Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Vintage Queer/Queer Vintage: Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich was built for fame.  Born Marie Magdalene, she invented the name "Marlene" at age thirteen, deciding it looked more elegant.  Her penchant for self-creation continued: for the rest of her life, Marlene Dietrich would assess the resources at her disposal--high cheekbones, shapely legs, a congenital swagger--and purposefully, zealously craft her way into film history as the legendary Dietrich.

Marlene Dietrich in Morocco

The very elements seemed to obey Dietrich: body shape submitted to her will through invented foundations,  clothing, and severe diet; the contours of her face emerged through specially set lighting, makeup techniques, and later in life, homemade facelifts; and history contracted itself for her, erasing first film attempts, shaving off years from her age, and even excising the existence of her sister.  Every facet of Dietrich was carefully curated for its most powerful effect.  To this end, Marlene was always aware of her status as Product--she would often refer to the woman she saw on screen as Dietrich, and speak of herself in the third person--and would reinvent herself as needed.  But beneath her identity as a legend in the making was a woman, flawed, passionate, and always, always in search of love.  Her passion led her to tour with the GIs in WWII (calling it "the only important thing I've ever done"), led to more than one life destroyed, and gave a voice and face to a minority, for anyone aware enough to see it.  For along with being one of the most iconic stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, along with being one of the most extraordinarily beautiful women in film, along with being one of the greatest self-styled legends of the twentieth century, Marlene Dietrich is one of the most revered and universally worshiped bisexual icons in history.

A Star is Born

Marie Magdalene Dietrich was born to a military officer and a stern homemaker outside Berlin on December 27, 1901.  Her older sister, Liesl, adored her, but had a penchant for obedience that would later cause Marlene to deny she existed.  Perhaps with a premonition of future needs, she cobbled her rather conflicting Biblical names together until she found a combination that stuck: Marlene.  Elegant new name in tow, Marlene started her career as a violinist, accompanying silent films until she was fired--her fellow orchestra members were apparently too transfixed with her legs to remember their cues.  Marlene turned her sights to the stage, getting a private tutor from the Reinhardt School who provided not only lessons, but a foot in the door of theatrical Berlin.  She quickly began appearing in bit parts all over the city, and as the theater and film worlds widely overlapped in Germany, dabbled in walk-on film roles.

Though known in theatrical circles for her beauty and tendency to court scandal, Marlene first achieved notoriety with the revue It's In the Air in 1928, six years into her theatrical career.  It's In the Air featured Marlene and actress Margo Lion in a duet called "Wenn die Beste Freundin" (roughly "Best Friends"), a song that begins innocuously enough, with bored housewives celebrating their friendship on a shopping spree.

Margo Lion and Marlene Dietrich, "Wenn die Beste Freundin," from It's In the Air

But the lyrics begin to betray a more intimate relationship between the women, and as Marlene and Margo played it--comparing their lingerie shopping finds, wearing corsages of violets (a symbol of lesbianism)--the act created a bit of a scandal.  Whatever that meant in the permissive environment of Weimar-era Berlin, anyway.  In any case, Marlene was now the toast of Berlin.

That Margo, known to be a lesbian, and Marlene, known to be bisexual, were rumored to be lovers did nothing to abate her newfound fame.  In addition to being boy crazy, Marlene had grown up having crushes on women, from silent film star Henny Porten, to a girl in Liesl's class, to her schoolteacher Mademoiselle Breguand, to Countess Gersdorf, a local woman who seemed to encourage teenage Marlene's year-long adoration.  

Henny Porten

At the start of her stage career, she met and married Rudi Sieber, the man who would become confidant and friend, advising her on her many love affairs, and who Marlene would support alongside his decades-long love, Tamara Nikolaevna.

Marlene caught the attention of director Josef von Sternberg in 1929's Two Bow Ties, a few years and many productions, after It's In the Air.  von Sternberg had been searching for the perfect actress to play cabaret singer Lola Lola in his film The Blue Angel.  Between her stunning looks, sultry stage presence, and (more practically) her English, von Sternberg found Lola Lola in Marlene.  The film shot them both to fame in Germany, and remained the most sensationally successful film in that country for decades.  Hollywood immediately saw her star potential and quickly signed her--so quickly that Marlene left the film's opening early to board her Transatlantic crossing.  In later years, Germans would accuse her of abandoning her country, but in truth, Marlene had struggled in Berlin for nearly a decade, making 17 films and appearing in 26 theater productions.  When, after viewing The Blue Angel, the UFA (Universum Film AG, the primary film company in Germany) passed on a contract option, Marlene left the could shoulder of Berlin for Hollywood's open arms.

Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel

 Marlene and von Sternberg made seven films together over the next five years, sharing a creative and romantic relationship that was as stormy as it was fruitful.  In her first, pre-Sternberg films, having little more than a walk-on role (perhaps saying, "Sir, here's your coffee," or "The horses are ready"), Marlene hardly warranted the effort of specific lighting.  With film still in its early stages, lighting was less an artful than a practical affair--and the strong, all-over wash flattened out Marlene's features into what she later exclaimed looked like "a potato with hair!"

Marlene Dietrich in her first film, The Little Napoleon.  On first seeing the film, Dietrich reportedly said, "I look like a potato with hair!"  She's not incorrect.

It's amazing to realize only overhead lighting separated this Marlene from the legendary face of Dietrich.
Horrified at what she saw onscreen--and how little it reflected her actual appearance--Marlene sought out any changes she might make in production.  This led to her standard makeup routine of false eyelashes and white eyeliner on her waterline, to open her heavy-lidded eyes, and a line of lighter foundation down the bridge of her nose.  More immediately, though, biographer Steven Bach describes how Marlene found Dietrich:

"She found it in an automatic photo booth in Berlin, the kind that prints out cheap photographs on strips.  She stepped into one to pose, actively searching for a look, and discovered that with a single overhead lamp, her hair went light, she had cheekbones, her pale blue eyes went dark, the upturned nose became straight."

Marlene in her camera-side mirror

Marlene refined this technique in her work with Sternberg, a master of dramatic lighting.  It's in their seven-year collaboration that the mysterious, aloof, dramatically stunning Dietrich was finally born.  So aware of her onscreen presence was Marlene, that in addition to referring to the woman on screen in the distancing third person, she insisted on keeping a lit, full-length mirror next to the director's camera, allowing her to see exactly what the camera captured, and to meticulously adjust any stray hairs, wrinkled wardrobe, and to play more perfectly to the light.  By the time they filmed their last film together, The Devil is a Woman, Dietrich had learned everything she could from Sternberg.  After parting, her star power proved greater than his ability--without his muse, Sternberg sank into film obscurity.

"Sex Without Gender"

Dietrich dominated Hollywood.  Repeatedly breaking the record for the highest paid actress in film, Dietrich and her exotic, unattainable beauty was an intentional studio rival to Greta Garbo's, and in fact eclipsed Garbo with a sensual, earthy mystique that evaded the Swedish star.  Dietrich was sex.  Most of her roles capitalized on her marvelous legs and palpable sex appeal-- in her first five films, she played variations on prostitutes, and in nearly every film thereafter, was a steely femme fatale.

