Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992): 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 (GOP) 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!
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 love affairs included many women, including: Mercedes de Acosta, Greta Garbo, Eva Le Gallienne, Isadora Duncan, the great French writer Colette, plus 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 also. During the filming of Destry Rides Again (1939), Dietrich had an affair with Jimmy Stewart, which ended the day 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 Wayne, George 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 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 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 (1930) directed by Joseph 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, von Sternberg, after their highly stylized The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is A Woman (1935) flopped, Dietrich was labeled “Box Office Poison” by the press.
German born Dietrich was bravely anti-Nazi during World War 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 became a citizen of the USA in 1939, at the very apex of the troubles in Europe. Throughout World War II, she was a high-profile entertainer on the front lines. 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 possessed a profoundly complex personality, including her attitude about sexuality. She had a major magnetism for LGBTQ 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.