile items from the 1920s through the 1990s, including film and stage costumes as well as over a thousand items from Dietrich’s personal wardrobe; 15,000 photographs, by Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, George Hurrell, Lord Snowdon, Eugene Robert Richee, and Edward Steichen; 300,000 pages of documents, including correspondence with Burt Bacharach, Yul Brynner, Maurice Chevalier, Noël Coward, Jean Gabin, Ernest Hemingway, Karl Lagerfeld, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Erich Maria Remarque, Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder; as well as other items like film posters and sound recordings.
The contents of Dietrich’s Manhattan apartment, along with other personal effects such as jewelry and items of clothing, were sold by public auction by Sotheby’s (Los Angeles) on 1 November 1997. The apartment itself (located at 993 Park Avenue) was sold for $615,000 in 1998.
Quick Bio Facts:
Marlene Deitrich – AKA Maria Magdalena Dietrich von Losch
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Bisexual
Executive summary: The Blue Angel
Father: (Army Officer, died when Marlene was 11)
Father: Eduard von Losch (stepfather)
Husband: Rudolf Sieber (producer, m. 17-May-1924, d. 24-Jun-1976)
Daughter: Maria Riva (actress, b. 13-Dec-1924, Berlin)
Boyfriend: Gary Cooper (actor)
Boyfriend: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (actor)
Boyfriend: Erich Maria Remarque (author)
Boyfriend: Jean Gabin (actor)
Endorsement of American Tobacco Company Lucky Strike cigarettes
Presidential Medal of Freedom
French Legion of Honor
Hollywood Walk of Fame 6400 Hollywood Blvd.
Naturalized US Citizen 1937
Sgt. Pepper Lonely Heart
Risk Factors: Smoking
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Just a Gigolo (16-Nov-1978)
Judgment at Nuremberg (14-Dec-1961)
Touch of Evil (21-May-1958)
Witness for the Prosecution (Dec-1957)
Around the World in Eighty Days (17-Oct-1956)
Rancho Notorious (1-Mar-1952)
No Highway in the Sky (21-Sep-1951)
Stage Fright (23-Feb-1950)
A Foreign Affair (7-Jul-1948)
Golden Earrings (27-Aug-1947)
The Spoilers (8-May-1942)
The Lady Is Willing (17-Feb-1942)
The Flame of New Orleans (24-Apr-1941)
Seven Sinners (25-Oct-1940)
Destry Rides Again (29-Dec-1939)
Knight Without Armour (1-Jun-1937)
The Garden of Allah (15-Oct-1936)
The Devil is a Woman (15-Mar-1935)
The Scarlet Empress (15-Sep-1934)
The Song of Songs (19-Jul-1933)
Blonde Venus (16-Sep-1932)
Shanghai Express (2-Feb-1932)
The Blue Angel (1-Apr-1930)
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