One of the great ironies of the Dietrich legend is that Marlene herself was hardly interested in sex.  Her affairs were legion--the "Dietrich Alumni Association" included Yul Brenner, Jean Gabin, Erich Maria Remarque, Jimmy Stewart, and Frank Sinatra--but in truth, she primarily sought out companionship, accepting physical relationships as the price of intimacy.  Of her stage and screen magnetism critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote, Dietrich has "sex without gender."  This proved true of more than her androgynous image.  "Love, love, love, love," she said to Maximillian Schell in his documentary, Marlene:
Schell: Do you distinguish between love and the erotic?
Dietrich: Yes.
Schell: But it can be both.
Dietrich: Yes, if they insist on it.  One lets them, doesn't one?  We hope-- we think, oh God, if I don't let him then he won't come back.  But that doesn't mean we're all that mad about it.  No, we fell we have to, don't we?
Schell: But it's not always a must.  There are times when it's quite enjoyable.
Dietrich: Well, I don't know.  One can do without.
Marlene's aversion to sex resounds throughout her biography Marlene Dietrich, by her daughter, Maria Riva, with whom she had what one might call today a "TMI" relationship.  "[A]ll Dietrich ever wanted, needed, desired," she writes, "was Romance with every capital R available, declarations of utter devotion, lyrical passion.  She accepted the accompanying sex as the inescapable burden women had to endure."  Though I take Riva's vehemence with a grain of salt, for reasons I explain later, the sentiment is corroborated by Dietrich's recorded words.  Based on her own choice of pronouns, in both public and unguarded, private conversation, Marlene's aversion doesn't seem to have applied to women.  In fact, she may have preferred women, telling friends, "Women are better"--a quote I might take with more joy if it weren't followed by "...but you can't live with a woman."  This sentiment may have been influenced by (mis)understandings of sexual orientation at the time, as well as Marlene's own very period-appropriate attitudes towards the superiority of men ("They have bigger brains," she told Schell).  Though many women might prefer female companionship and love, the idea of lesbianism during this era was largely reserved for strident, "masculine" women like Marlene's lovers Mercedes de Acosta and Jo Carstairs.  By and large, exclusive female companionship just wasn't a real option.  Nevertheless, Marlene's bisexuality was well-known in Hollywood--close friend Ernest Hemingway would rib her about "her girls"--and she did as little to hide her affairs with women as she did to hide those with men.  Which is to say very, very little.  

In addition to Hollywood writer Mercedes de Acosta (Greta Garbo's on-again off-again love) and Canadian whiskey millionairess Jo Carstairs (the only person ever allowed to call Marlene "Babe," according to Riva), Marlene's girlfriends included actresses Claire Waldoff, Katherine Cornell, Marti Stevens, and Edith Piaf.  Marlene adored Piaf, asking her permission to sing La Vie en Rose on film and on stage, and acted as matron of honor at Piaf's wedding.

Marlene and Edith

In addition to occasional allusions to her bisexuality in film--most notably her tuxedo scene in Morocco--during her concert tours in later years, Marlene sang "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" without any pronoun change.  Her seeming lack of concern over secrecy points equally to a bold sense of self, and to a different level of public access to early Hollywood.  It was, of course, a different time then: pre-Perez, pre-24/7 tabloid access, the image the average person received of Hollywood stars was the one they projected, on screen and through photographs.  Dietrich cultivated this image every moment of her life in the spotlight.

Dietrich: The Legend

The name "Marlene Dietrich" conjures an image and aura unlike any other star in film history.  This was intentional and methodic, through the lighting techniques and branding mentioned above, but more stunningly, through Marlene's everyday life.  

Marlene had an incredible amount of control in her professional life--choice of director was written into her contract--and in addition to co-designing all of her film costumes, she would instruct film crews on the correct way to light her.  She stretched this careful positioning into home life as well, often asking film costumers to construct garments for party appearances and everyday attire, and choosing her wardrobe each season with an eye for how it would be photographed.  Her daughter notes,
"Dietrich was very selective.  She did not shop around.  She knew which designer suited the image and which would detract from it.  So, we only went to see the collections of Patou, Lanvin, Molineux, and Mme. Alix Grès.  ...Clothes were never bought in those days by Dietrich for real-life wear.  'In life' was so rare."
In later years, the need to live up to this image of perfection would require Marlene to invent constrictive, nearly full-body foundation garments to re-create her perfect body, and to tightly tape back her face, using adhesive and threads braided back into her coiffure.  Dietrich could not age gracefully; Dietrich, after all, was ageless, immortal.  To this end, she was often cagey about her year of birth, and even that of her daughter, whose legs were often cropped out of photos in order to make her appear smaller, younger.  Also on the cutting room floor were nearly all of Dietrich's Berlin films, which she would deny ever having made, despite photographic evidence (though given her less than ideal appearances, one can hardly blame her).  Her early days as a tutored student peripherally involved in the Reinhardt school evolved in her retellings, until one day Marlene told Reinhardt himself that she'd been his student.  Most shrewdly of all, though, Marlene made sure that, at any hint of scandal, Rudi would be brought back from whatever far-flung city he inhabited with his love, Tami (who was either kept out of photographs or called Maria's "governess"), to pose alongside his wife.  Of her mother's obsessive arrangement of perfection, Riva writes, 
"There are people who know something is missing even in apparent perfect, and then there are those who realize it only after they are shown what it was.  My mother was one of the former--most performers belong to the latter.  It may be one of the subtle differences between Legend and Star."
However questionable her methods, they were successful.  Even during periods of unemployment, Dietrich never courted media attention, and never had to.  She was blazed into the cultural consciousness, indivisible from the idea of "glamour." 

