December 27, 1901– Marlene Dietrich:
“I am at heart a gentleman.”
Don’t you continue to find her to be fabulous? She had quite the gay life. Marie Magdalene Dietrich, the smoky voiced Gay Icon, 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 & she carried a smoky air of decadence. Blonde, Teutonic, with high cheekbones, a heavy lower lip, displaying the artifice of languor, Dietrich seduced audiences by innuendo.
Dietrich is an Ultra-Icon & she had a personal relationship with Gayness. She picked her men for eye-candy & her women for love, lust & laughs. She was a movie star when movie stars were movie stars. Dietrich’s thing was to be idolized, indomitable & indifferent. She didn’t like mistakes. She was a perfectionist. When her mentor, Joseph von Sternberg, the director of early films: The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), & 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 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, the casual approach toward convention, the trouser-wearing that nearly got her arrested, her expression of world-weary disillusion, & her marvelous voice.
German born Dietrich’s was bravely anti-Nazi during WW2. She turned her back on her native country & for 4 years she actively worked against Adolf Hitler & his bad buddies. For her courage & commitment to the Allied cause, she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in France & 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, & 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 remained popular throughout her long career by continually re-inventing herself, professionally & personally. In 1920s Berlin, she acted on the stage & 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 & provided her with a contract with Paramount Pictures.
Hollywood films such as Shanghai Express (1932) & Desire (1936) capitalized on her glamour & exotic beauty, cementing her stardom, & made her one of the highest paid actors of the era.
When she dropped her mentor & frequent collaborator, Sternberg, after their highly stylized The Scarlet Empress (1934) & The Devil Is A Woman (1935) flopped, Dietrich, along with Joan Crawford & Greta Garbo, was labeled “box office poison” by the press. But she bounced back big when she played a Wild West saloon girl in the fun Destry Rides Again (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 WW2 she was a high profile entertainer on the frontlines. She still made the occasional film after the war, but Dietrich mostly spent most of the 1950s, 1960s & 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 Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, & Orson Welles, in popular films: A Foreign Affair (1948), Stage Fright (1950) where she sang my theme song Cole Porter’s The Laziest Gal In Town, Witness For The Prosecution (1957), Touch Of Evil (1958), & Judgment At Nuremberg (1961). Her first film was The Little Napoleon (1923) & her final role was in Schöner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo (1979) opposite David Bowie, that’s 56 years of great performances.
Dietrich’s love affairs included many women, including: Mercedes de Acosta, Garbo, Eva Le Gallienne, Isadora Duncan, the great writer Colette, & Edith Piaf. She also had liaisons with men. Throughout her career, Dietrich had a long string of sexual & romantic relationships, some lasting for decades. They often overlapped & were almost all known to her husband. She had a novel quirk of passing him the love letters of her lovers, along with biting commentary.
During the filming of Destry Rides Again, Dietrich had an affair with Jimmy Stewart, which ended when the filming stopped. In 1938, Dietrich met & began a relationship with the writer Erich Maria Remarque, & in the 1940s with the French star & military hero Jean Gabin. Her last great passion, when she was in her 50s, was hot actor Yul Brynner. Her active sex life continued well into her 70s. Her many male conquests included: John Wayne, George Bernard Shaw & John F. Kennedy. Dietrich’s household included her husband & his mistress, first in Europe & eventually on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Now that is what I would dub “Modern Living”.
Dependent on painkillers at the end of her life, Dietrich withdrew to her apartment in Paris. She spent her last decade mostly bedridden, allowing only a few family & staff to see her. During this time, she was a prolific letter writer & spent a lot of time on the telephone (which she answered in the character of a maid), talking with friends & world figures, & surviving on a diet of champagne & autographs. She published a well written memoir Take Just My Life (1979).
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?”
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, & Gay Icon. She was friendly with Ronnie & Nancy Reagan, but I like to consider what today’s Republican Presidential candidates might think of Dietrich. Do you think any of them would know who she was? Just one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century & one of those damn immigrants.