World War II

No part of the Dietrich legend is more deserved than her service during World War II.   Alarmed at the rise of Hitler, Marlene began to distance herself from her native country, earning American citizenship and openly criticizing the Nazi regime.  She took her involvement further, providing financial assistance for artists fleeing Germany for American shores, and when the call came for entertainers to visit troops overseas, she signed up immediately.  

At considerable risk to her safety--she nearly died of pneumonia in Italy, and feared capture in Germany-- Marlene toured with GIs for years, performing on stage, visiting hospitals, and keeping up morale. 

Let's keep it real:
her legs may have had more than a little
to do with keeping up morale.

Her rendering of the German song "Lili Marlene" became an anthem of World War II, recorded in English to mobilize American forces, and broadcast across enemy lines in German to strike at the heart of German soldiers with its refrains of longing and loss.  
For her service, Marlene was awarded the US Medal of Freedom (its first female recipient), the Medallion of Valor from the Israel, and the Légion d'honneur from France. Her beliefs cost her, however--when she discovered her sister had assisted the Nazis in Belsen, she began to claim she'd been an only child.

Marlene's performances during the war began the next chapter in her career, bringing her back to where she began: the cabaret stage.  Her musical revue in made her the highest-paid entertainer in Vegas and spurred multiple worldwide tours.  Listening to her recordings today, it's clear Marlene was no great singer--her range was just an octave and a half, and her tone is far from perfect.  But she was a brilliant performer.  The thrill of her stage appearances was her ability to make you feel as though this-- all of this-- was just, only, and ever, for you.  

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Marlene

Though this ends the official profile of Marlene Dietrich, I'd like to take some space to talk about why this post was so long coming, and so difficult to write.  When I began researching Dietrich, looking for biographies, I naively thought that, since she is widely known to have been bisexual, biographies would give approximate equal weight to her affairs, regardless of gender.  Like I said: naive.  I began with her daughter's book.  Riva's biography begins as a clear-eyed view of Dietrich the Legend and Marlene the Mother, suggesting the Dietrich ability to see one self apart from one's product is hereditary. However frankly Riva discussed her mother's revolving door of lovers, a pattern began to emerge: though she would call each man by name, Riva would almost always simply hint towards Dietrich's female lovers.  She writes, "During the [Michael] Wilding time, my mother kept up her devotion to the Cavalier, became involved with a famous American actress known not only for her talent, pined for Gabin, received her baseball player [diMaggio] whenever he needed cosseting, loved Remarque, her charming general [Gavin], Piaf, [and] a gorgeous Teutonic blonde who became her German pal."  Later, she mentions a Christmas spent "with my mother and her latest girlfriend, very smart in Chanel suits and inherited wealth," as well as an affair with a woman we are simply told was a children's book author.  In the first quote, every male has been mentioned by name, in detail.  Of the women Riva knew personally, the only ones she mentions by name are those she disdains--she calls de Acosta a "Spanish vampire," and writes that her opinion of Piaf is "unprintable."  Since many of these affairs lasted for years--as long or longer than those with the men mentioned--it's a frustrating endeavor to try and highlight this aspect of Dietrich's love life.  Steven Bach's biography also covers Dietrich's lesbian affairs breezily, but as his focus is mainly her professional accomplishments, he mentions her heterosexual affairs with equally passing attention.  Whereas Bach's treatment simply suggests a lack of interest, Riva's seemed to be the most literal definition of homophobia--fear.

The reason for this homophobia then becomes heartbreakingly clear: Riva reveals that as a teenager, she was repeatedly molested by the woman her mother set as her guardian--the assistant of Jo Carstairs.  I cannot imagine the trauma Riva endured, and my heart goes out to her.  Riva is understandably angry with her mother, but writes, 
"Strange, I never really blamed that woman.  She frightened me, disgusted me, harmed me, but 'blame'?  Why?  Lock an alcoholic into a liquor store and he helps himself--who's to blame?  The one who takes what is made available or the one who put him there?  Even an innocent parent would not have put a young girl into an unsupervised, wholly private environment with such a visually obvious lesbian."
This is when my heart stopped.

Riva's molester deserves to burn in whatever hell she currently inhabits.  There is no explanation or excuse for such vile actions.  But the one-to-one equation of homosexuals to child rapists is one of the most hurtful, slanderous lies that is still affecting the gay community.  The idea that any lesbian would rape a young girl, given the chance--that they cannot help themselves--is  one of the reasons such hate-filled laws were passed in Russia, why adoption rights are still not assured for gay couples, and one of the reasons we still have such a hard slog in front of us in our own country.  It's poisonous.  What that woman did to Riva is unforgivable--it doesn't make every lesbian a predator.  

From this point, Riva's memoir takes a darker turn, peeling layer upon layer from Dietrich's golden image to the point of cruelty.  It's been referred to as Marlene Dearest, and for good reason.  The Dietrich that Riva presents is an appallingly self-centered creature, whose actions have no consequence about which she cares or even feels.  Some of Riva's accusations are most certainly valid, the most clear of which is the gradual destruction of Tami, Rudi Sieber's lover.  The undisputed fact is that she died in a sanitarium.  How and why she was committed, through a series of unspeakably selfish actions from both Marlene and Rudi, makes her a sacrifice on the Dietrich altar.  At the end of Riva's 800 pages, I was horrified by Marlene the person as I was attracted by Dietrich the Legend--which seems to be Riva's point.  

With no idea what to do, I turned to a different biography, hoping for a different perspective.  Steven Bach's biography, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend, published the same year as Riva's, takes a more distanced approach, focusing mostly on Dietrich's professional development.  Unfortunately, rumors of the tell-all nature of Riva's book preceded its publication, and Bach made a pre-emptive attack.  He peppers the book with digs at Riva, portraying her as dead weight, figuratively and literally.  In remarks as distasteful as they are poorly-written, he fat shames her repeatedly: "Maria was in Italy with the USO, following in her mother's footsteps, though hardly (because of her weight) filling her shoes."  And yes, that parenthetical is actually part of the published sentence.  He also writes that Maria, her husband, and even her extended family, down to her grandchildren, were fully financially dependent on Marlene, despite Maria's success as a TV actress and her husband's own work.  

Needless to say, preparing a profile was difficult.  Between these enormously different portraits of Dietrich, I'm not sure where to look; who was the real Dietrich? Her selfless work during World War II, the personal and professional sacrifices she made, suggest she can't be as bad as Riva suggests.  But the casualties in her wake make it impossible to believe she's as perfect as Bach's account.  Was she somewhere between? Or far removed from either? Maybe the speculation is exactly what Marlene would prefer.  Decades after her death, we still don't know Marlene; we can only know Dietrich.

The complexities of this profile point to why I wrote it.  Erasure and omission can only be corrected by talking about it.  Misconceptions and prejudice can only be confronted through talking about it.  The most effective way to humanize the gay community is to show that we are human, that you know us, that we're here.  And even more, I want to do this to combat the more subtle misconceptions queer people often confront, such as the idea that you can't be gay/bi/asexual/whatever because you don't "look" like it, that you don't "show signs" of being queer.  Queer people have looked all different ways for all of history.  A woman as glamorous and gorgeous as Dietrich was no less bisexual simply because she was glamorous and gorgeous.  We have a history, and it is as varied as we are.

**I have no rights to any images or video.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful and well-written account of Dietrich and what we still don't know about her. I learned a lot.

    1. Thanks so much, it was really interesting to research and write. I'm looking forward to writing more profiles on specific women, and I hope they're all as complicated as Marlene.

  2. Fascinating! Thank you for writing this and for the interesting bibliographic notes at the end. I was particularly intrigued by the interview where Dietrich proclaims a distaste for sex and clearly defines a separation of sex from romance. Representation of asexuals is so scant even in today's queer discourse that to find it in one of the biggest stars of almost a hundred years ago is a huge treat.

  3. Very well informed and interesting article on a woman who has often been misunderstood

  4. The writer has written this blog in the most artistic way. Splendid!